In a region as heavily dotted with archaeological sites as the Southwest, it is inevitable that the past must give way to the present’s needs.
That was the case when the Colorado Department of Transportation needed to realign a part of U.S. 550, just south of Durango, near the current turnoff to Farmington, New Mexico — the likely archaeological sites shown on previous surveys could not be avoided. That prompted mitigation: excavation and collection of data to extract as much information as possible before that particular window on the past was destroyed by construction work, explained Rand Greubel of Montrose’s Alpine Archaeological Consultants.
Fieldwork Alpine did as a contractor for CDOT in 2018 and 2019 found seven sites along Florida Mesa and three of them yielded, for local archaeology, a “missing piece.”
“They were big residential sites,” Greubel said, each with dwellings called pithouses (12 total), dating to the Early Pueblo I period (AD 750 — 850).
And there was something more: “Two of the sites had really big pithouses we thought were kind of ceremonial structures, where people from surrounding areas might come and have ceremonies, things like that. One of those structures was particularly big,” Greubel said.
Alpine Archaeological Consultants worked with heavy involvement of Native American tribes and their young people. A documentary of the entire project, “Durango 550 — Path of the Ancestral Puebloans,” debuts at 10 a.m. Sunday on Rocky Mountain PBS. It will air again at 7 p.m. March 17.
“This documentary shows the unique collaboration of all entities involved, laying the groundwork for a new approach to archaeology, blending Western science with traditional cultural beliefs,” said CDOT Archaeologist Greg Wolff, in a provided statement.
“Tribal members frequently visited the project area during the excavations. Tribal elders contributed traditional knowledge, experience and spiritual guidance to the archaeologists and other project staff members.”
The film is produced by Nathan Ward of Grit and Thistle Film Co., who was onsite for much of the two-year dig. In just a shade under 30 minutes, the documentary encapsulates two years of work, along with offering the perspectives of tribal members who worked and trained as paid interns for the excavations and educational outreach.
“Path of the Ancestral Puebloans” also highlights tribal youth groups that helped with the excavation.
“I like to see our youth get involved with archaeology through our (tribal) natural resources department and cultural department, that way they can better their understanding of our past history and our ancestry,” Ernest “Muz” Pinnecoose, an elder with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, says in the film, according to a CDOT news release.
“It’s finding that common ground, understanding and respect,” said Georgiana Pongyesva in the documentary; she is a research assistant with the Hopi Tribe Cultural Preservation Office. “When you bring elders, youth and archaeologists all together, everyone is benefiting because you’re learning from each other. But also, it’s paving the way for this new era of archaeology which includes indigenous peoples that are still here and related to these places.”
CDOT ’s U.S. 550/160 connection project was many years in the making. It broke ground in 2020 to realign and widen the interchange at the highways south of Durango. CDOT contractors are constructing a 1.1-mile, four-lane section of U.S. 550 north of La Plata County Road 220 to connect 550 with the existing U.S. 160 interchange.
The project is also widening about 3 miles of U.S. 550 south of CR 220 to four lanes and tying another road, CR 302, to the intersection.
In 2023, the current signal at the base of Farmington Hill will be removed and Farmington Hill will no longer be used.
The highway department knew going into the project that archaeological resources would factor in.
“We must adhere to federal law,” CDOT spokeswoman Lisa Schwantes said. “In our planning process, when the environmental impact studies are done, that is going to determine whether we may be disturbing environmental or cultural resources. We live in Southwest Colorado and there is not much construction that happens in the Southwest in which an archaeological site is not found.”
The dig uncovered thousands of artifacts, which were collected and are being fully described in a site report. The artifacts are being curated at the Canyons of the Ancients Museum just outside of Dolores (formerly the Anasazi Heritage Center) and may be displayed in a future exhibit.
“We found lots of burials and other human remains,” said Greubel. “That’s pretty typical when you excavate areas where people lived for many decades. All of those were studied and will be returned (repatriated) to the tribes according to all of the laws. It was expected and there is a plan in place for it.”
In addition to providing opportunity for tribal members to connect with the past, the project is important because it looked at a location that hadn’t seen much study before — most of the area is private land.
“The highway comes up over the landform called Florida Mesa and goes south toward New Mexico. There really hadn’t been much archaeological work on Florida Mesa in the past,” Greubel said.
“It fills a gap, sort of, geographically. Now we have a better understanding of what Pueblo I people were doing up on that mesa.”
The Early Pueblo I Period is when the people began shifting toward more permanent agrarian societies, from primarily hunter-gatherer with some corn-growing.
“This is the period of time when they really commit to being farmers. That Early Pueblo I period is important for understanding that,” Greubel said.
“To really understand it, you really have to investigate as many of these residential sites as you can. The fact that they were sort of changing their economies meant that their societies were changing too.”
That is reflected in the larger pithouses, which suggest that new ceremonies were being developed or that some families or individuals were amassing social power, he said.
“It’s just a matter of filling in the gaps of what was happening cross the Southwest,” he added, but cautioned that population groups were not monolithic throughout the region.
“To really understand and get a handle on that, you have to excavate a lot of sites before you can start to flesh out the bigger picture. There wasn’t anything groundbreaking as far as brand-new information. It’s more of a question of trying to make a big picture of what was happening in the Southwest, but you can’t really complete the picture until you start to fill in those geographies and understand what all these groups were doing.”
The more localized-area understanding there is, the greater the overall knowledge of the period, Greubel also said. “I think that’s the big contribution of this project.”
Florida Mesa likely has much more to yield than what the project excavated.
“There is still a lot to learn and many, many more sites up there. … A project like this won’t come along again for a long time,” Greubel said.
Other professional interest and the cooperation of landowners may come along. In the meantime, Greubel said what the CDOT project found “really makes me wonder what else was up there.”
He said he is looking forward to seeing the documentary: “All that hard work he (Ward) and we all put in, it’s finally going to be aired.”
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Hopi Tribe and the Pueblo of Laguna were official consulting tribes under the National Historic Preservation Act and were deeply involved during the planning and implementation processes for the archaeological dig, per CDOT. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe also participated in parts of the project.
“It’s just been fascinating working with the tribes that have been involved and seeing their elders visit the site,” said Schwantes. “I was fortunate enough to visit during a couple of ceremonial events that took place, with the archaeologists. It was very exciting to see the youth groups that they brought to take part in some different aspects of the excavation and for the tribes to provide insight to the archaeologists.”
Schwantes said one Hopi elder put it best: “It’s a new area of archaeology.”
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.