DENVER (AP) _ Hannah Marie Wormington, one of the nation's first women to forge a career in archaeology and an expert on the Paleo-Indian period, died in a fire at her home. She was 79.

She was found dead in her bed Tuesday of smoke inhalation, investigators said. They believe Wormington had been smoking carelessly. A smoke detector in the house had no battery.

Wormington wrote at least 15 books and scores of articles for scientific publications. Her writings served as textbooks for a generation. A Denver native, she was affiliated with the Denver Museum of Natural History for nearly six decades. The museum named her curator emeritus in 1968.

In 1958, she became the first woman to head the Society for American Archaeology.

''She was one of the first and foremost woman scholars in archaeology in North America,'' said James Dixon, the museum's curator of archaeology.

During Wormington's early career, a woman in archaeology was a rarity. Sarah Nelson, head of the anthropology department at the University of Denver, said Wormington signed her early writings ''H.M.'' Wormington to conceal her gender.

One of her specialties was the period when Indians crossed the Bering Strait land bridge from Asia as long ago as 10,000 B.C.

Wormington graduated from the University of Denver in 1935 and received master's and doctoral degrees from Radcliffe College. She was the second woman admitted to Harvard's anthropology department.

''When she was attending classes at Harvard, she had to sit outside the lecture hall in at least one of her classes because the professor didn't allow ladies inside,'' said Dennis Stanford, a spokesman for the Smithsonian Institute.