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Mesa Verde National Park, one of many historical and archaeological sites in Colorado. —Courtesy of Shutterstock

Colorado’s Archaeology: More Than Dust And Bones

5280 sat down with Holly Norton, History Colorado's newest official state archaeologist, to learn more about her gig, a recent discovery, and why the Centennial State is a particularly rich archaeological home.

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On July 29th, the phone rang in the office of History Colorado’s state archaeologist: a construction crew in Fountain, Colorado had uncovered human remains. Before long, staff from the office was on the scene to evaluate and excavate the remains. After examining the bones, it was determined that the remains were ancient, anywhere from hundreds to thousands of years old, and of Native American heritage.

It’s no secret that Colorado has a rich archaeological record, but it’s not always clear what the job of an archaeologist requires. In many cases, it’s much more than dusting bones or uncovering dinosaurs. Sensitive discoveries like that of the remains in Fountain require more than just sharp archaeological knowledge: They require diplomacy, discretion, and in this case, close cooperation with the state’s Native American tribal councils. Here, we talk with Holly Norton, History Colorado’s newest state archaeologist, about the specific challenges of the job, its importance in Colorado, and popular misconceptions about archaeology.

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5280: Tell us about your work before coming to History Colorado.

Holly Norton: I received my BA in Anthropology from the University of South Carolina, and both my M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from Syracuse University. I have worked as an archaeologist for the South Carolina Department of Transportation, Virgin Islands National Park, History Colorado, and a handful of private consulting firms across the country, completing Section 106 [the National Historic Preservation Act] compliance requests. I have prehistoric and historical archaeology experience, as well as historical architecture experience in nearly a dozen states and the U.S. territories. My areas of specialty are African-American archaeology and political violence. I officially started [at History Colorado] on July 1, 2015. The selection process was very long and rightfully grueling. History Colorado takes the position of state archaeologist very seriously.

When did you realize you wanted to be an archaeologist?

I have always wanted to be an archaeologist. My great-grandfather was a history and social studies teacher, so history has always been an important part of our family and identity. As a kid I was fascinated with ancient Egypt and other classical civilizations, and spent my time devouring books about them when I wasn’t running around the woods pretending to discover mythical “lost civilizations.” As a university student my ideas about the past became more sophisticated, and I became equally fascinated by the actual civilizations here in the U.S.—stories about the people who built our country, but whose names we rarely find on monuments or in documents.

What are people’s reactions like when you tell them about your position?

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Most people are very supportive, and pleasantly surprised to find out Colorado even has a state archaeologist. I hope that during my time in this position I can help all Coloradans understand the importance of archaeology and historic preservation to all our communities.

What does a typical day look like for the state archaeologist in Colorado? What takes up most of your time?

I think most people would be surprised to find out that I don’t spend most of my time in the field or the lab. The work of the state archaeologist is largely administrative—I’m responsible for helping to manage all our archaeological sites on state land, as well as providing guidance and expertise to folks all over the state who may find themselves in need of archaeological assistance. Much of my time is also taken up with public outreach, and I love how much time I get to spend with citizens of all ages talking about our rich archaeological heritage.

Are there any big misconceptions about what you do?

So many! First and foremost, I don’t think most people really understand what archaeology is, and so the misconceptions just grow from there. Most people think archaeologists are looking for cool stuff, and in all honesty, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Archaeology is one way of understanding people in the past. It’s another data set in this project we call history, which is a way of asking questions about and interpreting the past, but is constantly changing. Instead of looking for cool stuff, archaeologists mostly dig up garbage to try to understand what people’s experiences were. We’re like historical paparazzi.

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All considered, what’s your favorite part of the gig so far?

My favorite part is when I get to get out of the office and travel! We have such an enormously diverse state, and I love getting to visit all the small towns, big cities, parks and open spaces, and meeting with all the amazing people who access our historic resources in different ways.

What’s one of the most complex or challenging parts of your work?

That same enormity and diversity that I love about Colorado also poses significant challenges. Colorado is home to a lot of different people who have different visions and desires for the state, and balancing those different needs while staying focused on the preservation of our resources can be quite complex.

History Colorado often works together with Native American tribes when it comes to the discovery and preservation of cultural artifacts, remains, and other tribal items—like the recent discovery in Fountain. Can you explain some why this cooperation is important, and what it looks like in terms of logistics?

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History Colorado frequently cooperates with Native American Tribes on a number of issues. Because archaeologists are focused on the past, Native American groups, as well as other descent groups, are important expert voices in how we investigate and interpret the past. This cooperation is important for many reasons. First, Native American groups hold expert knowledge that provides insights into the past. Secondly, History Colorado works with many groups of people whose ancestors called Colorado home. It is important to respect that history and continuity.

Of the artifacts (biological and cultural) that come through your office, is there one item or type of item that is most frequently discovered?

There is no single type of artifact that is more frequently discovered than others. Every single archaeological site is unique, and taken together these unique sites covers over 10,000 years of human history in Colorado. Every circumstance under which an artifact is found is also unique, and really only can tell its story in context.

If a person finds something in their yard that they think might be of archaeological interest, can they—and should they—bring it to your office?

When an artifact is encountered anywhere, it should be left where it is found. As I stated earlier, archaeologists don’t really care about stuff. We care about the information that stuff can give us. Usually that information is not bound up in the artifact itself, but is instead to be found in the context of the artifact- where it was found, what it was found in relation to, those sorts of facts. An arrowhead picked up out of a field is just a pointy piece of rock, but a projectile point left in place (what we call in situ) can tell us about trade networks, subsistence systems, manufacturing details, all sorts of things.

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Is there anything that makes Colorado a particularly rich place to work as an archaeologist?

Colorado is a particularly rich place to work as an archaeologist because of the very many different types of people who have lived and worked here over the millennia. Colorado has a very dynamic history, partly due to its geography, that allows for many amazing questions to be asked and sites to be investigated.

(Colorado by Nature: How Garden of the Gods Was Formed)

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