A large, extensive network of Native American ruins was recently discovered just outside Durango on top of Florida Mesa, and it’s kind of blowing archaeologists’ minds.
“As an archaeologist with 30-plus years’ experience, I’m really excited by it,” said Dan Jepson, a cultural resource manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation. “This research is a wonderful opportunity.”
Robin Cordero, a human osteologist with the University of New Mexico, is helping analyze human and animal bones collected on the site. He can’t wait to get to work.
“The preservation there is just exquisite,” he said. “It’s a dream site to work on.”
Richard Wilshusen has surveyed hundreds of Native American ruins in his 40 years as an archaeologist. The size and scope of the site impressed him.
“What is blowing people away is they didn’t think the site would be nearly as big as it is,” he said. “It’s a wonderful surprise.”
There’s only a short window, however, for archaeologists.
The ruins were discovered as part of the surveying for the realignment of the U.S. Highway 550 interchange, to connect the “Bridge to Nowhere” to somewhere. Road construction will destroy the site, but not before researchers try to unlock its mysteries.
Some ‘remarkable structures’
To prepare for population growth in Durango, it was decided years ago that U.S. 550’s route south of Durango to the top of Florida Mesa, known as Farmington Hill, was too steep and dangerous for increased traffic and would have to be improved.
The proposed $100 million solution was to create an interchange farther east of Durango, with roundabouts and bridges that would travel to a flatter grade on Florida Mesa, requiring at least 2 miles of new road across mostly private land.
As part of federal and state laws, CDOT, the agency leading the project, was required to survey the proposed road’s footprint, mostly on farmland, for any historic or archaeological site before construction could begin.
For years, surveyors suspected the area was rich with Native American artifacts for years, but several delays with the interchange project staved off the research that requires a full-scale archaeological dig.
It wasn’t until last fall and this spring that the extent of the site was realized.
“That’s the mystery of archaeology: We don’t know what’s under the surface until we put a shovel there,” Jepson said. “But once we started to excavate, we realized we had some rather remarkable structures there.”
Ruins from the year 800Charlie Reed is with Alpine Archaeological Consultants, the company contracted by CDOT to lead the excavation of the sites. He said the first step in tracking down signs from the past is a simple walk, looking for telltale signs such as broken pottery, scattered cobbles or depressions in the ground.
Given the size of what researchers suspected was on top of Florida Mesa, radar technology was brought in to help pinpoint the buried ruins.
“Then we start by hand,” Reed said.
Since beginning last fall, digs have turned up a vast expanse of ruins left by Native Americans who inhabited Durango around the year 800. Slowly, they unearthed vast ceremonial sites, large pit houses and living quarters.
“One of the pit houses are one of the larger structures we’ve seen in the region,” Reed said. “These projects come along rarely.”
Shells and fish bones foundCDOT hopes to break ground on the new section of U.S. 550 in spring, so researchers have little time with the ruins.
The structures are mapped for archival purposes, and crews painstakingly dig around the ruins, collecting artifacts to be sent off to a lab for research.
The findings, Reed said, help researchers piece together what life was like for people who lived there.
At one site, researchers discovered shells from the Baja region, which pointed to a wide tribal trading network. At another, fish bones found in a pit house pointed to the Animas River as a food source.
What’s learned in the field and lab will be compiled in a public report in a year or so, Reed said.
“There’s a lot more to be learned,” he said.
Cordero said in the almost 20 years he has studied ruins in the Southwest, he has never seen an open air site so well preserved, a result of the type of soil in the area. And that is going to help when he takes the human and animal bones recovered into the lab for study.
Bones tell a story, he said. Signs and markings can tell researchers if an individual lived a life of strenuous physical activity, if they experienced hunger or if they had certain illnesses.
“The skeleton keeps a great record of the life history of an individual,” he said. “With that, we can start telling the story of who this person was and how they lived. And when you get enough stories together, you get a population and a better idea how a group used the landscape.”
‘Our eyes have just opened’Evidence of human settlement in the Southwest dates 13,000 years, but it is the well-preserved ruins at Mesa Verde National Park and Hovenweep National Monument, occupied from 700 to 1250 by the Ancestral Puebloan people, that tend to capture the public’s fascination.
The ruins found around Durango, which tend to be older than Mesa Verde in the Pueblo I period from about 750 to 900, however, have been subject to less study, said Wilshusen, who is an affiliate faculty with Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
While structures and hints of lifestyles hold similarities, there are distinct differences. Wilshusen said the site on Florida Mesa, for instance, shows the first attempts of Native Americans settling into villages.
“It’s really the beginning of the first villages we see in the Southwest,” he said. “And it’s the beginning of something that later manifests itself in the larger villages we see out in Mesa Verde or Sand Canyon several hundred years later.”
Wilshusen said archaeologists’ understanding of Native American people has drastically evolved. Once explained a linear boom-and-bust trend, life for the early people is now considered more complex, with fluctuating population and much movement.
By the late 800s and early 900s, for instance, many of the people living around Durango left. Stress factors, such as drought or internal conflict, could be the cause, or maybe people started moving west to be closer to the cultural center of Mesa Verde.
“Now, it’s a much more human story,” Wilshusen said. “Our eyes have just opened to what a rich picture we have of this landscape in the 800s.”
Honoring those who came before usAs more people move to the Southwest, it’s inevitable the conflict between preservation and development will arise.
That’s why federal and state laws aimed at protecting these sites are so important, said Bernadette Cuthair, director of planning and development for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, one of four tribes being consulted during the U.S. 550 project.
But it’s not always easy when a project requires the destruction of a ruin or site.
“Honoring those people that have come before us is very important to the Native American community,” Cuthair said. “It is something we hold to our heart, as far as respecting and being mindful of their ways in the past.”
Still, archaeologists and tribes may have disagreements.
“From an archaeological standpoint, yes, it’s important and possibly a learning tool,” Cuthair said. “But for us, it’s a connection to our past. That’s really important to us. And we have to take care of it in the right way.”
The Southern Ute tribe declined to comment for this story. Calls to the Hopi and Pueblo of Laguna tribes were not returned.
Ernest House Jr., a Ute Mountain Ute member who served as director for the Colorado Commission for Indian Affairs for 11 years, said a turning point came in 2007 when state protocol gave tribes greater control and input when historical sites are discovered.
This protocol is particularly important, House said, when human remains are found.
“They’re our ancestors, and there was care taken to make sure they had a proper burial,” he said. “So when they are uncovered, that burial is not complete and that individual’s spirit is left between various worlds. The tribes want to make sure they are back in the ground in a timely manner.”
A balance of progress, sensitivityLisa Schwantes, spokeswoman for CDOT, said any human remains and artifacts associated with a burial will be returned to the tribes so they may reburied, honoring their traditions. All other unearthed artifacts, she said, will be recorded and housed at the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum, near Dolores.
The ruins, however, will be buried and destroyed as U.S. 550 rolls through.
“We have really tried to foster a good relationship with the tribes,” CDOT’s Jepson said. “It’s the nature of the business, really, having to balance the positive parts of historic preservation with progress. Not everything can be saved.”
Wilshusen, too, lamented the impending loss of the site, but heralded the opportunity to study a site that would otherwise still be buried underground, unknown to researchers.
“In a way, maybe we’re like the ancestral people – they would often build on top of old sites,” he said. “And it’s not that they didn’t have regard for the previous site. Maybe it was the best location for them, and they had to make that decision. I think it’s the same way for us.”