Story and photos by John B. Branney, Associate Editor
I was researching new artifact hunting sites in the Denver Public Library in the summer of 1986 when I came across an obscure master’s thesis investigating approximately 40 small archaeological sites in northeastern Colorado.
FIGURE 1. Looking up the valley from the dry streambed toward the bluffs and natural spring. The natural spring is located at the base of the high bluff on the right side of the picture. Note the eroded prairie surrounding the streambed.
FIGURE 2. 1.4″ corner notched Pelican Lake dart point made from semi-translucent Hartville Uplift chert and found August 11, 1987.
During the autumn of 1986, I explored most of these sites but had very little success. Local collectors had known about these sites for several decades and finding an artifact was more difficult than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. I was just about ready to give up on the thesis when I read about a small site where the author had found a couple of late prehistoric projectile points and a few potsherds. The author had dedicated less than a page in his 674-page thesis, but I decided to check it out anyway. I pored over my topographical maps of the area, and after investigating two false leads, I placed another dot on the map where I thought the site could be.
Five days before Christmas, I drove to that dot on the map and arrived at a large bowl-shaped valley with a ranch house situated in the bottom of the valley. At the ranch house, a massive St. Bernard and a yappy Australian cattle dog met me at my car. After negotiating with the dogs for safe passage to the ranch house door, I visited with the landowner and received permission to hunt. I set my sights on a bone dry, sandy streambed that wound up the valley to a series of sandstone bluffs and a natural spring.
FIGURE 3. 2.1″ Plainview dart point/knife form made from red quartzite and found June 1, 1999.
After walking a couple of hundred yards in the soft, white sand of the streambed, a loud noise startled me. I quickly turned around just in time to see the St. Bernard barreling towards me at full steam. Fortunately, the dog was glad to see me and proved it by pouncing on the front of me and licking my face, nearly knocking me over. When the dog was through greeting me, the front of my coveralls and chin were dripping with slimy dog drool.
The dog and I finally began our journey together up the sandy streambed—me in search of prehistoric artifacts, and the dog in search of fresh smells and bunny rabbits. To our left, a tan-colored sandstone bluff towered above us while to our right we had rolling prairie, sliced through by the occasional gully and gulch. In front of us loomed another large sandstone bluff. This one had a natural spring nestled against its base.
FIGURE 4. Photo from on top of a bluff looking across the valley toward two rock shelters on the opposing bluff. The natural spring is in the center of the photograph, near the telephone pole. The Plainview from Figure 3 was found in the sand-filled draw in the lower portion of the photo.
The valley had all of the essential ingredients for prehistoric man to prosper: surface water, game, shelter from the elements, rock and stone, and a commanding view of the valley for several miles in three directions. As the dog and I approached the natural spring, I was busily picking up colorful chipping debris by the handful. My mind raced with the possibility of finding artifacts.
FIGURE 5. 3.3″ Harahey knife made from lavender and white Flat Top chert and found on August 6, 1996 in the dry streambed.
The dog and I reached the spring and it was easy to determine that the streambed had not always been bone dry. The crystal-clear spring water poured from a three-inch pipe into a buried cement cistern that then fed a pipeline that supplied water down in the valley to the ranch house, several horse tanks, and a small reservoir. The dog and I ate lunch at the spring and shared a sandwich, breakfast bar, and some cookies. The dog was not very impressed with my apple, so I actually ate it unmolested.
That afternoon, the dog and I hunted the surrounding ridges and hills and I found pocketfuls of chips and artifacts. When the winter sun settled above the western horizon and the temperature began to drop, the dog and I began our trek back to the car and ranch house. When we neared the ranch house, the dog sensed it was dinner time and raced to the ranch house, never looking back. I loaded my gear into the car and drove out of the valley with a smile on my face and contentment in my heart. It was the end of a glorious day, and I was temporarily at peace with the world.
FIGURE 6. 3.4″ Angostura knife with oblique collateral flaking and made from semi-translucent Flat Top chert. It was found August 30, 2006 eroding from the prairie along the dry streambed.
That first day I found fifteen broken artifacts and a complete late prehistoric Samantha dart point made from petrified wood. One of the broken artifacts was the base of an Early Archaic knife that gave me encouragement to revisit the valley in the not-so-distant future.
Since that first hunt in 1986, I have hunted the valley site 29 times and documented over 240 artifact finds. The wide range of diagnostic projectile point and knife blade types put prehistoric occupation from at least 9000 B.C. to later than 1500 A.D.
In addition to the diagnostic projectile points and knife blades, I have found fire hearths, potsherds (Upper Republican and Woodland), metates, manos, a pestle (rare High Plains find), leaf-shaped knife blades, hammerstones, end scrapers, spurred end scrapers, side scrapers, thumb scrapers, a tang knife, drills, gravers, beads, unidentifiable worked flakes, and many burned animal bones.
I have also found fossilized mammal bones from the Pleistocene and prior. Most of these bones predated human occupation in the valley, but they are still interesting to find.
Since 1986, I have clearly defined the boundaries of the prehistoric sites. There are at least six distinct campsites spread across at least 160 acres, including at least three natural rock shelters.
I have found and investigated many rock shelters on the High Plains and most face the south. However, two of the rock shelters at this site face north, away from the warm rays of the southern winter sun and directly in the line of fire of the cold Arctic winds. I have visited these north-facing rock shelters in the middle of winter and they were cold, damp and dark—not exactly an ideal home in the winter. My conclusion is that prehistoric man used these shelters in the warmer months of the year, when shade was a welcome relief from the hot summer heat.
Since 1986, my artifact finds from the valley have decreased substantially, and recently I have been “skunked” more than once, finding only a few pieces of chipping debris during a day’s hunt. Even with the declining artifact production, I have spent my best days of artifact hunting in the valley, and it is one of my favorite places on Planet Earth. My memories of the valley are there forever.
On the brisk and foggy morning of August 30, 2007, I returned to the valley and began my hunt by walking up the same dry streambed where it all began 21 years earlier. The early morning fog shielded the valley floor from sunlight. My eyes strained in the limited light to see artifacts lying in the sand of the streambed and surrounding prairie. Downstream 100 yards from the natural spring, I walked past a three-foot high soil outcrop and my peripheral vision caught the faint glimpse of a needle-thin sliver of chert, buried vertically in the soil. With my fingertips, I gently tugged on the chert, moving it carefully back and forth to free it from its tomb. Once the chert was in my hand, I carefully rubbed it with my moistened thumb and forefinger to rid it of accumulated years of caked on dirt. As the dirt disappeared, an artifact appeared. It was not just any artifact. In my hand was a Folsom point made from a semi-translucent Flat Top chert. I lost my breath as my heart pounded and adrenalin surged through my veins. My goal for every artifact trip is to find a Folsom point, but it had been several years since I had even found a broken one. Now, I had a nearly complete one in my hand. The valley had once again rewarded me for my patience!
FIGURE 8. Three foot high soil outcrop along the current landowners of the valley have always the dry streambed. welcomed me warmly and are always interested in learning more about the prehistoric past of their valley. I appreciate their letting an old dirt dog hunt their valley. Thanks to Jeb Taylor for his advice and expertise on typing the artifacts in the figures.