Joe Ben Wheat was born April 21, 1916 and was raised in the town of Van Horn, Texas[->0] by his parents, Luther Peers Wheat, a merchant, and Elizabeth Wheat, a housewife. His exploration of the local countryside as a child piqued his interest in archaeology[->1]. Wheat married musician Frances Irene Moore on April 6, 1947. Joe Ben Wheat died of heart complications June 12, 1997 at the age of 81 and his ashes were scattered at his prized excavation site in Yellow Jacket Canyon.
Wheat first studied at Sul Ross Teachers College (now Sul Ross University[->3]) before transferring to Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University[->4]). It was at Texas Tech that Anthropology[->5] professor William Curry Holden influenced him to pursue an education in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley[->6], where he received his Bachelor’s Degree in 1937. Wheat accepted an archaeology position at Texas Tech as a field director for the Works Progress Administration[->7] in 1939, where he worked until World War II[->8].
In 1941 he joined the United States Army Air Forces[->9] and served four years of duty, during which time he became Master Sergeant[->10].
In 1947 he worked for the Smithsonian Institution[->11] River Basin Surveys, where he became familiar with the Smithsonian nomenclature for archaeological site numbering, a method in which he made useful later in his career at the Yellow Jacket Colorado excavation site. Wheat attended the University of Arizona[->12] where he advanced his studies in Anthropology and earned his M.A. in 1949 and Ph.D. in 1953. During that time, he also worked as an Instructor of Anthropology and Field Foreman at the Archaeological Field School for the university. From 1952 to 1953 he was a Ranger and Archaeologist with the U.S. National Park Service[->13] at the Grand Canyon[->14].
Career at University of Colorado
Shortly after graduating in 1953 he was hired as the first Curator[->16] of Anthropology by the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History[->17], a position he held for the remainder of his career. Following his graduation he also started his teaching career in 1953 working as an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado[->18] in Boulder, Colorado[->19]. In 1957 Wheat became an Associate Professor and five years later a Professor of Natural History[->20], a position he maintained until the end of his career in 1988. Throughout his career he was part of many memberships, organizations, and review boards. Most notably, beginning in 1966 he served two years as President of the Society for American Archaeology[->21].
Point of Pines and Crooked Ridge village were two of Wheat's early excavation sites. His dissertation[->23] of his work at Crooked Ridge Village was the basis for two publications, which have become standards in Mogollon[->24] archaeology. In 1953, shortly after being elected the Curator of the University of Colorado Museum, Dr. Wheat and the museum received pottery found at the site of a house that had burned down with a letter from a farmer of Yellow Jacket, Colorado[->25]. Wheat recognized that the pottery was probably dated AD 500-750 and accepted the offer, which would allow him to study early pit-house[->26] sites of the Mesa Verde region[->27]. Previously named "The Stevenson Site" after the farmer who had found the pottery, Wheat changed the original name to a methodical name using the Smithsonian nomenclature, 5MT1.[nb 1] Wheat’s work at Yellow Jacket spanned over 30 years (1954–1991). These three sites, 5MT1-3, had unusual and interesting features never been seen before and were a great discovery of the Mesa Verde region. During this long excavation period at Yellow Jacket Wheat also worked on other excavation sites, such as the Olsen-Chubbuck Bison Kill Site[->28] from 1958 to 60 and the Jurgens Site[->29] from 1968 to 70.