As a pioneering woman in a field dominated by men, Hannah Marie Wormington (1914–94) carved a scholarly niche for herself on the frontiers of American archaeology. She was a larger-than-life figure whose impact went far beyond the dozens of publications she produced to include mentorship for many young archaeologists, both male and female.
Wormington was born in Denver, where she lived her entire life. She earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Denver in 1935; later that year she was hired as an assistant in archaeology at the Colorado Museum of Natural History (later the Denver Museum of Natural History, and in 2000 the Denver Museum of Nature & Science). In 1937, Wormington was hired as the first curator of archaeology at the museum and also entered graduate studies in anthropology at Radcliffe College. Given the economic challenges of the Great Depression and travel restrictions of World War II, she did not finish her master’s degree until 1950. In 1954, she defended a Harvard (Radcliffe) doctoral dissertation on the Fremont Culture, a loose-knit group of semisedentary agriculturalists living in western Colorado and Utah more than 1,000 years ago. Wormington was the first woman to earn a PhD in archaeology at that institution.
Wormington was a museum-based archaeologist. Although lacking direct access to students because she was not based at a university, she nevertheless enjoyed great success in making archaeology accessible to the masses through exhibitions and popular writing. Her centrally located home in Denver became known as the “command center.” For decades she served as an informal gatekeeper and broker of research on Paleo-Indian archaeology, which focuses on the earliest human occupations of North America.
Although she authored dozens of peer-reviewed scholarly publications, Wormington is best known for her textbooks, which were written to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Her first textbook, Ancient Man in North America, was published in 1939 when she was just twenty-four. It went through many reprints and served as the standard work on the subject for nearly four decades. Another textbook, Prehistoric Indians of the Southwest, was first published in 1947 and was nearly as popular.
Wormington’s field crews were dominated by women. In the 1930s and 1940s she excavated rock shelters and other sites across eastern Utah and western Colorado to document the prehistory of these largely unexplored regions and to recover exhibition-quality specimens for the museum. In the mid-1950s she searched western Alberta in an unsuccessful attempt to find the earliest human sites in North America, reasoning that they would be in the ice-free corridor that ran down the center of the continent during the last Ice Age. In the 1960s she excavated the 10,000-year-old Frazier Site, an exquisite bison-kill site in northern Colorado that allowed a better understanding of how such beasts were killed, butchered, and utilized.
Museum director Alfred M. Bailey fired Wormington on July 22, 1968, after a decades-long feud finally came to a head. For a variety of reasons, Bailey felt that Wormington had not been acting in the best interests of the museum. He abolished the Department of Archaeology, of which she was the sole member. The museum belatedly granted her emeritus status in 1988.
Wormington entered archaeology when it was dominated by men. Given her forceful personality, ambition, academic skills, and fierce determination, she dealt with whatever discrimination she encountered. A lifelong smoker, Wormington died in 1994 in a fire in her Denver home that probably started with a wayward cigarette. With six decades of archaeological experience at the time of her death, Wormington set research, publication, service, and mentorship standards that few archaeologists have matched before or since.