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July-October 2004Interactive Dig Elden Pueblo
Elden Pueblo after being stabilized by Jesse Walter Fewkes in 1926
Byron Cummings, Director of the Arizona State Museum; George W.P. Hunt, Governor of Arizona; and Fewkes at Elden Pueblo, July 4, 1926.
Fewkes (left) with John P. Harrington (far right) at the site in 1926. The other two men are unidentified.

Photos courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, U.S. National Anthropological Archives. Click on images for larger versions.

In Fewkes' Footsteps


With this headline in the May 18, 1926, issue of the Coconino Sun, Flagstaff welcomed Dr. Jesse Walter Fewkes of the Smithsonian Institution to what would become one of the most important archaeological investigations in the Flagstaff area--the excavation of Elden Pueblo.

Fewkes was one of Southwest archaeology's most important, and colorful, figures. He had started his archaeological and ethnological career in 1889. Now, at the age of 76, he was about to begin what would be the last major project of his life. Assisting him in this project was another anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution, John P. Harrington. It is not quite understood why Harrington came as an assistant. His area of expertise was linguistics, not archaeology. His only archaeological experience prior to this was helping in the excavation of a California shell mound, hardly adequate background to run a project of the magnitude of Elden Pueblo. We do know that Fewkes had been in poor health for quite some time and Harrington may have been sent to take care of him as much as to help run the project.

Fewkes was no stranger to Flagstaff and northern Arizona, having conducted archaeological reconnaissance and test excavations in the Verde Valley, Flagstaff, and Hopi areas in 1895, 1900, 1904, and 1911. In fact, he was so impressed with the ruins in the Wupatki area, when he first saw them in 1900, that he used his influence as chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology to ensure their designation as a National Monument in 1925.

Fewkes was keenly interested in the history and culture of the Hopi people, and spent much of his career studying and documenting the legends and ceremonies of the Hopi people. He was even accepted into the Flute and Antelope societies. Most of the archaeological work he did attempted to explain the archaeological remains he unearthed by using Hopi clan migration traditions. This is why he had returned to Flagstaff--to see if he could find information that would relate certain Hopi clans to the Flagstaff area. In addition, he felt there was a gap in his archaeological knowledge of the remains between the Navajo country and the Verde Valley.

And that is exactly what he proceeded to do. After making the requisite visits to friends and colleagues in Flagstaff, and spending a few days recording Hopi songs at Grand Canyon, he hired a crew of about 12 men and started work on the pueblo on May 27, 1926. Three months later, they had unearthed 35 rooms, perhaps 165 burials, and almost 2,500 artifacts. This was a prodigious amount of work to accomplish in such a short time, and could only have been done because the techniques used to excavate the site were, unfortunately, oriented towards the recovery of artifacts, rather than information of the context in which those artifacts were located. Fewkes' techniques were a far cry from those used by archaeologists today and, in fact, were out-dated even by the standards of the 1920s. The precise attention to detail, and the detailed information routinely collected today, was not used by Fewkes, whose approach to archaeology was straightforward and simple--dig the ruin to get artifacts, compare them to those from other areas, and interpret them and the site by how they resemble artifacts used by the Hopi and what the Hopi traditions say about the area. This is the method Fewkes used in his first archaeological work in 1889 and it never changed throughout his career. Though such practices caused considerable loss of information, Fewkes always met his goal of obtaining artifacts. Almost 2,500 of them are listed at the Smithsonian Institution has having been recovered from his summer's work at Elden Pueblo. Almost 270 pottery vessels were recovered, including several of remarkable effigy vessels that, even today, remain one-of-a-kind items. In addition, numerous tools of bone and stone, shells, and jewelry were also recovered.

Despite the magnitude of the excavations, notes, photographs, and other documentation of the excavations are surprisingly brief. Although Fewkes normally kept a diary, full of sketches, during his field work, his diary for the summer of 1926 only contains brief notations of the most general information and sketches of his favorite artifacts. He was, however, meticulous about documenting the cost of his meals! It was Harrington, who kept the major excavation notes for the project, and these are abysmal. For all the work done that summer, his notes only comprise 98 pages and most of these are large sketches of the burials and their artifacts. It does not appear that Fewkes or Harrington prepared a base map for the site. Only a crude sketch of the ruin appears in Fewkes' diary. The main site mapping appears to have been due to the volunteer efforts of Dr. Harold S. Colton and Major Lionel Brady, who established a 100 ft. grid system over the site for basic control, although grid designations and coordinates are virtually ignored in Harrington's notes. There is virtually no documentation for the 35 rooms that were excavated. Little effort was made to document the provenience of individual artifacts other than some crude sketches that indicate where metates were located in those rooms.

This section was adapted from "Elden Pueblo: the Frustration of Following Fewkes," a paper presented at the symposium "Assessing the Research Potential of Large, Damaged Sites in The American Southwest." Held at the 56th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, New Orleans, Louisiana. April 26, 1991.

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