Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Survey of Archeological Investigations

First Explorations


Exactly when Europeans first became aware of this area is uncertain, but a 1776 Spanish map includes the location of Canyon de Chelly. By 1800, Spanish troops had entered the region, not to collect antiquities, but to subjugate the Navajo Indians. Evidence of this event is seen on pictographs within the canyon.


Later, American military explorations and war campaigns against the Navajo sometimes included men with scientific training assigned to gather information. In 1849, Lieutenant James H. Simpson of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, recorded several of the archeological sites in the canyon, including one he called Casa Blanca (White House) because of a white-plastered room in its upper portion. He also noted similarities between the construction methods used in this region and those used in the ruined pueblos of Chaco Canyon only 75 miles to the east, which he had previously visited.

Ever since then, Canyon de Chelly has been subjected to a disparate procession of exploitations and explorations, from individual and institutional pot-hunting raids, to legitimate, extensive archeological survey and excavation projects.

Federal Agencies

In 1873, while mapping large portions of the West, the U.S. Corps of Engineers Wheeler Survey also collected data on climate, vegetation, mineral resources, Indian groups, and antiquities., including a photograph and account of White House.

In 1882, a Bureau of American Ethnology expedition led by Colonel James Stevenson recorded 46 sites in the area. From the party's discovery of two mummified bodies still wrapped in Yucca fiber which they exhumed, Stevenson named the alcove and the ruin in it Mummy Cave. The canyon which cut below it became Canyon del Muerto, "Canyon of Death." This expedition sketched and photographed cliff dwellings in the main canyon and 17 more in Canyon del Muerto. The antiquities they collected went to the Smithsonian, but the material was never published.

During the next 15 years, Russian emigrant Cosmos Mindeleff explored and recorded numerous Southwest sites under the auspices of the Bureau of American Ethnology. He made the first accurate map of the Canyon de Chelly complex and discovered many new ruins, bringing the known total to 140, many of which he mapped, sketched, and photographed.


Norwegian artist and draftsman Fredrick Monsen spent the last decade of the 1800s collecting and photographing Canyon de Chelly. He opened a private museum in San Francisco where he exhibited antiquities and photos, but the entire collection, including 10,000 glass negatives, was lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. A small number of photographic prints from the collection was subsequently acquired by both the Huntington Museum in San Marino, California and the University of Oslo Museum, Oslo, Norway.

Around the turn of the century, various individuals published accounts of their explorations in Canyon de Chelly, including F.T. Bickford (1890), Stephen Peet (1898 in American Antiquarian, which he published and founded), Dr. T.M. Prudden (1903) and Rev. Henry M. Baum (1906). A 1906 expedition by Dr. F.M. Palmer produced two anonymous articles published in 1907.

By 1900, looting ruins was a common practice, and Canyon de Chelly became a magnet for collectors and plunderers. Charles Day and his son Sam built a trading post at Chinle in 1902. The U.S. Department of Interior appointed the elder Day caretaker of Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto in 1903, which offered an excellent opportunity to excavate and remove artifacts from many sites.

In 1906, the Days sold a large collection to the Brooklyn Museum of Natural History, where it has occasionally been exhibited since. That same year the American Antiquities Act was passed, finally providing statutory protection for Southwest antiquities and nurturing the infant scientific discipline of responsible archeology.

Professional Archeology

Earl H. Morris

In 1923, Earl H. Morris began the most extensive and professional excavation program in de Chelly and del Muerto, sponsored primarily by the American Museum of Natural History in New York with assistance from the Bureau of American Ethnology, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and the University of Colorado, Boulder, his alma mater.

Morris had previously headed excavation and reconstruction of the "Aztec" ruins near Farmington, New Mexico, where he had been raised. This site was designated a National Monument in 1923. Morris's career spanned the period when American archeology as a scientific discipline was coming of age in the Southwest.

His initial season's survey and test excavations in and below Mummy Cave demonstrated that earlier pothunting by the Days had not completely destroyed the possibility of serious archeological research. In fact, Morris discovered occupation levels here lasting over a thousand year period, from early Basketmaker culture through Pueblo, including mummified bodies with hair and skin still intact, due to the dry climate and cliff overhangs.

Over several seasons, Morris excavated and dug exploratory trenches in Big Cave, Mummy Cave, Pictograph Cave, Sliding Rock Ruin, White House, Antelope House, Battle Cave, Ledge Ruin, and many other sites. Until 1929, he and members of his various teams surveyed unexplored lengths of the canyons and collected many tree-ring specimens for dating. In 1932, Morris returned to Canyon del Muerto on a special assignment for the National Park Service to stabilize Mummy Tower and White House while excavations in the lower section of that ruin were being conducted.

Few technical reports on Morris' long years at Canyon de Chelly were written, but both Earl and his wife, Ann, authored popular accounts of their experiences. The years of research helped Morris define the Basket Maker stage and its relevance to the Anasazi cultural sequence. Trainloads of the extensive Morris collection from Canyon de Chelly were sent to the American Museum of Natural History; a few other specimens made their way to the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder.

Other Professionals

During the 1930s, many of the major ruins in Canyon de Chelly National Monument were dated from tree-ring specimens obtained by several programs sponsored by Gila Pueblo, Harold Sterling Gladwin's private archeological research foundation in Globe, Arizona. Gladwin worked from 1925 through 1950 until the tree-ring dating sequence was compete, allowing accurate dating to before the time of Christ. In 1957 he published his A History of the Ancient Southwest and stated that the San Juan Basin was abandoned, not because of drought, but because of incursions of the warlike Athapaskan nomads -- the Navajo and Apache.

Surveys carried out after 1940 have systematically inventoried the archeological resources of a large portion of the monument, including one by W.R. Hurt, Jr. in 1941. David L. de Harport, of the Peabody Museum, Harvard University, extensively covered about twenty-seven miles of Canyon de Chelly with field work between 1946 to 1951. He spent an additional nine years writing a 1,600-page report for his Ph.D. thesis, describing nearly 400 sites and correlating patterns of settlement with environmental factors throughout the occupation.

Recent Investigations

The National Park Service - In the 1970s, Don P. Morris of the National Park Service conducted a photographic reconnaissance of certain canyon walls and a transect sampling survey in Canyon del Muerto to obtain data about site types and locations and the natural resources available. With the approximately 300 sites he recorded, the total number of known sites in Canyon del Muerto and its tributaries grew to 600. A few other surveys designed to locate ruins threatened with destruction by road building in the monument have resulted in opening several small sites in the road alignments.

In 1949 and 1950 Tse-ta'a, a canyon bottom village beneath a protective rock overhang in Canyon de Chelly, was excavated by Charlie R. Steen of the National Park Service. Steen found the deeply stratified deposits to be a complex set of superimposed habitations spanning a period from Basket Maker pithouses and storage cists, through Pueblo rooms and kivas, to Hopi and Navajo remains. Collections recovered by Steen are in the Western Archeological Center in Tucson, Arizona.

The second ruin excavated under the auspices of the National Park Service and directed by Don P. Morris was Antelope House between 1970 and 1973. National Park Service excavators uncovered a series of structures dating from Basket Maker through Pueblo times, including large quantities of well-preserved plant material. A fairly complete record of the growth of the village from the eighth through the thirteenth centuries, environmental conditions prevailing during occupation, and the mode of life of its inhabitants, particularly their dietary habits, was recovered.

Analysis of its structure and artifacts make Antelope House the most thoroughly investigated site in Canyon de Chelly. Definitive reports upon the people, cultural stages, and their relationships to the archeology of Canyon de Chelly and other parts of the Southwest have been prepared by the staff of the Western Archeological Center. Antelope House was stabilized after excavation to provide one of the leading prehistoric exhibits in the monument. The extensive collections and records from Antelope House and other National Park Service excavations and surveys are deposited in the Western Archeological Center in Tucson, Arizona.

-- A.R. Roy

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