Reservoir projects yield thousands of ancient artifacts
February 15, 2018

By Ann Espinola

Amid sandstone bluffs and shrub-dotted valleys in Parker, Colorado, utility contractors unearthed troves of historical objects as they constructed a new reservoir for drinking water. 

Arrowheads and human remains, grinding stones and pit dwellings. A child’s toy. The finds tell the story of immigrant settlers and ancient Native Americans who inhabited the land as far back as 9,000 years.

While many utilities discover remnants of the past when they build reservoirs and dams, the discovery in Parker was truly extraordinary. And it is expected to become even more so as workers lay additional pipes, develop recreational trails, and expand the water treatment plant.

With that in mind, the Parker Water & Sanitation District commissioned a video to capture the history and value of the artifacts found during the reservoir project. They also did it to continue to emphasize to construction contractors the importance of prudence when they come across artifacts during excavation – even if it means delays in the project.

“We’ve never had a problem with our contractors, but I know it’s an industry concern,” said Ron Redd, the utility’s district manager. “I want to make sure they know that we are not afraid of finding artifacts. We know it will take time to handle these properly and will slow them down. But we tell them, ‘We will find other places for you to work.’”

The reservoir project

The discoveries began in the early 2000s, during the design phase of the Rueter-Hess Reservoir, which encompasses 1,100 acres and can hold 75,000 acre-feet of water. 

The massive project was a must-do. When the district formed in 1962, Parker’s population was less than 200 -- today, it’s more than 50,000. The reservoir also supplies water for several surrounding communities.

Before construction, the district was required to obtain a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because the project affected jurisdictional waters of the United States.

The Corps completed an Environmental Impact Statement under the National Environmental Policy Act. As part of the EIS, archaeologists surveyed the proposed project area and documented numerous archaeological sites, many of them dating to Northern Cheyenne tribes and their close allies, the Northern Arapaho.

Scattered chips, stones, and ceramics buried in three layers of soil chronicle the wanderings of humans who hunted large animals, drew water from the stream, and gathered plants. After construction began on the reservoir, contractors also found human remains as well as relics of a more recent time, including tools and lunch pails from an Old West gold mine.

But most of the artifacts were traced to the Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho. Under EIS requirements, when contractors come across Native American artifacts, construction stops.

“All the time construction is going on, there is a Native American representative on site,” said Bruce Lytle, Parker’s water resource consultant. “He looks at what is found and determines how he wants to handle it.”

The district spent $1.5 million on archaeological work and excavation prior to construction.  

“We’re happy to do it, we’re proud to do it,” said Rebecca Tejada, senior project manager for the district. “And even if it weren’t a requirement or law, I really think we would spend the time and the money to do it anyway just to understand the history that surrounds our water resource.”

Though the reservoir was completed in 2012, related work continues at the site. Just two months ago, during construction of the last 60 feet of a 4-mile pipe,  contractors found human remains.

“That is a big deal and usually it stops things forever,” Redd said. “But by then, there was a lot of trust between us and our Native American partners. Our workers went to another area to work. We had it all resolved in a matter of weeks.”

The finds

For five years prior to construction, archaeologists scoured the rugged landscape looking for possible archaeological sites. They mapped the area and logged information.

They discovered two intact ceremonial rings made of rocks and unearthed fire pits, knives, pottery, and even two ancient village sites dating back 4,000 to 6,000 years. They found two elk antlers that were ground down on one end and used for hide-scraping tools.

Of particular note was a ceramic dog head -- probably a child’s toy -- that was voted one of Colorado’s Top Ten Significant Artifacts in 2015. The Northern Cheyenne who were on site called it “Oeškeso" – for dog.

But perhaps the most significant finds were the burial sites of seven people at three different locations. Four side-by-side graves, believed to be Native American, were left undisturbed. The woman who sold the land to the district for the reservoir project – Rosie Rueter-Hess – led archaeologists to a frontiersman’s grave, which was still marked by a wooden cross. 

While archaeologists unearthed many of the artifacts prior to construction, project laborers made their own discoveries as they dug 8 to 10 feet below the surface. In an eroding cut bank, they uncovered the remains of a young woman and child, who was probably less than 5 years old at the time of death. Nearby, they found a shell pendant and bird-bone beads that were probably part of a necklace.

“The woman was buried with items that were important to her,” said Gordon Tucker, the project’s principle investigator, pictured in orange vest at the site.  “We presume the child was hers, but we don’t know for certain. We weren’t able to tell how they died, but the fact they were together suggests they died at the same time.”

The remains of the woman and child were eventually reburied at a confidential location about 40 miles from reservoir.  

As for the non-human artifacts, some were left where they were found, but many others fill hundreds of boxes packed in storage units about 15 miles from Parker. They are now being documented, curated and stored by county workers.

Some of the artifacts are featured on the county’s website while others are on display at the Parker Water purification facility, but mostly out of the public’s consciousness. 

“We spent all that time and money on this work, but hardly anyone knows what we found,” Redd said. “I thought how nice it would be to develop a good quality video that we could show at council meetings and schools, so that we could showcase all that we found at Rueter-Hess.”

Another reason for the video was to tell the story of the Native Americans who once lived under the reservoir that now provides drinking water to about 52,000 people. 

Video work

The district’s video is entitled “Parker Water: Digging Deeper, Building Our Future While Preserving Our Past.”

It opens with scenes of plains-roaming buffalo, then cuts to cars on freeways, bridging the span from ancient settlers to modern society. It segues to shots from the reservoir’s rippling, blue water with an overlay quote from Native American author and activist, Vine Deloria Jr.:

“A society that cannot remember and honor its past is in peril of losing its soul.”

Last year, the district hired local broadcast journalist Shellene Cockrell to produce a documentary about the utility’s reservoir project and its cultural revelations. 

“My board and I feel that it’s important to capture this information, this history, that we discovered building the reservoir,” Redd says on the video. “It’s important not only for today’s residents, but for future residents and even our Native American partners to be able to come to a place and see where their history started.”

Cockrell and a videographer travelled to the Northern Arapaho reservation in Wyoming and the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana. Cockrell interviewed tribal leaders, cultural specialists, and storytellers. 

Mark SoldierWolf, a Northern Arapaho elder and storyteller, is featured in the video.

“We’re known as the Mother Tribe from other branches of our people,” SoldierWolf explains. “We lived a life of nomadic forces. Always moving. They were a nomadic warrior. People feared them because there were so many of them. They were all over the middle part of the United States.”

Flute music runs throughout the video as well as a steady, soft drumbeat. Some clips show Native Americans dancing and wearing tribal headdress.

During Cockrell’s research, tribal leaders said they appreciated the publicity surrounding the finds and tribal history. 

“In interviewing one of their elders, the thing that kept their history sacred is that it is very private and held in confidence, only passed mouth to mouth," Cockrell said. "They have no concrete record or history of things in their tribe.

“He said he wanted me to write it down because their history is being lost to the younger generation."

As related work continues at the reservoir site, Redd said he will show the video to new contractors to reinforce the district’s ongoing commitment to preserving the area’s ancient history. 

Last October, after finishing the video, Redd arranged for two members each from the Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho tribes to travel to Parker to view the video before posting it publicly.

“What I didn’t expect was how this would cement the relationship between us,” Redd said. “They had misty eyes after they watched. 

“They said they never had anyone call them partners. There is a trust and that has made the project so much easier.”

Do you have a comment or story idea for Connections? Please contact Ann Espinola at or at 303-734-3454.