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Dr. Nora Waterford Kelly is an archaeologist associate of Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast. She is the main protagonist of Thunderhead—both the Preston-Child novel and the fictionalized in-universe version by Bill Smithback—and later received her own series chronicling her collaborations with FBI Special Agent Corrie Swanson.


Nora is described as being fit, slim, tan, and of average height, with short, wavy copper-colored bronze hair, a freckled nose, deep hazel green-brown eyes, and long legs.


Nora was born in New Mexico to Padraic and Liz Kelly, eventually moving with her family to a hobby ranch in Santa Fe that they named Rancho de las Cabrillas. When Nora was twelve years old, her father disappeared in a remote area of southern Utah while searching for the lost Anasazi city of Quivira; her mother died fifteen years later.

After completing her graduate studies, she accepted a position as an associate professor at the Santa Fe Archaeological Institute. Shortly after Liz Kelly's death, Nora received a long-lost letter from her father, written to Liz sixteen years before but with just a five-week-old postmark. In the letter, Padraic Kelly claimed to have found Quivira, and Nora set out to follow his trail, setting into motion the events of Thunderhead.

Following the Quivira expedition, Nora left the Institute and headed for the east coast to work for the short-lived Lloyd Museum. When the museum folded, she remained in New York and began working at Museum of Natural History, where she was eventually recruited by Agent Pendergast during the events of The Cabinet of Curiosities.

Nora returned to her curatorial duties in the aftermath of the Surgeon Killings, working extensively on two of the Museum's highest profile exhibitions in years: Sacred Images, alongside Margo Green during the events of Dance of Death; and The Tomb of Senef, with Viola Maskelene during the events of The Book of the Dead.

Later that year, Nora received approval from the Museum to return to Utah the following summer on another expedition as part of her research on the spread of the Kachina Cult through the Southwest; tragedy soon struck, however, as Nora's husband was murdered in their Upper West Side apartment. In the aftermath of the ensuing investigation—chronicled in Cemetery Dance—Nora decided to return to the southwest, finding work once again with the Santa Fe Archaeological Institute.

Nearly seven years after leaving New York, Nora was approached by historian Clive Benton, a descendant of Donner Party survivors, to lead an expedition into the Sierra Nevada to find the Donner Party's "Lost Camp." The expedition was interrupted early on by rookie Special Agent Corrie Swanson during the events of Old Bones.

Later that summer, while excavating the Pueblo settlement of Tsankawai, Nora was once again interrupted by Agent Swanson, who requested the venerable archaeologist's assistance unearthing a decades-old body discovered on federal land. Nora reluctanctly agreed, setting off the events of The Scorpion's Tail.


Despite her initial poor impressions of him during the Quivira expedition, Nora eventually developed a relationship with reporter and author Bill Smithback. They had moved in together by the conclusion of The Cabinet of Curiosities, and were married two months prior to the beginning of Brimstone; they remained together until his death in Cemetery Dance.


  • Old Bones marked the beginning of a new series featuring Nora Kelly as the main protagonist.