Aspen Times Weekly: Unearthing the Past |

Aspen Times Weekly: Unearthing the Past

by Michael McLaughlin

There are many different timelines that use different terminology to correspond with a particular region and its peoples. This timeline is specific to the mountain regions of colorado:

Paleoindian - 11,000 BC to 6800 BC: This timeframe correlates with the ending of the Ice Age. The Paleoindian period refers to the time when small bands of nomadic hunters first entered North America and spread out across the continent. Glaciers still covered much of North America and many large animals that are now extinct still roamed the land.

Archaic - 6800 BC to 200 AD: Over time, the environment gradually became similar to what we are accustomed to today. The warmer and drier conditions contributed to the extinction of several large species such as mammoths, mastodons, and giant, or Ice Age bison. The nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle continued through this period with prey that consisted of animals familiar to us today: bear, deer, elk, bighorn sheep, rabbits, and rodents. Archaic peoples also became increasingly dependent on plants and seeds to round out their diet.

Late Prehistoric - 200 AD to 1600 AD: This period has some of the least data available as many high-mountain sites lack structures and pottery, and for many archaeologists, these areas weren’t considered as important as areas such as Mesa Verde, where large cliff-dwelling structures held much information and artifacts. One school of thought contends a separate cultural adaptation was developed in the Archaic Period and continued into the Late Prehistoric, where groups of hunter-gatherers remained in the mountain regions year-round. These peoples didn’t develop permanent living areas, but rather adjusted to high-altitude living and followed their food sources through different times of the year and at various elevations.

Historic Period - 1600 to the present: This is the time when written records from European and Mexican explorers, as well as settlers, come into play.

It’s called site 5PT1271.

It’s a speck of land, totaling just a couple of acres within the 973 square miles of Pitkin County. To the untrained eye, it’s just another piece of property with areas of thick vegetation and rutted spots that have been washed out by drainage.

But to the trained eye of an archaeologist, it’s an area of untapped learning potential; a place that could hold clues to the people that lived here several thousand years ago.

Site 5PT1271, or the Sopris Archaic Archaeological Preserve, is an important cultural resource because of its unique setting, diversity of artifacts and evidence of repeated use that began between an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 years ago.

The site holds a high density of flaked stone artifacts, such as arrow and spear points, scrapers, knives, flake tools and at least one drill point. Grinding tools used to mill wild plant seeds are also present. Many flaked pieces of different materials are scattered throughout the site, representing the final stages of tool-making. The stone materials themselves are diverse and include locally available rock, as well as pieces from distant sources.

The different styles of points and tools suggest many occupations of the area from a variety of time periods.

Collectively, these findings indicate a specialized land-use pattern that hasn’t been adequately documented anywhere in Colorado. A search of the Colorado Historical Society’s database shows there are 187 prehistoric archaeological sites recorded in Pitkin County, with only nine dating back to the Archaic Period.

The site is already included on the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties and is a candidate for the National Register of Historic Places.

Located near Emma at an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet, the site was once on private property, but now is protected by a conservation easement and management plan with the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails department.

“I think it’s our responsibility to help interpret the landscape,” said county Open Space and Trails director Dale Will. “Preserving the site is certainly a priority to the extent that we can facilitate scientific research that helps understand more about the ecology and the human history in the high mountains.”

The site isn’t open to the public for fear of looting. For many years, the basic assumption toward native artifacts was a finders-keepers attitude. However, there are strict laws that prohibit the removal of artifacts from public lands and penalties that go with them (see “Protecting the Past,” page 22).

Archaeology is a science that depends on the material record in the ground. The location of the artifacts in relation to everything else at the site is called context. Context helps archaeologists figure out who used the artifacts, how they used them, and even when they used them. Moving the artifacts out of context destroys the story of the site.

The Sopris Site has many stone flakes, tips and pieces of tools present on the ground surface, but most all of them are broken and hold little to no real monetary value.

“The value is in the intellectual knowledge the site holds,” said Paul Holsinger, the land officer for the Open Space department. “We all share the feeling that this area has been a real special place for a long time.”

Holsinger will be working closely with the future management of the site. He also worked with the Archaeological Conservancy to come up with a conservation plan to protect the discovery.

The Archaeological Conservancy is a nonprofit organization based out of New Mexico that helps with the acquisition and preservation of archaeological sites on private land.

Because the Open Space department doesn’t have any expertise in archaeology, they brought in the Conservancy to work with the private landowners and assure them that the site would be taken care of properly with the granting of the conservation easement.

“This property is so unique,” Holsinger said. “We had to come up with some really innovative language to protect the resources the site holds.”

The real value for archaeologists may lie below the site surface, however. Until a formal dig takes place, what it holds will remain a mystery on many levels. The estimated age of the site has been determined by the size of the notches on some of the tips present. If a dig were to occur and some organic material could be found, then carbon-dating could be used to determine a more exact date of occupation.

Carbon-dating is a radiometric dating technique that uses the decay of carbon-14 to estimate the age of organic materials, up to 60,000 years old.

Holsinger is fascinated by what clues may lie below the surface at the Sopris Site, but doesn’t necessarily want to see the site excavated.

“Once you start digging,” he said. “You lose some the mystery.”

‘Stunned by the site’

Will was a key figure in the deal that allowed the Open Space and Trails department to exchange two county transferable development rights to the private owners in exchange for the 4- to 5-acre site property.

While growing up in Colorado, Will spent a fair amount of time backpacking around the Utah canyonlands looking at Anasazi sites, as well as cliff dwellings like Mesa Verde.

His first visit to the Sopris Site immediately changed his perceptions concerning long-term human presence in the high mountains.

“I was stunned by the site,” he said. “The sites I was familiar with are down around 4,000 t0 6,000 feet in canyon country. I’ve never seen anything like this in the mountains. A random arrowhead here and there … never more than one in a location. But to see a site with (so many) arrowheads in such a small area that are all just lying around on the surface? It was a spine-tingling experience the first time I saw that.”

Will is the first to admit he’s not a trained archaeologist, but his experiences in the canyons and mountains of Utah and Colorado have given him some solid background on what to look for with native sites.

As for the Sopris Site, Will sees a couple of clues to the repeat uses of the area as both a lookout and an area for making tools. Will has copies of the original Hayden survey maps of the Roaring Fork Valley created in the 1870s. Essentially, it was Ute territory in that time. The maps show a trail that goes just below the site — the main trail that the Ute took up and down the valley.

“It’s probably more than a coincidence that this site looks down on a long reach of that old, native trail,” Will said. “The fact remains that from the site, you could look down at a long reach of pathway that we know the Native Americans were traveling up and down. Unlike some of the Anasazi sites, where you’ve got proximity to water and agriculture, this site is on a northern aspect and not particularly close to any surface water, at least that’s there today. It’s not a place you would think would attract a long-term habitation, except for this commanding view it has of the mid-valley area.”

After Will learned the estimated dates of occupancy and span of generations that kept returning to this one particular spot, his perceptions of the area continued to change.

“That’s another reason that makes this site so stunning,” he said. “They kept coming back for generations and generations. We’re talking between 6,000 to 8,000 years. I’d imagine it became custom or a ritual area to gather and make stone tools, spear points, arrowheads and other tools. We can see from the lithic scatter that the material was being carried to the site from all over the southwest. It was essentially an arms factory, in a way. It became one that had a longevity that our culture can only dream about having.”

For Will, the most profound significance of the site is a reminder that people don’t need to tread so heavily on the landscape to survive and thrive as a species. With the science of high-elevation archaeology still being developed, Will sees a need for greater understanding of pre-European human presence in the Rockies, as well as more historical research on the Ute peoples.

“For us to have a site that is so rich and goes back so far in the high mountains is exciting,” Will said. “To have something like that in the Roaring Fork Valley profoundly changes the way we think about ourselves in both positive ways and also in some ways that suggest maybe our own civilization isn’t quite as great as we think it is.”

‘Sometimes you get lucky’

Kevin Black, the assistant state archaeologist in Colorado, visited the site in 2012. Black’s first impression was that the site looked like hundreds of other high elevation sites he’s visited. The materials and lithics he saw on the ground were familiar, but he soon realized he was seeing more surface materials in that one area than he had ever seen in a location that size, sitting on a north-facing mountain slope, high above a river valley.

“What struck me was that it seemed like such an odd spot for so much material,” Black said. “With the property being private, it’s really limited the number of people that know about, or had exposure to, the site. The fact that people haven’t really messed with the area makes it very unique. Sometimes you get lucky in that way.”

Black has his own theories about the site and its uses. He sees it as a spot that was used repeatedly over hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

“It looks like some sort of processing station,” he said. “The repeated use over time is what really makes it unique. It may look remote today, but maybe there was a trail system near that’s missing now. The hill above the site is soft shale and it appears that there’s been quite a bit of slope wash. I suspect that the exact positions of many of the artifacts have been changed by flow from the slope.”

Black sees the area as unusual and unique, making it that much more important to preserve. The site is a piece of a larger puzzle that can help us understand more about the people that were in the Colorado mountains long before Europeans came to North America.

“The more we can raise people’s awareness of the importance of sites like this,” he said, “the more people will care about them and help preserve them,”

‘Another key to learning about our past’

Melissa Elkins is a project director at Metcalf Archaeological Consultants, the company that was brought in to document the site.

She was one of two archaeologists to record materials at the site in 2012.

“It was so exciting,” Elkins said. “There were artifacts everywhere of different sizes and colors. It was visually striking to see the variety of artifacts, especially in a high elevation area. We were marking artifacts with red flags but ran out of flags to use. There are many formal tools within the site. It was obvious whoever was using the area was doing a lot of work there.”

Elkins said the site appears to show evidence of repeat as compared to constant occupation, but that can’t officially be determined until more work is done at the site.

“It’s such an interesting location,” she said. “Most high altitude sites I’ve seen have great sightlines, which was a big advantage for hunter-gatherers. It made it easier to plan access routes. The Sopris Site doesn’t appear to have any evidence of any permanent shelters. It makes me think it was used seasonally.”

Elkins says the site has major importance in the fact that there aren’t many high elevation sites documented that relate back to the Archaic time period.

“We don’t know anything about the subsurface at the site yet,” she said. “If we could find some evidence of charcoal, like from a hearth, we could do some radio carbon dating that would allow us to narrow down the occupancy times.”

She’s also happy to see Pitkin County preserve the area from any future development.

“A lot of history like this isn’t visible at first,” Elkins said. “It’s not some huge structure like the Coliseum in Rome. Most people wouldn’t understand what they were looking at when they see a lithic scatter like this. This site is another key to learning about our past and it’s extremely important to preserve it. If people can relate to the past, it helps them understand a little better just who we are today.”

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