by Laurie Laker ’12
Lifting the Lid: Discovery and Investigation
In the fall of 2017, two U.S. Forest Service employees on a survey hike discovered two partially buried boxes at the foot of a cliff face in the San Luis Valley’s Rio Grande National Forest. For the past several months, a current CC student, a CC professor, and a CC alumna have been working to slowly piece together a very human, local, and personal narrative about those boxes.
The contents of the boxes date roughly from 1890-1918, and include everything from clothes to clipped recipes from magazines, stuffed into old tins. There are children’s books, copies of Good Housekeeping, cutlery, and a tortoiseshell-patterned silicone comb. These are the things of a life, of a home and a family, completely without record or identifying features beyond several common names across the paperwork that was discovered with the items.
“Once the boxes had been recovered, we immediately thought of Ella and Scott,” says Angie Krall ’92, an anthropology major at CC and now the heritage program manager and tribal liaison for the Rio Grande National Forest.
“Scott, Ella, and I had worked together during Block 2 the previous school year, so they were the first people we thought to get in touch with to do the research,” adds Krall.
The Block 2 class headed by Anthropology Professor Scott Ingram was Field Archaeology, which worked with the Forest Service to survey a previously unexamined portion of the Rio Grande National Forest along the congressionally designated Old Spanish National Historic Trail.
Leaving the Unknown Alone: An Archeologist’s Obligation
That relationship, cultivated through experiential learning and fieldwork, brought Ella Axelrod ’19 and Ingram back to the San Luis Valley, to help research and discover more about the boxes, and the life and times of those who buried them.
“I’ve always been really interested in history, people, what we’ve done in the past and how it affects us now,” says Axelrod. *
Krall explains, of the boxes and their unearthing, “Our policy is to leave something that’s found where it is. We don’t collect artifacts, we document them and leave them be. Sadly, this find was at the base of two climbing routes, and it looked like it’d already been disturbed and could incur further damage if left in the ground. Once we excavated the boxes, we immediately contacted Ella and Scott at CC.”
“As archeologists, we always have a preference to leave items and artifacts,” Ingram concurs. “We only recover them when there’s a risk to the resource in question, but otherwise there’s incredibly sensitive cultural and social complications to recovering anything without very good cause.”
“We’re not simply digging up and archiving items at CC,” explains Ingram. “For one thing, we don’t have the space, but more broadly there’s a huge misconception about archeology that it’s dig-obsessed, digging for the sake of it, that it’s possessive. That’s not our zeitgeist here at CC, nor is it of Southwestern or North American archeology as a whole.”
“Nobody owns these,” he adds. “Ella is conducting their research in conjunction with the Rio Grande National Forest and the Rio Grande County Museum in the San Luis Valley to have them archive and display these pieces once the research is done. These belong to the people of that region, not to any one organization or person.”
“The artifacts are the story here,” says Ingram, “and Ella’s working now to find out more.”
Explains Axelrod, “I was here for four or five weeks over the summer doing research, but I first got my hands on the boxes in December and January, and have been working away since then.”
“With my class work during the Spring Semester, I was either in class, sleeping, or in the lab! This summer, I was able to dive more deeply into the contents of the boxes, documenting artifacts, consulting local and national history for concurrent events at the time, as well as looking into the names we have from the recovered papers, trying to tie these items to people and families still living in the area.”
The ultimate answer may be that we won’t ever know who buried these items or why, whether they were hoping to recover them or not, or what led them to the remote site in the forest to begin with.
“As archeologists, we’re very comfortable with ambiguity,” explains Axelrod. “The balance lies in finding out as much as you can, while knowing you won’t ever know the exact point or purpose of something like this — you’re building a case to support a well thought out theory, rather than to prove a specific hypothesis.”
A Lifelong Passion Turned Professional Path
One thing that isn’t ambiguous, however, is Axelrod’s future.
“They know where they’re going,” says Ingram. “This is Ella’s career, without question.”
“I knew I wanted to study anthropology from the outset at CC, but it was an 8th grade field trip that really first exposed me to what anthropology was, why it mattered, and sparked my interest,” Axelrod says.
Arriving at CC, they landed in the anthropology First-Year Experience class, Language and Culture: Native Peoples of the Southwest: Language, Art and Thought-Worlds with Professor Christina Leza. The class included a five-day field experience through Colorado and New Mexico, exploring the interconnectedness of language and culture among the Native peoples of the Southwest. They visited museums created and run solely by Native peoples, focusing on artistic expression and representation. This class, then, was Axelrod’s launching pad for what would become their focus at CC and beyond.
“I’ve been really lucky here,” they say, “I’ve managed to get into the field every single year as well as during the summers. I’m not just sitting in a class, but doing the work, so that makes it all the more exciting.”
Axelrod managed to talk their way into Professor Ruth Van Dyke’s archaeology class right after finishing their FYE, a 300-level class that took place in Castroville, Texas, north of San Antonio. The class sought to find signs of the early Alsacean settlements, built by Henri Castro and the French people he brought to the area in the mid 1840’s – Axelrod’s second field work class in their first two classes at CC.
“I was worried I wouldn’t match up, but luckily I did,” adds Axelrod.
The summer after their first year, Axelrod took a class in their home state of Hawaii, at the University of Hawaii West Oahu, helping a team uncover a WWII prisoner of war and citizen internment camp. Additional fieldwork experiences in Buysscheure, France, on a forensic project with the University of Wisconsin-Madison followed their time in Hawaii, and the France project has been ongoing ever since. Axelrod returned in the summers of 2016, 2017, and 2018 to continue the vital, emotional work.
“It’s an incredibly emotional experience, which is why forensic-focused anthropology appeals to me so much right now — this work feels like we’re healing a wound that’s been there for a generation or more,” they explain.
The work in France is sensitive, largely personal and private, involving the recovery and identification of U.S. military personnel from WWII, whose remains haven’t yet been accounted for.
“We use everything from DNA to serial numbers on aircraft guns to help identify the people involved,” Axelrod says. “It’s really hard work, but when you get moments like we had – being able to bring someone’s son to the site to see where his father laid – it’s so worth it.”
“I’ve known this is what I’ve wanted to do for a very long time,” Axelrod says. “I’m looking at applying for Ph.D. programs this fall, and continuing the work.”
* Axelrod uses the gender pronouns they/them/theirs.