For most people, archaeology conjures images of a Harrison Ford type swashbuckling through Egyptian pyramids. Anna Cordova thought so, too — until her first semester at UCCS, when she signed up for two introductory anthropology courses.
“The next semester I was taking junior-level archaeology classes — I was just that into it,” said Cordova, 36. “I did my first dig that summer and it kind of took off from there.”
That dig was at Jimmy Camp Creek Park off Constitution Avenue, a property Cordova now oversees as the lead archaeologist for the city of Colorado Springs. She is the first person to ever hold that position, created in June 2016 in the wake of historic flooding and wildfires in 2012 and 2013. The damage wrought by those disasters brought millions in federal dollars for projects such as the Camp Creek detention pond currently under construction in Garden of the Gods, and the city needed someone to oversee crews’ compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act.
“I always tell people I’ve been doing archaeology since I was about 19,” Cordova said. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever done, so I’m kind of useless for anything else.”
A graduate of Ellicott Baptist School, Cordova has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a master’s degree in geography and environmental studies, both from UCCS. She lives in Colorado Springs with her husband and their five children.
Cordova sat down with the Colorado Springs Business Journal this week to discuss the past’s connection to the future, the importance of involving the Springs’ indigenous people in that connection, and digging through Gen. William Jackson Palmer’s trash.
You are Colorado Springs’ first-ever city archaeologist. What spurred the city’s decision to create that position?
I think the city, especially Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services, has more recently become focused on stewardship of our properties. I think that was a big part of it — we have these resources, how do we take care of them? How do we identify and protect them? I think that focus was a big part of it, but I do also think the fires and floods of 2012 and 2013 prompted the city to get a lot of federal funding to fund projects — for example, the Camp Creek detention pond that’s going in Garden of the Gods right now is FEMA funded. Any time you have any sort of federal nexus involved — whether it be money or property or whatever — you have to follow certain laws. Under the National Historic Preservation Law, not only do you have to do the environmental resource protection stuff, but you also have to do the cultural resources protection. Archaeology falls under the Section 106 part of that. We are required to make sure we go out and do archaeological surveys and tribal consultation and things like that.
What are your responsibilities as city archeologist?
I think my overarching goal is to find what kind of resources we have on our properties, and obviously that’s a big goal. … I also help the city to comply with the mitigation of those [federal] laws. There are also some state laws that protect archaeology that we have to abide by. Also, the city just ethically tries to protect those resources even when it’s not required by state or federal law.
Then I do a lot of public outreach to educate especially kids, but the general public, about what archaeology is, why it’s important, why we should protect it, what to do if you find [something significant]. I also help train fellow parks and rec employees and volunteer groups how to recognize archaeology so we’re not impacting it. If we come across it, they can let me know so we can not put the trail right through the site or things like that. And then tribal consultation is a big part of that.
Talk more about that part of your job.
When it’s required for any sort of Section 106 project that has that federal nexus, I help assist the federal agencies. They’re the ones that take the lead, but they often defer to me because we just have a great relationship with a lot of the tribes.
We also really push tribal consultation in places like Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak Summit — places that are known to be really special to not just the tribes, but to everybody, but also have that longstanding history. More often we’re not required to, but we do tribal consultation to make sure we’re not impacting any kind of past, present or ongoing traditional cultural properties and any kind of traditional activities that are taking place. We talk to them about that, and 100 percent of the time thus far, we’ve been able to accommodate whatever they have concerns with. It’s been a good experience. …
What’s the most exciting archaeology you have encountered?
One of the very first artifacts we found at Jimmy Camp as a 19-year-old student. We were told by our professor that we would get a six-pack for the first team that found an artifact in the ground that was diagnostic and could give us a date of the site. My partner and I found a piece of pottery that could give us an age range. We were both 19, so we got a six-pack of lemonade instead of beer — but still, the piece of pottery, when we were able to clean it off and look at it, had the fingerprints of person who made it inside. That piece of pottery was probably about 2,000 years old. That’s probably one of the coolest things I’ve found because it’s just so personal.
I think the most significant site is [Gen. Palmer’s trash site]. I didn’t discover that site… but I’m the one that connected it to Palmer, and that was exciting. At the north end of Garden of the Gods, right there along along 30th Street, our property boundary is there with Glen Eyrie, with The Navigators. … Palmer was dumping his trash there from when he lived there in 1871 up until his daughter sold the property in the mid-1910s. We knew there was a small trash scatter there, but it wasn’t until they were putting drop structures along Camp Creek and I was monitoring those that … I started noticing artifacts that I’d never seen before — fancy trash. … Since then, we’ve excavated almost 70,000 artifacts out of there, and they’re definitely Palmer’s, and they’re telling us a whole lot that we didn’t know about Palmer.
What about your job do people find most surprising?
What a lot of people are surprised by is that archaeology is anything 50 years or older. I know that surprises a lot of our park rangers when they’re cleaning up dumps from the ’60s. … That’s archaeological now, so we at least have to document it. … I think that people think of archaeology as Indiana Jones-type stuff, or finding gold or … expensive rocks, but I think the pull tabs from beer cans from the ’60s are archaeology too. That’s not the most exciting archaeology that I can encounter, but … even those are part of the record and they tell us a story of what was going on there … .
What do you want people to know about your career?
I always want to emphasize that archaeology is important. The past is important. Preserving it is something that benefits everybody and can serve to form connections with places. If you’re connected more to those places, you’ll take care of it better. Obviously my passion is not everybody’s passion — history and the past — but a lot of people like archaeology, and I think it can be used as a tool to help connect people to places and educate them about why we need to take care of these places now. Looking at the Native American past, they were often much better stewards of those things than we are, so that’s a big tool we can use to say, ‘Look, this is how we preserve things for future generations.’