Archeologist eagerly catalogs history one artifact at a time
Even the cuckoo clock is an artifact, provenance unknown, originally owned by his aunt who died a while ago.
Its short pendulum ticks a light, metronome cadence and Brahms drifts gently from Colorado Public Radio playing in the corner. Fluorescent lights overhead buzz softly.
Phil Born is seated at a big, square table, in front of a black Royal typewriter of indeterminate age — it is definitely old, given to him by his father in 1964 after years of use — typing a label that will identify a box of soil samples: where they were found, when they were found, who found them.
It’s a precise process: receive the artifacts, compare what’s there, item by item, against the inventory sheet, label them, catalog them, place them on the rows of tall metal shelves that line the climate-controlled repository at the Museum of Western Colorado.
Item by item, box by acid-free white box, the shelves fill with eons of history. Sometimes it’s a bundle of soil wrapped in aluminum foil. Sometimes it’s rough biface tools showing evidence of each chip and blow that created them. Sometimes it’s a tiny potsherd, barely recognizable as having been formed by human hands in millennia past.
Born, 72, notes them all. Hour by hour, on the second floor of the museum, with the clock ticking and the music playing and the typewriter clacking, he catalogs 1,000, 2,000, even more years of history. With his archaeologist’s eyes, he can see the hands that created them, the feet that trod them, and he can explain that yes, even a bag of dirt is important.
As part of an agreement between the Museum of Western Colorado and the Bureau of Land Management, Born catalogs and the museum stores artifacts found on BLM land in the northwest region of Colorado.
Before any work can be done on federal land, any work that would disturb the surface, archaeological surveys must be performed, explained Zebulon Miracle, curator of anthropology and collections manager for the museum.
If artifacts are found, they are identified, photographed, itemized and packaged to send to the museum. There, Born receives them and ensures that they are preserved correctly and made available for researchers and other museums.
“I find Phil’s job, Phil’s responsibility of being the caretaker of the BLM collection that we are responsible for, extremely exciting,” said Peter Booth, executive director of the museum. “It is an example of a private entity — the museum — cooperating with a governmental entity — the Bureau of Land Management — in taking care of and ensuring the preservation of cultural artifacts that relate to our collective heritage that’s coming off of public land.
“It directly fits the mission of the Museum of Western Colorado because it speaks to the cultural heritage of this area, so I am glad that the museum is part of that and it is helping to make that heritage available to our members and to the research community and to the visiting public for the ongoing education of the community about where we came from.”
That sense of place is one Born has always felt keenly. A western Colorado native, Born’s father was a longtime public schoolteacher, so education and curiosity were prized in his home. After graduating Grand Junction High School in 1959, Born went on to Mesa Junior College.
Previous to college, he’d had a vague, passing interest in history, so his mother talked him into taking two history classes from Don Mackendrick. In them, because of Mackendrick’s passion for it, the past unfurled in vivid colors and intoxicating stories, and in relevance for the present and future. Born was smitten.
After a stint in the U.S. Army, he went on to Adams State College, his father’s alma mater, and followed the pied piper call of archaeology. It was irresistible: tactile, tangible history, and mysteries to solve, often found miles from the nearest road on land walked by Freemont and Ute and Archaic peoples.
“I loved getting out in the field,” Born said, adding that there’s a particular thrill in discovering that what looks, to the untrained eye, like burned earth could turn out to be the remnants of a fire pit used centuries past, in the footprint of the home in which it once burned.
After leaving Alamosa, Born worked for the Missouri State Parks Board as an archaeologist, working on projects that ranged from Mississippian and Woodland sites, to the old town of Arrowrock, a jumping-off point for the Santa Fe Trail. During that time, he earned his master’s degree in archaeology at the University of Missouri and afterward returned to the Grand Valley.
And that’s where he met a delightful high school art teacher named Fran. They married Dec. 22, 1973, and raised a son together. So, western Colorado, where his roots ran deep, became his permanent home. Through his career, Born worked as an archaeologist for several private archaeological firms in the area and as a substitute teacher.
Summers were spent, usually a week at a time, at sites often in Rio Blanco County, starting as soon as the snow melted and enjoying, every season, the thrill of discovery.
“I believe I helped excavate over 100 burials,” Born said. “I worked on what we think was a Freemont winter brush house, which is like a wickiup. And we found hearths where you could see where the fire charred the earth, we found post holes so you could identify the outlines of a housing structure.”
He concedes that to an untrained eye, to a hiker just meandering along, perhaps, it might look like nothing at all — like a dark spot of soil or like a hole in the ground.
But if you know what you’re seeing, then it’s a small step to envision the people crouched near that hearth fire, or the families who slept in that abode, or the hands that once gripped a mano as they ground maize on a metate.
And so it is in the repository at the Museum of Western Colorado. Born began working for the BLM there in August 2006 with a collection on which the identifying tags date back to the late 1960s. Some of the artifacts are from projects on which he worked.
He receives the artifacts from archaeological firms that unearthed them and is consistently intrigued by what he sees. Even when it’s a bag full of rock chips.
“Phil takes a lot of pride in his work,” Miracle said. “He still has that excitement. My office is right next to the repository where Phil works and sometimes he’ll run in and say look at this, look at what just came in. That enthusiasm is inspiring.”
As he types an inventory sheet or label, the shelves of boxed artifacts surround him. To his left, an open flat box labeled “1989.124.1284/5-GF-98” and in it on a layer of thin foam on which rests a large, russet-colored metate. At quick glance it looks like a patio flagstone, but as Born explains, on it could linger microscopic remnants of the food once ground there.
With the patience of a longtime teacher, he explains: Analyzing those remnants could lead to further understanding of what ancient peoples ate. And that could lead to understanding the plants they gathered or grew, which leads to understanding of early agriculture and climate. With enough data, that metate could be part of understanding the continuum of climate, for example, in this region.
Or this: He pulls a narrow box off an eye-level shelf and gently removes a plastic bag containing a rough, dark-brown knot.
Further inspection reveals it’s made of braided rope — “Yucca fibers?” he hypothesizes — and follows with another small plastic bag containing an even more delicate, 3-inch remnant of braided rope.
A discussion ensues on the hands that could have formed it, and how it might have been used.
Then, gently, he folds the knot and the tiny, fragile rope fragment back into the layers of acid-free white tissue paper from which he drew them, lays them back into their flat, labeled box and slides it back into the bigger box and back onto the shelf.
“For every really ooh, ain’t it purty artifact,” he concedes, laughing, “there’s another box of dirt.”
But even that dirt, properly explained is interesting. It might contain pollen that, when studied, will speak to ancient climates and ecosystems.
And that gives impetus to Born’s work, to make the artifacts logically cataloged and easily accessible for researchers now and in the future.
“We want people to understand that this material, once it comes to the museum, it’s not like the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ where it goes to a huge warehouse and is never seen again,” Miracle said. “It’s available for researchers and professionals to come in and study.”
And so Born orders Hefty quart and gallon bags 10 cases at a time, and has his typewriter ribbons specially rolled by MK Typewriter Service — the typewriter is handy for the initial stages of archiving, he says, because it can be a dirty and dusty process and computers don’t like that; he re-enters everything he types into his computer on the other side of the repository.
The cuckoo clock ticks, the music softly plays, and hours and millennia pass by.