From the archive: Lister looks on career fondly

Thursday, March 23, 2017 5:38 PM
Florence Lister met her husband, Robert, at Chaco Canyon in the summer of 1940. She is an expert on the history of excavations at Chaco specifically at Pueblo Bonito and the author of Chaco's Vanished Past which chronicles the Navajo presence in the canyon.
Florence Lister gestures towards Sun Temple during a Mesa Verde tour for the Smithsonian Associates. Across the Southwest, she also led tours for the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center and the Four Corners Outdoors School.

Editor’s note: This column was first published in 2011. Florence Lister died at her home in Mancos on Sunday, Sept. 4. She was 96.MANCOS — Florence Lister’s distinguished career in Southwestern archaeology began at Chaco Canyon in the summer of 1940. As a young University of New Mexico anthropology student, she yearned to be an archaeologist.

“Just the word ‘archaeologist’ resonated with adventure, discovery and mystery,” she says. “I did not know then about the days of tedium sorting potsherds.”

Lister took as her mentor Florence Hawley Ellis and adopted archaeological field garb. Lister didn’t quite know how to be an archaeologist, but at least she knew what they looked like, so, she says with a wink, “I outfitted myself accordingly.”

That summer’s UNM field school included running conversations with novice students, constant dust, dirt in her hair, heat, blisters and “a camaraderie fostered by isolation in Indian country.” She loved it.

Chaco changed her life. Although archaeology beckoned, in the 1940s, few women earned advanced degrees and even fewer had opportunities to become professional archaeologists. Women could wear khakis, but they could not penetrate the old-boy network to lead scientific excavations. Undaunted, Lister concedes, “As a female, if I wanted to be an archaeologist my best bet was to marry one, and so I did.”

Thus began one of the great archaeological teams and professional partnerships in Southwestern archaeology. Robert Lister, a Harvard graduate and former National Park Service ranger, would help start the anthropology department at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where he taught for 22 years. Always, Florence was at his side.

As I sit in her comfortable Mancos home with south-facing windows looking out at Mesa Verde National Park, I’m surrounded by books, photos, Southwestern art and a wall of awards and tributes — even one of which would have capped a satisfying career.

From the Society of American Archaeologists there’s the Presidential Recognition Award “for exceptional contributions,” there’s the Award of Merit from the Society of Historical Archaeologists, the Fort Lewis College Center of Southwest Studies & Community Services Historic Preservation Award, a bronze plaque for the Florence C. Lister Research Library at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, and a 75th Anniversary Distinguished Alumna award from UNM to Lister “in recognition of her many contributions to anthropology.”

What exactly did she do? Well, for starters she baked a lot of bread.

From 1953 to 1956, her husband ran the University of Colorado field school at Mesa Verde, and Florence remembers, “That was the home of the cliff dwellers! I demanded to be included, even with two small sons in tow. In his most ingratiating manner, he asked that since I insisted on being there and since there was no money to hire a professional cook, would I assume the role? There was no way to refuse.”

She cooked for sunburnt, starving graduate students and kept them fed on a budget of $1 a day per person.

“In the 1950s, that was a workable sum for a diet without flourishes,” she says, adding wryly, “I hoped to stay within it by ample use of beans.”

Robert Lister suggested to his wife that “between meals and in the long evenings, I might apply my limited background in prehistoric Pueblo pottery to begin sorting and classifying the mountain of potsherds coming from the diggings. This would be my chance to move from the bottom of the culinary rung of the operational ladder up to a cultural one. At the time, I did not know that women were allotted this task in the male-dominated discipline of Southwestern archaeology. I was thrilled and eager to begin learning. So it was that I stirred pots on the stove by day and pondered over fragments of ancient pots by night.”

Everything Florence Lister attempted she excelled at, and her curiosity took her around the world. An early expertise in Mesa Verde ceramics would lead to scholarly inquiry into Spanish ceramics and global visits “anywhere the Spanish went” including Morocco, Mexico, Spain, Portugal and the Philippines. Florence and Robert Lister researched and wrote definitive books titled Andalusian Ceramics in Spain and New Spain and Maiolica Ole – Spanish & Mexican Decorative Traditions.

As the giant Aswan Dam went in on the Nile River, Florence Lister was in the Sudan studying Nubian ceramics from another mountain of sherds. She became fascinated by Chinese porcelain imported into Mexico and published the history of northern Chihuahua titled Storehouse of Storms.

The girl who first visited Chaco as a college student would return with her husband, who became director of the Chaco Project for UNM and the National Park Service. Together, the Listers would write the important book Chaco Canyon, but their breakthrough book was Those Who Came Before, now published by the Southwest Parks and Monuments Association.

Florence Lister had started as a journalism major in college and then switched to anthropology. By the 1980s, there was plenty of archaeological research about the Southwest, but it was buried in dry, tedious reports, dense with scientific jargon. The Listers changed all that.

Now at 91, in her precise, unmistakable voice, Florence tells me, “When we started writing for the public, we got criticized because you were only supposed to write for other professionals. I don’t like jargon. Bob said the public has a right to know because, after all, they support the scientists.”

The Listers researched and wrote Earl Morris — Southwestern Archaeologist and Aztec Ruins on the Animas, but after her husband passed away in 1990, Florence intensified her writing to help us understand Southwestern prehistory. She wrote Potluck, Behind Painted Walls, In the Shadow of the Rocks, Prehistory in Peril: Durango Archaeology, Chaco’s Vanished Past and her definitive Troweling Through Time: A Century of Mesa Verde Archaeology.

Dr. Mark Varien, research and education chairman at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, says, “Florence is one of the most respected historians of Southwest archaeology and an important researcher in her own right.”

Florence Lister’s life abounds with stories, and she’s not through sharing her decades of experience. As part of Colorado’s preservation month, the San Juan Basin Archaeological Society in Durango, with funding from the Colorado Archaeological Society, is sponsoring a Lister presentation from 6:30 to 8 p.m. May 17 at the Durango Public Library.

She’ll return to Chaco one more time for a talk titled “The Treasures of Pueblo Bonito.” Hopefully, she’ll also tell us a little more about herself, for she is one of Chaco’s treasures, too.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest Studies and history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at