Archaeological dig to help uncover legacy of displaced Aurarians
MSU Denver students and faculty members will spend the semester unearthing artifacts beneath the Ninth Street Historic Park.
When Melissa Roybal was a student on the Auraria Campus, she came to school every day not knowing that the lot she parked in was the exact location of her ancestors’ home. Her family is part of a community of Aurarians who were displaced prior to construction of the campus in the 1970s.
Roybal, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Social Work from Metropolitan State University of Denver in 2007, returned to campus to take part in a ceremony marking the beginning of an excavation that will help uncover the culture of the people who once inhabited the grounds.
“It was really interesting being here as a student and walking the streets, knowing I was connected somehow but not fully understanding how,” Roybal said.
She hopes the project, led by a team of archaeologists and students at MSU Denver, the University of Colorado Denver and Community College of Denver, will help raise awareness about the history of the area, as well as the recently expanded Displaced Aurarian Scholarship. The scholarship covers the cost of tuition for those who resided in the area and their descendants.
“I wish I’d known about the scholarship sooner,” she said.
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About a dozen houses were preserved from the original neighborhood, becoming the Ninth Street Historic Park. The excavation there is the first step in an ongoing effort to memorialize the people who lived where the Auraria Campus now stands. Dozens of students will participate in the project, with the long-term goal of housing the artifacts in a museum that would help educate students about the history and legacy of those who were displaced.
“This place is more than just a campus to (the displaced Aurarians),” said Michael Kolb, professor of Anthropology and director of the Laboratory of Anthropology at MSU Denver. “It’s very important for them to maintain the legacy of being a close-knit community beginning in the 1800s and stretching into the 1960s.”
The project started a few years ago when Gene Wheaton, Anthropology instructor at CCD, and a private firm surveyed the campus using ground-penetrating radar. They found several structures below the grass between two houses in the Ninth Street Historic Park. Wheaton and Kolb speculate that two of the structures are trash pits, with the third, a flat surface, likely being the floor of a carriage house or possibly a latrine.
They can tell from old maps that a house occupied the area in the 1800s. They also suspect that below the flat structure they may find Native American habitual remnants. The site has been identified as a former Arapaho camp, said Mike Redman, who alongside his wife, Iva Moss-Redman, performed the opening blessing.
“The beauty of archaeology is that you just don’t know,” Kolb said. “You have to excavate and discover.”
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For student Mildred Saenz, a junior at MSU Denver majoring in Computer Engineering and minoring in Anthropology, this will be her first field study. She has been interested in Anthropology since she was a kid reading about ancient Egyptian tombs and looks forward to learning every step of the excavation process, from surveying to digging to examining the artifacts. She’s also excited to learn more about the culture since it’s well-known that the previous inhabitants were primarily Latino.
“My family emigrated from Mexico to El Paso, Texas, so it’s super-interesting for me to see what other (Latinos) were doing in other parts of the country,” she said. “I’d like to see what kind of lives they lived, what they did. Seeing what’s here is very important for the people who lived here before.”
Students and community members, including several people from the Auraria Historical Advocacy Council, lined up during the opening ceremony to receive a blessing prior to breaking ground. In his opening remarks, Redman encouraged the students to practice reverence. As a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, he holds the common Native American belief that objects have a spirit of their own and should be handled gently and with respect.
“Artifacts are animus,” he said. “They have a spirit like the grass and trees, so be respectful.”
The project has already had an impact on how Camryn Baucom, a junior studying Anthropology at MSU Denver, sees the campus.
“(This project) is really cool because I usually just come to campus and go to class,” she said. “I’m not really learning about the history or that there’s more here than just campus buildings. (But) the more I learn, the more I can spread the word around so we’re not so oblivious to what was here.”
Follow the progress of the Ninth Street Historic Park excavation on Instagram @alpaca_msu_denver.