Before crews with bulldozers and dynamite began carving McPhee Reservoir out of the landscape of the Dolores River Valley, teams of archaeologists started a much more delicate excavation project along the shores of the local river.
In 1978, the first of about 650 archaeologists and crew members arrived in Montezuma County to begin the Dolores Archaeological Program. The programs goal was to gather information and artifacts related to the people who lived along the Dolores River long before McPhee Reservoir was ever conceived.
The $10 million project, the largest federally funded archaeological project awarded under a single contract, lasted from 1978 through 1985 and produced one of the largest archaeological data sets ever. That data, and the artifacts discovered through the project, is housed at the Anasazi Heritage Center, a tangible legacy to the program that rescued the history of Montezuma County from the waters of McPhee Reservoir.
The Anasazi Heritage Center was built by the (U.S.) Bureau of Reclamation as a repository for the artifacts gathered during the DAP, said center Manager Marietta Eaton. The Heritage Center is here because of the DAP, and that in and of itself is full of ramifications for the area.
The Heritage Centers creation was a unique aspect of the Dolores Archaeological Program. Most archaeological programs see collected artifacts shipped to larger repositories, often far from the actual sites. The creation of a local repository allowed the local community to retain a sense of ownership of their history.
The fact that the Bureau of Reclamation saw the importance of a local repository is significant, said Tracy Murphy, assistant curator at the center. With the presence of the center, the artifacts and research are here for the people of this area.
More than 30,000 visitors a year take advantage of the opportunities to view the result of the Dolores Project, Murphy said.
The Dolores Program was overwhelming in its scope. Workers surveyed and recorded 1,626 archaeological sites on more than 16,000 acres. Program archaeologists fully excavated 125 sites, collecting more than 1.5 million artifacts, now stored locally.
We have 5,148 boxes of artifacts at the Heritage Center, said Tracy Murphy, assistant curator at the center. That doesnt include the pottery and larger artifacts stored on shelving. It is a huge research collection that will be available into perpetuity.
The fact we have that material here and researchers are able to study what was gathered during the project is a real contribution, said David Breternitz, senior investigator on the Dolores Archaeological Program. People have new techniques for studying things today, and they are still using the material that was gathered over 20 years ago.
Along with a substantial amount of data, the program resulted in significant findings that altered the direction and scope of Southwest archaeology, according to Mark Varien, an archaeologist with Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. Varien first came to Southwest Colorado as a crew member on the Dolores program.
Among the findings that contributed to an understanding of Pueblo culture was the first observance of communities, Varien said. The program was the first time that shift had been noticed in Southwest archaeology.
What we found during the program was that in the Dolores River Valley in the Pueblo 1 period, the settlement pattern changed from most people living in single family farmsteads to those joining together to form the first farm villages, he said. To this date there have been no larger Pueblo communities documented. One of the really critical things we learned was an important understanding of why people made this change in their social organizations to begin living in villages. The Dolores project did a fantastic job of studying that.
Researchers from around the world still rely on data and artifacts gathered during the program to form a better understanding of Pueblo culture, Murphy said. Researchers have also utilized soil columns taken from the digs and native plant samples to conduct research outside the field of archaeology.
The Heritage Center is actively working with the data sets from the Dolores Archaeological Program today. With help from a $100,000 grant from History Colorado State Historical Fund, the center is in the midst of a four-year project recataloguing the documents and artifacts and creating a website to aid in research and public information.
There is a respect for history that this data and these artifacts are important enough that we want to provide access, Murphy said.
Our history is culturally deep here in the West, said Michael Williams, an exhibit specialist at the center. We do have cultural roots, and what we have here at the center is a cultural treasure. It is very worthwhile to see these things preserved.
Sources: View from the Lake: Legacies of the Dolores Archaeological Program, SW Colorado, by William D. Lipe.
On the Net: Dolores Archaeological Program, http://www.blm.gov/co/st/en/fo/ahc/dolores_archaeological.html.
Reach Kimberly Benedict at [email protected]