The following is an article excerpt from the Spring 2020 Issue of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member to subscribe and read the full story!
By Erin Baxter
The great houses of Aztec Ruins National Monument, located in northwest New Mexico, were home to many Ancestral Puebloan people. The site itself, which was occupied from approximately A.D. 1090 to 1280, is not nearly as well-known or researched as nearby Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon, and what we do know about it is largely due to the work of a savvy archaeologist named Earl Morris, who directed the first professional excavation there 100 years ago, and whose use of photography documented much more than he ever described in his writing.
Archaeologist Earl Morris took this photo inside Kiva E, which was reconstructed. The kiva trapped too much water and undermined nearby structures, and as a result it was dismantled. | Credit: Earl Morris
By studying photos like this one, archaeologists can see how Kiva E was reconstructed. | Credit: Earl Morris
Morris captured the detail of the vessel in the center of this photo. The distinctive designs allow archaeologists to estimate when the pottery was made. | Credit: Earl Morris
Two adult males of extraordinary wealth were found buried under the floor of this room. |
Credit: Earl Morris
These metates were found in their original location in this cramped room with limited access. Some archaeologists theorize that captive women, who were taken in battle or as payment, were forced to work here. | Credit: Earl Morris
The final century of Aztec’s occupation was marked by veneration of elites, irregular burials, unhealthy residents, episodic violence, and a fiery end. Morris left behind the first extensive collection of photographs that record Ancestral Puebloan life there. He risked life and limb mounting precarious scaffolds made of poles, two-by-fours, and available scraps of wood to photograph the excavations with his 1917 Kodak brownie box camera. Morris’ collection includes 1,200 images that enable contemporary archaeologists not only to see how his investigation progressed, but to make new discoveries that can no longer be made in the field because of what has been lost or obscured by the passage of time.