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Trove of archaeological ruins unearthed south of Durango

Well-preserved Native American artifacts are in path of realigned Highway 550
Researchers have found an extensive site of Native American ruins on top of Florida Mesa as part of the realignment of U.S. Highway 550 south of Durango. Archaeologists have only a few months to study the site before highway constructions begins.

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 to have a field day with the new find.

The ruins were discovered as part of the surveying for the realignment of the U.S. Highway 550 interchange, to finally connect the “Bridge to Nowhere” to somewhere. Road construction will destroy the site, but not before researchers try to unlock some of its mysteries.

Some ‘remarkable structures’

To prepare for expected 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 a new interchange, a little farther east of Durango, that would feature a system of 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 footprint of the new road, which lies mostly as farm lands, for any historic or archaeological sites before construction can begin.

The Colorado Department of Transportation intends to break ground in spring 2020 for the final phase of the realignment of U.S. Highway 550, south of Durango.

Surveyors had a hunch the area was rich with Native American artifacts for years, but several well-noted delays with the interchange project staved off the portion of 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 800

Charlie 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 and scope of what researchers suspected was on top of Florida Mesa, enhanced radar technology was brought in to better pinpoint the locations of the buried ruins.

Jessica Kenmore, left, and Denise Hoth, both with Alpine Archaeological Consultants, log items that have been discovered during an excavation of pit houses at a site near Farmington Hill. The Colorado Department of Transportation contracted the company for the archaeological dig in the area of the U.S. Highway 550 realignment.

“Then we start by hand,” Reed said.

Since beginning last fall, archaeological digs have turned up a vast expanse of ruins left behind from Native Americans who inhabited Durango around the year 800. Slowly, vast ceremonial sites, large pit houses and living quarters have been unearthed for the first time in hundreds of years.

“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 found

CDOT hopes to break ground on building the new section of U.S. 550 in spring 2020, so there’s a limited time researchers can spend with the ruins.

The layout of the structures are mapped for archival purposes, and crews painstakingly dig around the ruins, collecting artifacts to be sent off to a lab for further research.

The findings, Reed said, help researchers piece together what life was like for people who once lived there.

Shells from the Baja region were recently found at an excavation of a Native American ruin, leading researchers to believe tribes that inhabited the region had a trade network far and wide.

At one of the sites, shells from the Baja region were discovered, leading researchers to believe the tribe’s trading network was far and wide. And at another, fish bones were found on the floor of a pit house, a rather remarkable discovery that shows the tribes fished out of the Animas River.

What’s learned in the field, and during the ensuing months in the lab, will be compiled in a report that will be made public, likely within 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. By looking for particular signs and markings, researchers can tell if an individual lived a strenuous life with a lot of physical activity, if they experienced periods of starvation 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 American Southwest dates 13,000 years, but it is the well-preserved sites from ruins at Mesa Verde National Park and Hovenweep National Monument, occupied from around 700 to 1250 by the Ancestral Puebloan people, that tend to capture the public’s fascination.

The ruins found around Durango, which tend to fall a little earlier than Mesa Verde in the Pueblo I period from about 750 to 900, however, have been subject to less study, historically, said Wilshusen, who is now an affiliate faculty with Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

While structures and hints of lifestyles tend to hold a lot of similarities, there are distinct differences. Wilshusen said the site being uncovered on Florida Mesa, for instance, shows the first attempts of Native Americans settling into villages.

Rydell Tsosie, left, and Chris Greubel, both with Alpine Archaeological Consultants, work in a pit house during an excavation. Structures on site will be documented before demolition, and artifacts will either be housed in a museum or sent to tribes.

“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 over the years. While it was once thought there was a clear, linear boom-and-bust trend, it’s now understood life for the early people was much more complicated, with population fluctuations and a lot of movement.

By the late 800s, 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 us

As more people move to the Southwest, it’s inevitable the conflict between preservation and development will arise.

Denise Frazier and Nick Simpson, both archaeologists, with Alpine Archaeological Consultants, screen dirt at an archaeological dig. Researchers have been finding all kinds of artifacts they will use to put together the lives of the people who once inhabited the Durango area.

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 tribe’s being consulted during the U.S. 550 project.

But it’s not always easy when a project requires the complete 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.”

And, the aim of archaeologists does not always fall in line with the desires of tribes.

“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 Indian 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 major turning point was in 2007 when state protocol was developed that gave tribes greater control and input when historic 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, sensitivity

Lisa 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 artifacts unearthed, 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.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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