Earth Notes: Cosmos and Victor Mindeleff

Apr 26, 2017

Several years after John Wesley Powell navigated the Colorado River in 1869, he sent two brothers to the Southwest—not to run rapids but to research the region’s archaeological sites and Indian  pueblos. 

Cosmos and Victor Mindeleff
Credit Smithsonian Institution Archives

The two young men were Cosmos and Victor Mindeleff, and they were under orders to make detailed maps, photos, drawings, and three-dimensional models of important inhabited and ancient Native American villages. 

Trained as architects, the Mindeleffs applied research standards and exacting techniques that were unsurpassed and rarely matched for the next hundred years. Their fieldwork was done at a time when many archaeological sites were being looted by treasure hunters, sites that had been haphazardly studied, if at all. 

During the 1880s and ’90s, the pair painstakingly recorded sites at Canyon de Chelly, Casa Grande, Camp Verde, Chaco Canyon, and at Zuni and Hopi.

They used the data to build scale models of plaster and papier-mâché for display at the Smithsonian Institution and various fairs and expositions around the country. Some are archived and studied today.

Besides producing the first models and documents precisely describing many key sites, the brothers compiled a report, A Study of Pueblo Architecture, that’s still a classic for modern archaeologists.

Among other contributions, the Mindeleffs described the social institutions of the Diné, Ute, Puebloan, and other living Native Southwesterners.  

This Earth Note was written by Richard Mahler, a longtime contributor to the program. Richard passed away April 6 while hiking in the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico. He was 66 years old.