Saturday, May 19, 2018


Eagle Rock Shelter, 5DT813,
Delta County, Colorado.
Public Domain.

The oldest dates recovered so far in Colorado have come from an excavation at Eagle Rock Shelter (5DT813) in Delta County, supervised by Dr. Glade Hadden, recently of the Montrose office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Beginning in 2007, the BLM and Western Wyoming Community College collaborated upon this excavation resulting in some remarkable findings.

"Since 2007, the BLM and Western Wyoming Community College have collaborated on the excavation of the Eagle Rock Shelter (Site 5DT 813) in the northern portion of the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area. Excavations at the site have to date uncovered evidence of habitation within the shelter spanning the range of human occupation of North America." (Hadden, quoted in Bannister2013:1)

Panel 1, Eagle Rock Shelter,
Photograph Carol Patterson.

"Eagle Rock Shelter is a fairly large rock shelter located on the first bench above the Gunnison River. The site was originally recorded by the BLM in 1988 after it was reported as a looted site. After receiving the report, BLM archaeologists, along with staff from Alpine Archaeological Consultants, recorded the shelter and assessed the damage from looters. Their conclusion at the time was that the shelter may still contain some in situ deposits and that BLM should initiate an excavation to recover information missed by the looters. The shelter walls contain dozens of petroglyphs spanning the Archaic Period (ca. 7,000 years BP to roughly 2,000 years BP), the Formative Period (ca. 300 AD to 1,200 AD) and the Late Prehistoric (Numic or Ute) period. The BLM concluded at the time that there was a reasonable chance that some deposits from these time frames may still be intact inside the shelter." (Hadden, quoted in Bannister2013: 1)

"The Archaic period is an era in the human history of Colorado dating from ca. 6500-AD 200. It is one of he three prehistoric periods used by archaeologists to characterize broad cultural changes that occurred throughout the Americas. It was preceded by the Paleolithic Indian period (ca. 11,500 - 7000 BC), extending back into the late Ice Age, and was followed by the Formative period (1000 BC - AD 1450)." (Black 2018)

Drawing of panel 1, Eagle
Rock Shelter, Carol Patterson.

"In 2007, BLM archaeologist Glade Hadden and Dr. Dudley Gardner of Western Wyoming Community College visited the site with an eye to establishing a college archaeological field school. Our assessment then was that the site may prove to be an ideal field school project with a high probability of finding undisturbed Formative and Middle to Late Archaic occupation deposits. Excavations began by delineating the damage to the site from the looting episode. After the first year we had concluded that, while most of the later Formative and Late Prehistoric levels had been destroyed, there were good indicators of intact Late Archaic and Formative period levels still in place. Over the next few years, WWCC and BLM continued to excavate and uncovered numerous intact occupational levels including Ute, Fremont hearths (Formative period), and Archaic hunter/gatherer camps, with a degree of preservation that was remarkable. Perishable fibers, cordage, leather, and wooden artifacts were found including a 3,000 year BP basked, dart foreshafts, an early archaic Pinto point with sinew wrap still in place, stone, bone, and wood tools, beads, including bone beads in both round and disk form, eagle bone beads, food preparation impliments, ground stone, and ocher." (Hadden, quoted in Bannister2013: 2)

Panel , Eagle Rock Shelter,
Photograph Carol Patterson.

"By 2010, we had established that the shelter occupation dated back at least to 8,000 years BP and contained undisturbed occupations representing all phases of known human occupation for the area. In 2011, we excavated down through the intact Archaic levels and discovered hearths, with the first dating to ca. 9,000 years BP, well within the Paleo-Indian period, and finally a single hearth which yielded two individually certified dates of 12,800 years BP. The hearth contained charred bones (including one element of a late Pleistocene mammal), charred seeds, grasses, as well as stone tools and debris. The date from the older hearth places the early occupation of the shelter to the end of the last Ice Age, and represents one of the earliest Clovis sites in North America, placing it among a small handful of stratified Clovis/Paleo-Indian occupation sites in the western hemisphere - and currently the oldest archaeological site in Colorado." (Hadden, quoted in Bannister2013: 2)

Drawing of panel 8, Eagle
Rock Shelter, Carol Patterson.

What seems remarkable to me in this is that it has not been long since all archaeological references insisted that there was no habitation of North America that early. It was argued that Clovis (11,500 - 11,000 BP) was the first culture to inhabit North America. It should be noted that there is no mention of any Clovis culture affiliation in any of the material from Eagle Rock Shelter.

"The site is important because of the Paleo-Indian component, but that is far from the only significant component, says Hadden. "We have some of the most amazing stuff ever found in archaeological sites in Colorado right here. They're not unique, but they're amazing." In all, the site contained more than 50 hearths, and at least 42 different occupational contexts, including some gaps in occupation later on. In one of those layers was a 7,000-year-old woven yucca fiber basked that archaeologists estimate looters missed by about eight inches.  It's the oldest known basket in Colorado and the second-oldest found in North America. "And it has a nice provenance," said Hadden. "We know exactly where it came from. . . and the dry climate has maintained it beautifully."" (Meck 2016)

"Another find that could be a game-changer is a Middle Archaic Pinto point with sinew wrapped around the base. Pinto points, found in this area, are thought to date 5,000-6,000 years, but the sinew dates back 8,000 years. That could push the occupation dates of sites in the Escalante Canyon near Delta back possibly 2,000 more years, said Hadden." They also found tanned animal hides, a yucca-fiber sandal, and hundreds of projectile points, some dating back 12,000 - 13,000 years." (Meck 2016)

Eagle Rock shelter also includes rock art, although none of it can yet be associated with the earliest occupations of 12,000 to 13,000 years ago, and it was recorded in detail by Dr. Carol Patterson and Dr. Alan Watchman.

They divided the rock art there into sixteen panels for their comprehensive 2006 report, and found that most of the rock art can be attributed to the Archaic and Formative eras. Their description of panel one is reasonably representative of most of the rock art in Eagle Rock Shelter. For panel one their report stated "Two eras are represented in this panel. The large animals are of the Archaic Era with branching antlers, large bodies and long thin legs and cloven feet. The smaller animals with stubby legs and round bodies, and the anthropomorph with stick legs and arms, along with the sinuous lines belong to the Formative era.
This panel exhibits characteristics of the Archaic Era with large horned animals, stick figure type anthropomorphs and abstract lines (2400 BP and older). It is superimposed in some areas by later, Formative Era (2400 to 700 PB) quadrupeds, and some later scratched and gouged lines. Determining age is difficult because of the strong weathering which has affected the surface and the glyphs. As no rock surface coatings are present a direct approach to dating is not possible. Varnish has not reformed in the peckings and so an indirect age estimate of less than about 2000 years may be approximate for most of the motifs." (Patterson and Watchman 2006:26 & 27)

While it would have been exciting to have examples of rock art from the earliest Paleolithic occupation, the fact that we now have hard dates from that early, plus the great detail of the rock art recording, provide us with a wealth of material to consider. A good job all the way around.

NOTE: For more complete information I would refer you to the resources listed below.


Banister, Craig
2013 "Eagle Rock" Clovis/Paleo Tour, The Surveyor (Newsletter of the Colorado Archaeological Society, Vol. 11, No. 4, Fall 2013, pages 1 & 2.

Black, Kevin
The Archaic Period in Colorado,, accessed April 30, 2018.

Lofholm, Nancy
2016   A Basket Older Than God . . . Well, Jesus, July 1, 2016,

2016 Eagle Rock Shelter Offers New Insights Into Paleo-Indian Culture, Sept. 6, 2016,

Patterson, Carol, Dr., and Dr. Alan Watchman
2006 Gunnison River Rock Art Site (5DT813), Delta County: Documentation, Evaluation, and Management Plan. Submitted for Julie Coleman, BLM Archaeologist, BLM Field Office, Montrose, CO, 80401, Urraca Archaeological Services, Montrose, Colorado

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