Prominent CU-Boulder Archaeologist Joe Ben Wheat Dies In Denver At 81

Published: June 11, 1997

Joe Ben Wheat, curator emeritus of the University of Colorado Museum and an internationally known archaeologist, died today at St. Anthony Hospital South in Denver after a short illness. He was 81.

Wheat, of Boulder, had worked at the University of Colorado Museum from 1953 until his retirement in 1986. He was a former president of the Society for American Archaeology. Wheat was an internationally known scholar and a prolific publisher of scholarly papers.

"His research was always aimed at helping us better understand past peoples of the American Southwest," said Linda Cordell, director of the University of Colorado Museum. "He was the consummate scholar."

Wheat was a pioneer in exploring the Mogollon region along the Arizona and New Mexico border, Cordell said. He made important contributions to Paleoindian arachaeology and for many years did archaeological work in the area surrounding Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado, particularly in Yellow Jacket Canyon near Cortez.

He enjoyed teaching tremendously and taught the CU-Boulder field school at Yellow Jacket for many years, Cordell said. Many of his students have gone on to professional careers in anthropology.

"He was a remarkably accessible and a genuinely kind human being," Cordell said. "He devoted his life and his career to the University of Colorado Museum and to the archaeology."

Wheat served as a curator and consultant on American Indian textile exhibits throughout the country, including displays at the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Cordell said.

"His extremely wide-ranging knowledge was always something you could depend on," said Peter Robinson, professor of natural history and curator of geology at the University of Colorado Museum. "He was an accomplished ethnologist and was responsible for organizing the significant Navajo textiles collection the museum has."

Wheat also was responsible for the museum's significant collection of Southwestern jewelry.

Wheat was born on April 21, 1916 in Van Horn, Texas, and had amassed a substantial collection of Indian artifacts by age 11, many of which were displayed at his family's hardware store. He earned a bachelor's degree at the University of California at Berkeley in 1937 and a master's and doctorate from the University of Arizona in 1949 and 1953.

He received the Colorado State Archaeologists Award in 1979 and the CU-Boulder Robert L. Stearns Award in 1982. He was listed in Who's Who in America and Who's Who in American Men of Science.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara K. Wheat, of Boulder; two brothers, Lou Wheate (cq) of Apache Junction, Ariz., and William G. Wheat of Las Cruces, N.M.; two nieces, Cathy Kamat of Las Cruces and Jean Gregory of Oak Ridge, Tenn.; and several grand nieces and nephews.

No funeral services will be held. A meeting of remembrance will be announced, Cordell said.