Steve Nash, PhD

Dr. Steve Nash studies tree-ring dates from archaeological sites at Mesa Verde National Park to understand human occupation there from A.D. 600 until A.D. 1300. He also studies the history of archaeology in order to understand how archaeologists have made analytical use of the admittedly incomplete archaeological record.

  • POSITIONDepartment Chair & Curator of Archaeology
  • EXPERTISE Tree-ring dating
  • PhD

    University of Arizona

  • PHONE NUMBER303.370.6056
  • EMAIL[email protected]
  • RESUME Click to Download
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  • 1

    The Great Depression Begets a Great Expansion: Field Museum Anthropology 1929–1941. In Means, Bernard K., Shovel-Ready: Archaeology and Roosevelt’s New Deal for America. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, pp. 67-88, 2013.

  • 2

    A Future for Museum Anthropology! Museum Anthropology 35(2):97-100. With Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, 2012.

  • 3

    The Changing Mission of Museums in Rockman, Nancy, and Joe Flatman, eds., Archaeology in Society: Its Relevance in the Modern World, pp. 97-110. Springer Science and Business Media,

  • 4

    Colwell-Chanthaphonh, C., Nash, S.E., Holen, S.H. 2010. Crossroads of Culture: Anthropology Collections at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. University Press of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado.

  • 5

    Nash, Stephen E. 2010. A Conflicted Legacy: Paul Sidney Martin as Museum Archaeologist 1925 - 1938American Anthropologist 112(1):104-121.


Tree-Ring Dating at Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park, right here in Colorado, is home to more than 4,000 archaeological sites, including world-famous cliff dwellings such as Cliff Palace, Spruce Tree House, and others. These sites have been the focus of archaeologists' attention for well over a century and were some of the first sites to be dated using tree-ring dating when the technique burst onto the scene in 1929.

Tree-ring dating is done by collecting wood samples using a specially designed hollow-bit drill. Half-inch-diameter cores can be collected from wood beams preserved at the sites, and then taken back to the laboratory and analyzed. The core is sanded with progressively finer grits of sandpaper to produce a smooth surface so the individual growth cells of each tree-ring can be examined. The characteristic pattern of alternating wide and narrow rings on a specimen-which in the American Southwest represents wet and dry years, respectively-can then be compared to a master tree-ring "chronology" for Mesa Verde.

Dr. Steve Nash's research combines fieldwork, collections-based work, and archival research to ensure that all the dateable tree-ring specimens recovered from the sites have been analyzed and dated by the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona.

"I am working on a paper that examines how the availability of tree-ring dates, the most precise and accurate dates available to archaeologists, affected archaeologists' interpretations of the occupation of the park through time," said Dr. Nash.

The Museum is working with colleagues from Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez on the National Science Foundation-funded Village Ecosystem Dynamics Project to examine how the sites in Mesa Verde relate to others in the Four Corners region, which had a higher population 1,000 years ago than it does today, and to sites in the Rio Grande region of New Mexico, where inhabitants of Mesa Verde migrated when they abandoned the region in the 1280s. 

Village Ecodynamics Project

The Village Ecodynamics Project (VEP) examines the social and natural factors that shaped pre-Columbian agricultural societies in the Mesa Verde and Rio Grande regions of the southwestern United States. The VEP includes scientific analysis of one of the most dramatic migration episodes in world prehistory-the abandonment of the Four Corners region in the late 1200s. Funded by a National Science Foundation award (CHN grant no. 0816400) to Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colorado, and Washington State University, project team is multidisciplinary and represents more than a half-dozen research institutions. 

Dr. Steve Nash's research for the VEP focuses on the construction of large databases listing all the known tree-ring dates available for archaeological sites in Project area. These databases, constructed with data archived at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in Tucson, provide a fundamental datasets that VEP will use to date the occupation of many thousands of archaeological sites.

VEP results through the educational activities of Crow Canyon Archaeological Center and through exhibits and other interpretive materials developed for museums and units of the National Park Service and US Forest Service.

Martin Sites Relocation Project

Archaeologist Paul Sidney Martin (1898 - 1974) stands as one of the pillars in the development of North American archaeological knowledge, method, and theory. During a 43-year career at the Field Museum in Chicago, Martin excavated many significant archaeological sites, including Lowry Ruin in Colorado, Tularosa Cave in New Mexico, and Carter Ranch Pueblo in Arizona. Martin's legacy is unfortunately tarnished by three facts. First, he failed to catalog 570,000 of the 605,000 (ca. 95%) artifacts he collected. Second, he failed to publish anything on more than half (38 of 72) of the sites he excavated.  Third, he failed to record the sites he excavated with appropriate state and federal authorities. Dr. Steve Nash of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science has been trying to resolve these issues since 1997.  

Between 1997 and 1999, Dr. Nash catalogued the Martin collection while serving as a post-doctoral research specialist at the Field Museum. Between 1999 and 2009, he prepared finding aides to the collections from all 70 of the Martin-excavated sites, and these finding aides are now on file in the Department of Anthropology at the Field Museum.  Since 2008, he has directed the Martin Sites Recording Project, a systematic effort to relocate, re-record, and properly register with appropriate authorities, the sites that Martin excavated. These efforts have been funded by the National Science Foundation (grant no. SBR-9710181), the Southwestern Foundation, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and the Field Museum.


During the 2010 excavation of the Snowmastodon Project site, scientists from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science recovered dozens of remarkably well preserved logs, branches, and other wood remnants.  On May 5, 2011, tree-ring scientists Peter Brown, PhD, Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research, and Jeffrey Lukas, PhD, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, visited the Museum to cut sections of the wood and to begin preparing them for detailed study.

Based on their preliminary analysis, Brown and Lukas noticed that many of the recovered logs, despite their strange shapes, appeared to be from whole-log cross-sections that simply got squished through time.

"That means that the ring sequences extend around the entire circumference, and we might get 'dates' of death for the tree," said Dr. Steve Nash, curator of archaeology.

Also, Brown and Lukas noticed that there are many different kinds of beetle galleries on the wood specimens. They spoke with Frank Krell, PhD, curator of entomology at the Museum, who said that with the information available, they should be able to determine which species of beetle made those galleries tens of thousands of years ago.

Finally, Brown believes that some of the wood samples have either forest fire or avalanche scars on them.

"If this is the case, we might be able to determine how common fires and avalanches were when these trees got submerged in the lake," said Nash.

The Snowmass Village excavation team goes back into the field this May. They will collect more wood and branches during the six-week long excavation, while Brown, Lukas, and Nash continue their analysis and put together more pieces of the puzzle that will help describe what this ancient ecosystem might have looked like.

The Konovalenko Project

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science has twenty Konovalenko sculptures on public display. There may be up to forty other Konovalenko sculptures in public and private collections around the globe. The Konovalenko Project seeks to obtain high quality photographs, as well as detailed historical, interpretive, and contextual information, on each one of these remarkable sculptures in order to produce a publishable synthesis of the entire body of work. To date, we have photographs of all twenty-seven sculptures in North America, and our sights are now set on collections in Europe and Russia.


Konovalenko: Gem Carvings of Russian Folk Life

On Permanent Display
See the only collection of the remarkable Vasily Konovalenko gem sculptures on public display outside of Moscow.

Museum History

Founded in 1900, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science traces its origins back more than a hundred years to one man's efforts and a little log cabin tucked away in the mountains.

Native American Sciences Initiative

Annual scholarships are awarded to students who have demonstrated leadership, academic achievement, and an interest in a science career.

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