When Cortez native Nelsa Burkett was given a routine cataloging job during an internship at the Anasazi Heritage Center in 2012, she dug a little deeper and discovered a treasure trove of long-lost artifacts nobody knew were missing.
In February, the forgotten Cannonball Pueblo collection was returned home to southwest Colorado from a museum at the University of Minnesota. The 800-year-old Pueblo village is within Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
"To see my work culminate in the return of precious cultural resources is thrilling," Burkett said. "I had found inventories that showed the artifacts should be at the Anasazi Heritage Center, but they had traveled far from their origins."
The striking collection of artifacts displayed for a media tour included decorated bowls, dippers, axe heads and hunting supplies from the Pueblo III period, circa 1150-1350.
How they ended up in Minnesota is a "very convoluted story" Burkett says. More on that later, because the backstory leading up to the artifact reunion is equally interesting.
Cannonball Mesa was the first ruin to be permitted for excavation under the 1906 Antiquities Act, a federal law that helped to put an end to wholesale looting of archaeological sites, said Bridget Ambler, head curator at the Anasazi Heritage Center Museum.
"Before the area had a museum for curation, the excavated collections were scattered to the winds," Ambler said during a tour of the collection. "This is a real homecoming story."
In 1908, Sylvanus Morley, a Harvard archaeologist who grew up in Buena Vista, Colo., volunteered to survey the McElmo Canyon area, including Cannonball Pueblo. The village features 100 masonry structures, including six towers resembling those at nearby Hovenweep National Monument. Kivas, multistory pueblos and ancient reservoirs were also present.
The initial research was funded by the University of Colorado and the Colorado State Historical Society. As repayment, the McElmo Canyon artifacts, including from Cannonball, were divided between both institutions.
Morley's Cannonball Pueblo report was the first archaeological publication focusing on the McElmo area. Morley and colleague Edgar Hewett went on to become well-known experts in Mayan ruins and hieroglyphics at Chichen Itza and Tikal in Mexico and Guatemala.
Ambler said that most of the Cannonball artifacts were returned to the Anasazi Heritage Center in 2000 and 2009 from CU and the historical society.
"In 1990, the Anasazi Heritage Center museum was started, and we became legally responsible for consolidating the collections from this area, and we pursued them," Ambler said.
Burkett's researched revealed that there were more Cannonball artifacts out there. But that unraveling transactions to different museums was difficult as many were not recorded "and were done with a handshake."
One clue seemed promising. Burkett found that in 1970, CU exchanged 16 items of its Cannonball collection to the University of Minnesota museum, helping to explain their forgotten origins.
"I contacted them, but my internship ended before I found out. Then I saw that a crateful of items had been returned to the heritage center, and I was ecstatic," recalls Burkett, who has since graduated from Western State College and works at a museum in Crested Butte.
Added Ambler, "The curators there were wondering what they were doing with a southwest Colorado collection and were happy to send them home. They belong to their place of origin where they have contextual meaning."
The lost Cannonball artifacts won't go on display at this point, Ambler said, but they will be available for research.
"We are taking a fresh look at them," she said. "When the truck pulled up, it was a special day and very exciting for the staff to unwrap each item."