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Florence Lister, prominent archaeologist, dies at 96

‘She could really make you understand archaeology. She had that knack.’
Florence Lister, a well-respected archaeologist in the American Southwest, died Sunday at her home in Mancos. She was 96.

Florence Lister, a prominent archaeologist in the American Southwest died Sunday at her home in Mancos. She was 96.

“She succeeded in a field that was dominated by men, and she found her own niche, and she lived long enough to write major books that helped the public understand archaeology in the Southwest,” said Andrew Gulliford, a professor of history at Fort Lewis College.

Lister, who grew up in California, encountered archaeology in the late 1930s when her father returned from a trip to New Mexico with some relics from a pueblo archaeological site. Fascinated, she enrolled the University of New Mexico and majored in anthropology.

Eventually, she married Robert Lister, a Harvard graduate who helped start the anthropology department at the University of Colorado-Boulder and “demanded to be included” when he went to run the field school at Mesa Verde.

She told Gulliford that since there was no money at the field office to hire a cook, she assumed the role and at the same time could study archaeology, he reported in a 2011 column for The Durango Herald.

She kept graduate students fed on a budget of $1 a day per person.

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

In her spare time, Lister studied prehistoric pueblo pottery, eventually working her way up the male-dominated ladder that was the culture of archaeology studies. Eventually, she traveled the world, cementing her knowledge of ancient ceramics.

But her true calling, colleagues agree, was translating the heavy-laden language of archaeology into something the public could understand, and enjoy. As a result, she authored or co-authored more than 40 published works.

“She did as much as any scholar to teach the general public about archaeology,” said Mark Varien, executive vice president of the research staff institute at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. “And she was an elegant and intelligent public speaker.”

Local historian Duane Smith, too, said that in his early days the Listers had a major impact on him when he was a student at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He took Robert Lister’s classes, despite receiving no credit hours, and spent many a night listening to Florence talk about the ancient past.

“She could really make you understand archaeology,” Smith said. “She had that knack. If you were with her very long, unless you were a complete blockhead, you got excited about archaeology.”

In that same 2011 column, she explained, “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.”

Varien said despite Lister’s declining health, she was an active writer and lecturer until her death. He said a celebration of Lister’s life will be scheduled for a future date.

According to an obituary, Lister is survived by two sons, Frank, in Mancos, and Gary, who lives with his wife, Barbara, in Estes Park, as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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