An American archaeologist from Moss, Norway
The Pueblo Grande Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, is Odd Halseth’s unlikely legacy
Thor A. Larsen
A must for visitors to Phoenix, Arizona, is the Pueblo Grande Museum, the largest preserved Hohokam American Indian archaeological site in the Phoenix area. The site was a bustling Indian community 1,500 years ago. The Hohokums developed an extensive irrigation system of canals drawing water from the Salt River, which enabled them to settle there and farm the land.
The archaeological site provides a 2/3-mile trail through the ancient village, which includes a partially excavated platform mound, ball court, and replicated prehistoric houses. The museum contains a changing gallery of exhibits on Indian archaeology and Southwest history and culture.
When we visited the museum for the second time in 12 years, I noticed a plaque on a stone outside the entrance with the following inscription: “In memory of Odd Halseth, First City Archaeologist and Director of the Pueblo Grande Museum from 1929 to 1960.” Well, that name must be Norwegian! (The person manning the gift shop then also happened to be a Norwegian American, Jan Midtskog). So, with Arlene’s help, we explored the libraries in Phoenix area on this Norwegian archaeologist.
Based on accolades Odd Halseth received on his 25th service anniversary testimonial dinner, Halseth was much more than an archaeologist to the people of Phoenix. Not only did Halseth pioneer the development of the pre-historical Indian dwelling into a significant archaeological site, but he literally built the initial museum with his wife, Edna, drawing no salary due to the local economics of the WWII years. As president of the Arizona State Park Association, Halseth helped form a separate non-profit organization to raise funds to purchase desirable park or monument sites throughout Arizona with the intent to turn them over to the state parks board when they had adequate funds to take them over. We certainly have been thankful for this early work since we have explored a number of these sites during the two visits we had to Arizona.
Before delving into more of Odd’s rich archaeological career, I would like to provide some background to his earlier years. He was born in Moss, Norway, and his appetite for archaeology began in his childhood when visiting excavation sites in Italy, Greece, and Egypt (presumably with his parents.) He earned an Engineering degree in Germany before WWI. His intention was to travel around the world as a marine engineer. When WWI broke out, he had been in India and he sought to join the armies of England and France but was rejected. He was accepted as a pilot for the “infant” U.S. Air Corps in France for 18 months.
Halseth arrived in the U.S. in 1916, obtained more education (in archaeological science, I presume), and was hired at the San Diego Museum. Subsequently, he had positions in other museums in the Southwest, finally settling in Phoenix in 1927.
Halseth led many archaeological digs on Pueblo Grande sites over the years. In fact, he did many archaeological digs throughout the Southwest and wrote many technical journal articles on his findings. The focus of his work was on the Southwest Indians. A few samples of articles I found were “Venerated Women in Early American Art,” “Record Absence Complicates American Archaeological Study,” and the superb article, “Arizona’s 1500 Years of Irrigation History” that appeared in the ‘Reclamation and Arizona’ publication. The University of Arizona has the bulk of his archives. They were mostly photographs of his large number of excavations.
Throughout his life, Halseth maintained ties with Norwegians and Norway. One reference indicated that he visited Oslo in 1936 as a representative of Arizona at a world congress of anthropologists. He was also awarded the Order of St. Olaf by King Haakon VII for services to Norwegians visiting the United States! (So, he certainly remembered his Norwegian heritage!)
But what was Odd really like as a person? A quote from his newspaper obituary summed it up very nicely: “The shrewd, kindly eyes, with their irrepressible twinkle of gentle humor are closed now forever, but the vision they saw become a reality at Pueblo Grande stands imbued with his spirit as his enduring monument.”
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 13, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.