Sunday, November 17, 2019


Just outside Durango, Colo., archeologist Rand Greubel stands on a mesa surrounded by juniper trees. He points to a circular hole in the ground, about 30 feet across and more than 8 feet deep. There's a fire pit in the center of an earthen floor, ventilation shafts tunneled into the side walls and bits of burned thatching that suggest how the structure once continued to rise above the ground. It's a large pit house from what's known as the Pueblo I period.

It is awe inspiring, standing inside this space that has held human history for so long. But its existence will be short-lived. This pit house is about to be filled in and covered up by a highway, as are six other important ancient sites on this mesa.

Dan Jepson, an archaeologist with the Colorado Department of Transportation, says all of these cultural resources were discovered as a result of the highway project itself. Under federal law, potential sites for things like road expansions must be surveyed and then sometimes excavated to see what important historical features might lie below the ground. And that's how these pit houses were found.
Over the last two decades, Jepson says, the department has explored scores of other possible routes for the road to avoid destroying cultural artifacts. But because southwest Colorado is so full of Native American history, every option would have hit potential archaeological sites.

His agency reached out to dozens of tribes in the region to offer them a chance to participate in the project and give feedback. The Southern Ute tribe agreed to consult with the agency. The new construction site will cross the outer boundaries of the tribe's reservation. But some Southern Ute citizens are still upset that the digs are happening at all, and they don't feel empowered to stop them.

Just down the road, crews are using pickaxes, shovels and brushes to finish excavating the last of the seven sites. Trucks barreling up the hill behind them are a reminder of the regular heavy road traffic that already passes through this area. Sam Maez, a member of the Southern Ute tribe, is here too. The Transportation Department invited him to talk with the archaeologists about their work and the highway project as a whole. The tribe isn't fighting the construction legally. But Maez isn't afraid to speak his mind.

You know, those are my family's bones in there. Sam Maez, Southern Ute tribe member "You know, after generations and generations of basically exterminating us and getting rid of everything that we believe in, and here we are picking the scabs of Mother Earth, you know, and wondering what, why and who these people were," Maez says. "Well, they're us." He alludes to the human remains that the archaeologists found while excavating several of the sites under the proposed highway path. "You know, those are my family's bones in there," Maez says. "We don't have a ceremony to dig them up and put them somewhere else." He says projects like this have forced tribes to adapt to that process and create new rituals to remove and rebury remains.


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