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Alfred V. Kidder

Born: 1885 - Died: 1963

By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

Born to mining engineer Alfred Kidder and his wife Kate Dalliba in Marquette, Michigan, in October 1885, Alfred Vincent Kidder was poised, at age 30, to become one of the leading figures in study of the prehistoric American Southwest. While an undergraduate student at Harvard in 1907, Ted, as he was known, had responded to an announcement posted on one of the college's bulletin boards. It was from Edgar L. Hewett director of the brand new School of American Archaeology in Santa Fe. The announcement proclaimed that the "Archaeological Institute of America was seeking three volunteers for an expedition to the Indian lands of the Southwest." The three students who signed up were Kidder, Sylvanus G. Morley, and John G. Fletcher.

Hewett took the trio to Mesa Verde, which, just the year before had been designated a national park. Kidder, who had been unsure about what specialty he wanted to pursue in his final year at Harvard, became convinced during the summer with Hewett among the cliff dwellings that archaeology would be his field. His friendship with Morley, solidified during that time in Mesa Verde, would also prove to be one of the determinants of Kidder's future life. He received an A.B. degree the following year, 1908, and went into graduate study in archaeology, still at Harvard, a year later.

During the summers of 1908 and 1910, Kidder returned to the Southwest, and specifically to New Mexico. Apparently at the suggestion of Hewett, who had once had a summer home nearby, Kidder and an artist friend Kenneth Chapman, visited the ruins of Pecos Pueblo and its mission church. Pecos was to be of pivotal importance, both in Kidder's professional life and in the trajectory of Southwestern archaeology.

Also in 1910, Kidder married Madeleine Appleton of Boston, a daughter of friends of his family. The couple eventually had five children: Alfred II, Randolph, Barbara, Faith, and James. Throughout their married life, Ted and Madeleine shared the rigors and exhilaration of life in archaeological camps. Madeleine invariably worked at the sites, taking responsibility for much of the work of sorting pottery shards so important to the production of Kidder's developmental sequence of Puebloan culture.

The summer of 1912 found the Kidders in Gobernador and Largo Canyons in northwest New Mexico, examining seemingly anomalous pueblo-style buildings in the Dinetah, or Navajo homeland. As a result of that summer's work, Kidder concluded that the ruins were the result of refugee Pueblos who had fled from the Spanish re-conquest of New Mexico in the 1690s and had settled among Navajo bands. More recently, that conclusion has been called into question by archaeologist Curtis Schaafsma and others.

Only the sixth person in the United States to receive a Ph.D. in archaeology, Kidder earned the degree from Harvard in 1914. His dissertation, "Southwestern Ceramics: Their Value in Reconstructing the History of the Ancient Cliff Dwelling and Pueblo Tribes: An Exposition from the Point of View of Type Distinctions," was based on fieldwork he conducted on the Pajarito Plateau, the volcanic skirt on the western flank of New Mexico's Jemez Mountains and another favorite haunt of Kidder’s mentor Hewett. Kidder was soon thereafter able to apply ideas developed in that study in such a way as to revolutionize Southwestern archaeology.

Kidder's major work in New Mexico was to begin the next year. The Department of Archaeology at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, invited the new Ph.D. to direct its field investigations and to choose the place where those studies would be undertaken. Kidder accepted and chose Pecos Pueblo. As Kidder wrote much later: in 1910 I had been "very much struck by the variety of [pottery] types represented at the site, there being specimens of all the varieties then known in the Rio Grande [region]...Accordingly I felt certain that here if anywhere could be found the stratified remains which were so badly needed to straighten out the chronological problems of the district. Accordingly, when the chance came in 1915 to undertake an extensive piece of excavation, I at once recommended Pecos."

The Kidders and their children, along with numerous students and colleagues, spent most of the next 15 summers excavating the ruins at Pecos. In the Americas, this was to be the first intensive, multi-year excavation at a single site. Furthermore, following the lead of Nels C. Nelson in 1914, it was the first large-scale project to employ stratigraphic excavation: The excavation by discrete levels from the most recent (at the ground surface) to the oldest (the farthest underground).

Kidder's goals for the Pecos excavations were to produce a sequence of pottery types for the region, to assign relative ages to the various types, and to survey the pueblo ruins of the entire Rio Grande region in order to establish the chronological relationship among them. As Kidder himself later admitted, the goals were too ambitious. Nevertheless, his success in substantially meeting them was astounding. Beginning with the end of the first field season at Pecos, Kidder initiated a tradition of short annual publications that summarized the results of the year's work.

After three summers of work, the project was suspended during 1918 and 1919 because of World War I and Kidder's service in the army. But 1920 found him and his crew back at Pecos, picking up where they had left off. Then, in 1924 Kidder published a larger interim report on the archaeological work at Pecos, a book that marked a watershed in the field of American archaeology: An Introduction to the Study of Southwestern Archaeology, with a Preliminary Account of the Excavations at Pecos. As archaeologist Richard Woodbury wrote about the book: "When Yale University Press reprinted it in 1962, unchanged but with an introduction by Irving Rouse summarizing current views and data, it was still far and away the best available volume on the archeology of the Southwest."

What made the Introduction so impressive and rendered it authoritative for so long was that in it, Kidder managed to comprehensively organize and make sense of what was then known about the prehistory and early history of the entire Pueblo world. Even in the absence of absolute archaeological dating techniques (such as tree-ring and carbon-14 dating, which had not yet been developed), he was able to establish a temporal sequence of ancestral Pueblo occupation throughout the region, a sequence that remains largely unchanged to this day.

On the heels of publication of the Introduction, came another ground-breaking innovation by Kidder. At the end of the 1927 field season, he invited all archaeologists then working in the Southwest to convene at Pecos for several days to share with their colleagues the results of their work. Kidder's aspiration was that such a group might be able to formulate a developmental sequence that would truly account for the findings of all archaeological work carried out in the Southwest to that date. In his report of the meeting a few months later, Kidder laid out a periodization of Puebloan prehistory and history that was generally accepted for generations: Periods called Basket Maker I, II, and III and Pueblo I - V, stretching from the period before the introduction of agriculture into the Southwest up to the present.

Forty-one people, including many luminaries in the field of Southwestern archaeology, were present at Pecos that August weekend in 1927. So stunning were the results of the meeting that, irregularly at first and then annually, the so-called Pecos Conference has been held each August, returning to Pecos itself every fifth year. It has become a fixture in the lives of generations of archaeologists studying subjects in western North America and Mesoamerica.

Kidder's final season of excavation at Pecos was in 1929. During the last several years, he had become increasingly involved with the Carnegie Institution of Washington and its archaeological work at Maya ruins in southern Mexico and Guatemala under Kidder's old friend Sylvanus Morley. In 1929, the Institution offered Kidder the chair of its Division of Historical Research, and he readily accepted. For the next twenty years he served mainly as an administrator, overseeing a shifting group of a dozen or more simultaneous projects in history, archaeology, and social anthropology, dealing with Maya Indians, both past and present. The excavations of such well-known Maya sites as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Mayapán, and Kaminaljuyú were all carried out under Kidder's administration.

During Kidder's first year as chair at Carnegie, Charles Lindbergh, after seeing Maya ruins from the air, approached the Institution and volunteered to produce aerial photographs of archaeological sites in Mesoamerica and the American Southwest. In short order, he made now classic photos of Pecos, Chaco Canyon, and the Pajarito Plateau in New Mexico, as well as ruins in Yucatán, Honduras, and Belize. After that initial flurry of activity, however, the relationship between Lindbergh and Carnegie went no farther.

After World War II, the Institution's interests shifted away from Maya archaeology, away, in fact, from archaeology as a whole. When Kidder retired in 1950, it was almost as though he had been fired. After retirement he taught briefly at the University of California at Berkeley. And for several years he and Madeleine continued work at Kaminaljuyú on the outskirts of Guatemala City. Most importantly for New Mexico and Southwestern archaeology, in 1958 Kidder published his long-awaited final report on the excavations at Pecos. Pecos, New Mexico: Archaeological Notes focused on the layout and construction of the pueblo and detailed description of the variety of its kivas, or ceremonial rooms. Together with the earlier interim reports, it made the archaeological work at Pecos among the most thoroughly and satisfyingly reported.

Kidder died in 1963. He was a dominant influence in the study of Southwestern prehistory for decades and remains an important figure today. His exclusive attention to working out the history (meaning temporal sequence) of Puebloan cultural change has been highly criticized in more recent years. Nevertheless, the framework he established continues to be used even by those archaeologists and historians who now work to throw light on other research questions.

Sources Used:

Chauvenet, Beatrice. Hewett and Friends: A Biography of Santa Fe's Vibrant Era. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1983.

Cordell, Linda S. Prehistory of the Southwest. San Diego: Academic Press, 1984.

Kidder, Alfred V. Pecos, New Mexico: Archaeological Notes. Andover, Massachusetts: Phillips Academy, 1958.

Schaafsma, Curtis F. Apaches de Navajo: Seventeenth-Century Navajos in the Chama Valley of New Mexico. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2002.

Woodbury, Richard B. Alfred V. Kidder. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1973.

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Old North Pueblo of Pecos