Douglas County plans excavation of ancient rock shelter

Staff applied for grant to fund project at Native American site


Douglas County’s Department of Community Development is hoping to learn more about Native Americans who lived in the area about 700 years ago after a rock shelter they likely used was discovered in the county.

The shelter was found by the county about five years ago during a site survey of a piece of land acquired by the county commissioners. Then in 2020, during a test excavation of a 50 centimeter by 50 centimeter square, enough artifacts were discovered to call for a deeper exploration.

“They were finding enough intact cultural materials that it’s very significant,” said Brittany Cassell, the county’s curator.

The shelter is similar to others known to have been used by Native Americans. Archaeologists like Cassell are still working to understand how Native Americans used them.

“Doing a full excavation and having more artifacts will help us understand a lot more,” Cassell said. “Not just about this rock shelter, but others as well.”

The county hasn’t disclosed the shelter’s location because of a state regulation that states that — unless permission is given — a prehistoric site’s whereabouts cannot be released.

“There are a lot of people who will seek out these, especially rock shelters, to exploit them,” Cassell said.

If people were to visit the site, they could intentionally or unintentionally cause damage to the artifacts or alter the context necessary to understand the items, she said.

“Once you go in and disturb the soil or take those artifacts you might just think you’re taking a simple rock but to the trained eye, it’s a tool or has more significance,” Cassell said. “Once you take that away, it doesn’t have a context anymore and you don’t have that piece to tell you how they lived in that rock shelter.”

Specific information the research team hopes to learn includes what time of year the shelter was used, what animals were hunted and processed, what plants and materials were used, and any periods that the shelter was abandoned. 

Early research of the site shows artifacts that are about 700 to 900 years old, Cassell said. Many tribes are affiliated with the area including Southern Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, Northern Cheyenne, Sioux, Comanche, Pawnee, Jicarilla Apache, Southern Arapaho, Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho.

Other rock shelters that have been discovered in the area include Blackfoot Cave in Cherry Valley, Cherokee Ranch rock shelter and Franktown Cave.

Cassell is the first full-time curator for Douglas County and began in the position in 2018.

During a July 27 meeting, commissioners approved a request from Cassell’s team to apply for a State Historical Fund grant to fund the majority of the $118,000 rock shelter project. The county will pay about $30,000 or 25% of that cost.

“The significance of these deposits coupled with encroaching residential development spurred staff to pursue a State Historical Fund grant to assist with the recovery of the most vulnerable deposits before they are impacted by members of the public,” Cassell said in the meeting.

The site could eventually be a county historical landmark, she said. The commissioners unanimously approved the proposal and Commissioner George Teal spoke of his excitement for the project.

“To be able to do this excavation, find these items ... but preserve them for all of us, not just the one or two kids that might find the shelter walking out of their backyard someday, I think is really valuable,” Teal said.

The county will learn in early December whether it is awarded the grant and, if approved, will begin a mapping and planning phase for the excavation in the spring of 2022. Later that summer, the physical excavation would begin. The county hopes to work with tribal groups throughout the project.

There will likely be another grant application in the future to test whatever materials are discovered in the shelter.

“We’re hoping to make this a really good education opportunity,” Cassell said.


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