Linda Cordell, Southwestern Archaeologist


Linda Cordell, the grande dame of Southwestern archaeology, died suddenly and peacefully at the beginning of April. Her death reflected her life: she was found, pen in hand, in the midst of preparing a paper about the archaeology of the Southwest.

Linda stumbled into the region almost by accident. As an undergraduate at the George Washington University, she and some colleagues wanted to attend an archaeological field school and found that Florence Hawley Ellis’s University of New Mexico excavation at Sapawe was one of the few that allowed women. For a young woman from the East Coast, the arid Southwest and the local archaeology were exciting and new. Linda never looked back. She moved west to get her MA at the University of Oregon, then south to get her PhD at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Her doctoral research modeled climate and crop yields at Mesa Verde and was one of the first applications of the then-new field of computer modeling in archaeological research. Albert Spaulding, her advisor, was an articulate voice for the use of quantitative methods in archaeology. Linda recognized that appropriate use of data was critical and that the data itself was the ultimate arbiter on whether a hypothesis was valid, but her dedication to a scientific approach never blinded her to the validity of other perspectives, and she kept an open mind about new ideas.

Linda’s career included faculty positions at the University of New Mexico, the California Academy of Sciences, and the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she was the director of the Museum of Natural History and a professor in the Anthropology Department. She retired from CU-Boulder in 2005 and took a senior scholar position at the Santa Fe–based School for Advanced Research, where she remained until her death.

Throughout her career, Linda interacted vigorously with her colleagues and students, and with the larger public, so that her influence was broader than the institutions she was part of. While her own research focused primarily on ceramics and on the prehistory of the Northern Rio Grande, she contributed to archaeological research on a wide range of topics through publications, reviews, and discussions with colleagues.

She is probably best known as someone who could seamlessly synthesize the Southwestern archaeological record. In that effort, she produced three editions of The Archaeology of the Southwest, which is widely read and cited in classrooms and by her colleagues, and Ancient Pueblo Peoples, designed for a general audience. Linda’s influence extended beyond Southwestern archaeology. She collaborated with and provided information to many, including scholars in other fields, Native American tribal committees working on legal issues, and Native American and Latino artists. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2005 and was only the second woman in sixty years to receive the A.V. Kidder medal for eminence in American archaeology from the American Anthropological Association. Her many other awards are too numerous to list here.

For me, Linda was the professor who inspired me to shift my research focus from the Great Plains to the Southwest and who later became my dissertation advisor. Whenever I had a question about how to proceed, I knew that she would listen, consider the alternatives, and then provide whatever assistance she could to help me achieve the desired result. Her knowledge of Southwestern archaeology was breathtaking—she often suggested the perfect information source, whether it was a paper on the topic or the name of a colleague. This is not to imply that Linda was sugary sweet. When necessary, she would clearly point out when I was mistaken or starting down the wrong path. Most strongly, she led by example. She worked hard and never made excuses (and never had to!).

Linda was also concerned about the wider lives of her students and colleagues. As I prepared for a research visit at a distant facility, I was surprised when she advised me to take a break each day. “Go to the movies,” she said. “Clear your head and relax.” And she lived that way. Linda was active in nonacademic book clubs and enjoyed reading novels. She sketched out a murder mystery she planned to write one day—to be set during an archaeological field season, of course! She loved the symphony and the Santa Fe Opera, evenings she and friends planned together months in advance.

As I progressed in my career, Linda was unfailingly supportive and enthusiastic. At any meeting we both attended, she introduced me to people she thought I needed to know. We had wonderful meals where we talked about research and people and the future. Finally, she invited me to coauthor the third edition of her Archaeology of the Southwest, an amazing learning experience. Through it all, I knew that I was not the only person Linda was mentoring; she was wonderfully generous with her time and her energy. Since her death, many comments of personal loss have illustrated the extent of her influence. Linda was a tiny woman but a huge presence. We will miss her. I miss her.

Maxine McBrinn, curator of archaeology at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture is currently working on the exhibition Turquoise, Water, Sky opening in spring 2014.