PARKER — Amid the weedy expanse that soon will become this growing town’s reservoir, Erik Gantt and his archaeological crew are fighting a battle against time.
The group from Fort Collins-based Centennial Archaeology Inc. was invited to Douglas County nearly a year ago to investigate findings that ancient people lived at the creek site southwest of Parker for thousands of years, building homes, creating artistic objects and hunting food.
But budget overruns due to time- consuming discoveries on the Rueter-Hess Reservoir land have prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to ask that archaeologists abandon the 6,500-year-old site early next month.
Bulldozers would shovel dirt over sites that have already yielded some of Colorado’s oldest pottery and what may be a one-of-a-kind kiln.
“The people in (Parker) were pretty excited for the first eight months or so, but attitudes have changed drastically since then,” said Gantt, whose federally mandated search over the 640-acre piece of land has yielded four 4,000-year-old houses, several weapons and hearths used to cook food. “In my opinion, this has all been reasonable work, but that’s now up for debate.”
The attitude shift, town officials said, came in part because the Parker Water & Sanitation District initially budgeted $100,000 for what it thought would be short-term archaeological research. The district pays all costs for the reservoir, including the research mandated by federal law.
But costs soared to $800,000 this summer as scientists continued to find artifacts, and the final price tag could exceed $1 million once 40,000 items are fully analyzed.
Because only 1 percent to 2 percent of the site was excavated, meaning more money would be needed, town officials argued that a cap should be put on the work.
“The question is, ‘How much is enough?’” said Frank Jaeger, the district’s manager, who is credited with helping develop the $100 million reservoir and dam plan that will supply water to more than 33,000 homes when it opens in 2010. A bond issue to pay for the project was approved last year.
“The site is very interesting, and we’re glad the work was done, but I have to think about my constituents,” he said. “The people (who voted) want the reservoir, and it’s their money.”
But if the archaeologists pack up next month and rebury dig areas, the decision could add to a continuing nationwide debate over whether public needs should trump preservation of prehistoric finds.
From Pennsylvania to Georgia to Arizona, scientists, developers and governments have argued over roadways, casinos and homesites, all of which have threatened thousands of years of untouched history.
In Parker’s case, the work fell under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which mandates that projects receiving federal help must go through a rigorous land examination that includes a search for historic artifacts. Private archaeological firms like Centennial often are hired to do that work.
Further research might be needed later on the reservoir site as the water district petitions the Corps of Engineers — likely within two years — to expand the reservoir from 16,000 acre-feet to 70,000 acre-feet to accommodate growing water-storage interest from Castle Rock and other neighboring areas.
Alan Stanfill, a senior program analyst with the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation who oversees Western states, said the corps and Gantt’s team in Douglas County would soon discuss how to proceed with the dig and subsequent analysis work.
“I hope something can be worked out,” Stanfill said. “You like to think that both sides could walk away with what they need because these are important, significant discoveries.
“This isn’t anybody’s fault, and it’s not anybody’s mistake,” he said.
Corps officials said recently they are awaiting a revised budget from Centennial Archaeology that could include eliminating some analyses or bidding some out.
“There are complex deposits all along (Rueter-Hess) that you simply couldn’t have planned for,” said Larry Todd, an anthropology professor at Colorado State University. “If your only concern is economics, then it’s impossible to argue against.
“But everyone involved here has to know that you’re dealing with an irreplaceable, nonrenewable piece of history.”
The site was home to prehistoric people that lived there 6,500 years ago to about 1,800 years ago. The oldest artifacts predate Egypt’s pyramids by more than 3,000 years and Plato’s teachings in Greece by more than 6,000 years.
Archaeologists began by cutting into the creek bank and examining changes in soil color and texture. Soon, flakes of rock were found, indicating that people were creating tools. And nearly half a mile away, pieces of 1,800-year-old pottery were found, along with darts, arrows and a 2,000-year-old, 5-inch knife with a still-sharp blade.
Further digging partially exposed fire pits, food storage areas and outlines of homes. A clay, doglike figure about the size of a pinky finger was found in a possible kiln, which could be the first High Plains kiln found in North America.
“These were semi-sedentary people, but they did more than hunt and eat,” Gantt said. “They were here, talking by the fire, creating language and making art.”
Near the riverbank recently, as earthmovers crawled along the edge of the planned reservoir a few hundred yards away, four archaeologists crouched over the outline of a home. The men plunged metal pipes into the soft earth, pulling up blackened soil.
Erik Ferland pointed out a likely food-storage bin to a colleague. He then scratched out an outline with his index finger and scraped the dirt into a dust pan.
“This is amazing stuff,” Ferland said later. “I hope people understand that.”