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Colorado Springs tasks archaeologist to uncover hidden history

April 14, 2017 Updated: April 14, 2017 at 5:48 pm
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Anna Cordova at a piece of glass among scattered artifacts in a drainage area near a city park on Thursday, April 6, 2017."It was defintely a dump-ste for a number of years," she said after finding pieces of glass, terra cotta and metal objects. She dated the objects from anywhere to the early 1800's to 1930's. She will gather the items, identify the time period they are from and they will be stored at the Pioneers Museum. She is the first archaeologist for the City of Colorado Springs. Carol Lawrence, The Gazette

At the desk of her unlit office inside a building surrounded by a locked gate, Anna Cordova reveals some of her stash.

She unlocks a drawer and pulls out an acid-free baggie storing an arrowhead. Also from the drawer comes a smaller rock figure, shaped like a stingray with a stem attached to a bulbous form - a drill made and used by natives, Cordova says. She shows another bag with yellow scraps of pages, from a book or publication of some unknown era.

From a box in the corner of her office she pulls out a piece of rusted barbed wire, with prongs consistent with the ranching style from the 1870s, she says. Another box keeps a dusty cobalt blue bottle, which she's determined to be no older than 128 years, based on records she found while researching the Baltimore drug company name labeled on the bottle.

"Actually, a construction worker found that," the archaeologist for the city of Colorado Springs says. "That's what brought us to the site, and we found much, much more."

These are among Cordova's discoveries in her first year as the hired researcher of man's past here. It is a rare position at cities across Colorado; her only counterpart works for Boulder, according to the state office that licenses archaeologists.

Anna Cordova looks at a piece of a glass insulator she found among artifacts in a drainage area near a city park on Thursday, April 6, 2017. She said the Denver Company was in business around the 1890's. It was among broken bottles, china and other remnants of post-European settlers of the area. Carol Lawrence, The Gazette  

It's a job Holly Norton would like more municipalities to consider. "We're really, really small, and it's hard for us to get out to places," says the state archaeologist, one of three in the Office of Archaeology. The office believes Colorado stores evidence of mankind going back 13,000 years. But there is still much to know, Norton says.

"What drives it home for us," she says, "is the fact that only 8 percent of the state has been surveyed archaeologically."

And the threat for lost artifacts along the Front Range looms larger as the years go by, she says - as development continues its boom and buildings continue to spread over potentially significant land.

The threat is real in Colorado Springs, says Matt Mayberry, the city's cultural services manager. Over the years he's gotten calls from residents out on trails, letting him know they've found an arrowhead or a bone. They're the ones with "good intentions," Mayberry says. He's aware of others who would not make the call, who would unethically hunt artifacts to sell.

Whatever their intentions, they are not helping archaeologists. Researchers desire untouched sites, places that maintain all the pieces to solve the puzzle of what happened there however many centuries ago. Remove one piece, and the puzzle may never be solved.

"It's an ongoing problem," Mayberry says of collectors. And it's one reason why he wanted to create Cordova's position, part-time, year-round and paid for through tax funds of the Trails, Open Space and Parks program that preserves the city's public lands.

Another reason for the hire: Corral Bluffs Open Space, the scenic 600 acres of gullies weaving through canyons and rock outcrops in the eastern plains. The city acquired the property in 2008 with the anticipation of allowing recreation there. There's no sign of that happening any time soon. The land is an archaeological hotbed, and before a management plan, the city wants a detailed survey.

Enter Cordova, 34. Exploring Corral Bluffs recently, she found a buffalo bone in the dirt - a shin bone, she believes, with markings that indicate butchering.

"That place can be quite overwhelming for me," she says with a laugh, in the hours after guiding 11 curious people through the open space.

Cordova grew up in town, drawn to the region's history from an early age. She read books, collected rocks and wondered what else lay beneath.

It was around Corral Bluffs where she took part in her first field school while a student at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. She dug up a piece of clay pottery and found herself mesmerized by the fingerprints still visible on it.

"It was just this connection I felt to that person," she says. "That connection to the past, to pick up an artifact and touch it and think you're the first person who's looked at it or touched it in some cases for thousands of years. ... I just like that personal history you can get."

Personal history drove her to the field. "I've always felt very connected to this place," she says of Colorado. Her family has indigenous ties to the San Luis Valley - one of her career's early stops. She spent 10 days backpacking with a group of seven men as part of a Bureau of Land Management survey, scaling mountainsides and picking up arrowheads and rock tools along the way. That was during one summer of her school years. Another summer she was in Central America, analyzing Mayan artifacts.

Out of school she spent six years in Hawaii, consulting native tribes on construction plans that would affect their sacred lands. Mayberry sees that experience translating to her work locally, on projects such as one in 2015 that concerned Ute people. Cordova was finishing her master's at UCCS, leading a team of students at Garden of the Gods for the project. She dropped into an excavated, meter-deep pit to find a hearth.

But she doesn't reveal any more of the findings. "It's a sensitive area for them," she says of the Utes.

And she hesitates to speak specifically about other places around town on her radar; Revealing them would be risky, she says - an invite to collectors.

"We've had a tradition of keeping sites so secret that nobody knows about their importance," Norton says of fellow archaeologists. "Connecting with the public is always a constant struggle for us."

Cordova won't say where she found the artifacts in her office. Eventually they'll be displayed at the Pioneers Museum.

"I'll get to help with that," she says. "That'll be my favorite part."

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