He was born in Albuquerque on September 20, 1917. Like many of his generation, Hurt's more than 60-year career began with W.P.A. projects and the River Basin Surveys. Yet his early interests in archaeology were encouraged by his mother, who maintained a keen interest in prehistory, and by his cousin Reginald Fisher, a professional archaeologist. As a high school freshman, he was employed on the staff of the Jemez Archaeological Project and two years later on the staff of the Chaco Canyon Field School, where he served as chauffeur for Edgar Hewett. During his undergraduate years, he worked on many archaeological projects as a staff archaeologist for the Museum of New Mexico and between 1938 and 1940 he served as Archaeological W.P.A. Supervisor at Quarai State Monument. Hurt received his B.A. (1938) and M.A. (1942) from the University of New Mexico and served briefly as National Park Service summer ranger at Canyon de Chelly National Monument before beginning service in 1942 as a special agent of the Counter-Intelligence Corps with the U.S. Army in the European theater.
Following discharge from the army in 1945, he entered the graduate program at the University of Chicago but shortly after he transferred to the University of Michigan where he became a member of its first Ph.D. class. Mary, whom he had met and married in Chicago in 1948, worked as Jimmy Griffin's secretary while Hurt completed his studies. In 1949, he served as a field assistant on the University of Michigan Expedition to the Aleutian Islands, writing a report on recovered artifacts the following year. Upon his return from the Aleutians he accepted a position as director of the University of South Dakota Museum (now W. H. Over Museum), and assumed responsibility for the museum's involvement in the Missouri Valley River Basin Project. Over the next five years, Hurt would conduct important excavations at the Swanson, Scalp Creek, and Thomas Riggs sites, among others. Many of his findings were published in the Archaeological Circular Series, which he founded.
Hurt's early work on the Plains of San Augustin of New Mexico, as well as the preparation of his dissertation, "A Comparative Study of Preceramic Occupations of North America" (1952), fostered a career-long interest in early lithic assemblages and occupations in the New World. In 1956, Hurt led a joint University of South Dakota-Museu Nacional do Brasil expedition to investigate sites in the Lagoa Santa region of Brazil. In 1958-1959, Hurt taught at the University of Parana in Brazil and conducted collaborative investigations of sambaquis with Oldemar Blasi, with whom he would publish O Sambaqui do Macedo (1960) and which marks the beginning of Hurt's common practice of working and publishing with international scholars.
Returning to South Dakota, Hurt served as director of the Institute of Indian Studies at the University of South Dakota, and in 1957, as chair of the South Dakota Archaeological Commission. During this time, he continued his early practice of publishing in cultural anthropology and ethnology. In 1963, after 14 productive years at USD, Hurt accepted a position as professor of anthropology and director of the Museum of Anthropology, History, and Folklore (now William Hammond Mathers Museum), at Indiana University. With this move, Hurt would shift his research focus to South America, conducting projects in Brazil, Colombia, and Uruguay. In 1966, Hurt directed under NSF sponsorship a joint Indiana University-Universidade de Santa Catarina expedition to Brazil's southern coast. These investigations focused on the use of coastal sambaquis and their relationship to environmental change and were published in 1974 as "The Interrelationships Between the Natural Environment and Four Sambaquis, Coast of Santa Catarina, Brazil" as first in the series Occasional Papers and Monographs, Indiana University Museum. In 1966, and again in 1967, Hurt conducted surveys of Paleo-Indian sites in northern Colombia. This work would lead to his 1969 excavations at the El Abra Rockshelters. The report of the excavations published as "Preceramic Sequences in the El Abra Rockshelters, Colombia" in Science (1976) would document evidence of early lithic assemblages dating from 12,500 B.P. and form the basis for the definition of the "Edge-Trimmed Tool Tradition." Hurt's continued work in Brazil and investigation of Paleo-Indian sites along the Río Uruguay in Uruguay contributed greatly to a growing awareness of the variability between Andean and eastern South American Paleo-Indian occupations.
Upon his retirement in 1986, Hurt was named professor emeritus of anthropology at Indiana University and research associate at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University. In recognition of his extensive regional field research, publications, and general contributions to American archaeology, he was awarded the SAA 50th Anniversary Award for Outstanding Contributions to American Archaeology.
Mark G. Plew is professor of archaeology in the Department of Anthropology at Boise State University.