The Harris Archaeological Site includes an Archaic period rockshelter first occupied at least 3,500 years ago, associated rock art, and a separate historic Ute campsite along a drainage on the eastern edge of the Uncompahgre Plateau. The site is named for Bill Harris, who discovered it in 1984, and it was excavated by Gordon Tucker and the Chipeta Chapter of the Colorado Archaeological Society (CAS) in 1987–88. A subsequent excavation in 1990 focused on the Ute campsite, which allowed researchers to reconstruct Ute survival strategies during the tense period between the Meeker Incident in September 1879 and Ute removal from the area in September 1881.
Site Discovery and Description
Montrose resident and amateur archaeologist Bill Harris discovered the Harris Site in April 1984. The site is at an elevation of about 5,800 feet in an unnamed canyon about seven miles southwest of Olathe. It includes a rockshelter, six rock art panels, and a historic campsite. The rockshelter is on the north side of the drainage and faces southeast; it is roughly fifty-two feet long, eleven feet deep, and eight feet high. There are two rock art panels on the back wall of the shelter and four additional panels about forty feet downstream from the shelter. The historic campsite is on a level area across the drainage to the south.
When Harris found the site, he saw that pothunters had already disturbed some of the rockshelter’s deposits by digging a large pit. At the time, Harris was president of the Chipeta Chapter of the CAS, and he motivated local members to record, map, and photograph the site. They also documented the site’s rock art panels in September and November 1984. Over the next three years, they performed test excavations, collected artifacts, and monitored the site to prevent further damage. Faced with ongoing vandalism, the chapter decided in 1987 to proceed with a more extensive excavation of the site as a salvage operation. Led by Gordon Tucker, the excavation took place over six weeks in 1987–88. All artifacts were sent to the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores for curation, and a report of the excavation was published in 1989.
Prior vandalism meant that the excavation uncovered relatively few artifacts at the rockshelter. Many of the remaining artifacts at the site were in the vandals’ discard piles rather than intact in the ground. Nevertheless, Tucker and chapter members found sufficient lithic artifacts—including projectile points, scrapers, metates, manos, and a knife—to date the site’s earliest occupations to the Archaic period. One projectile point from the site’s deepest cultural deposits came from the late Paleo-Indian period (before 6000 BCE), but because there is no other evidence of a Paleo-Indian occupation, the point was probably picked up and reused by later Archaic peoples. The excavation also obtained three radiocarbon samples, two from inside the shelter and the third from an area with hearths and an ash dump outside the shelter.
The artifacts and radiocarbon dates indicated that the site was first occupied about 3,500 years ago, in the latter part of the Middle Archaic period (3000–1000 BCE). Then, at the start of the Late Archaic period (1000–150 BCE), prehistoric people used the site regularly—perhaps seasonally—around 1210–663 BCE. Because of the shelter’s location and orientation, it was probably most comfortable in the spring and fall, which are also peak times for migrating deer and elk in the area. The nearby Ute campsite suggested that the shelter probably continued to be used regularly until the nineteenth century, but cultural deposits close to the surface were hard to analyze because they had been disturbed by vandalism.
Sally Cole analyzed the site’s six rock art panels, which featured incised lines with mostly abstract designs but also some zoomorphic figures. Based on their design and their location relative to the radiocarbon samples, Cole determined that the panels were at least 2,700 years old, showing that the Abstract Tradition of the Uncompahgre Complex started earlier than archaeologists previously thought.
Historic Ute Campsite
During the 1987–88 excavation, Tucker and Chipeta Chapter members briefly examined the historic campsite on the south side of the drainage across from the rockshelter. They determined that the campsite probably represented a brief Tabeguache Ute occupation in 1879–81. After further study in early 1990, Richard E. Fike and Jonathon C. Horn excavated the campsite more extensively in May 1990 with the help of the Chipeta Chapter and the Bureau of Land Mangagement. They sent all recovered artifacts to the Anasazi Heritage Center for curation, and in 1997 Horn published a report of their findings.
The team spent two days investigating two separate clusters of artifacts. Each cluster was arranged around a basin-shaped hearth that had probably been at the center of a tipi. The team found burned and unburned bone, chipped stone artifacts, glass beads, can fragments, shoe nails, buttons, tacks, wire, and fifteen cartridges. The cartridges were sent to Douglas S. Scott of the National Park Service, who determined that Utes at the site had been carrying at least five firearms that used cartridges and at least one muzzle-loading gun. Two of the cartridges were made by Winchester Repeating Arms in April 1879, allowing the site to be dated with certainty to between April 1879 and September 1881, when all remaining Utes were removed from the Uncompahgre Valley.
The relatively precise dating of the site and the range of artifacts found there helped Fike and Horn reconstruct the culture and economy of the Utes who camped there. The two teepee locations probably accommodated ten to twelve individuals for a short-term camp. The large quantity of Euro-American manufactured goods at the site suggested that the Utes often traded with whites, but the presence of chipped stone artifacts showed that they still used traditional stone tools for some tasks. The cartridges and burned bones suggested that they were hunting for food, but the cans indicated that part of their diet consisted of provisions from the Los Piños Indian Agency. The group was heavily armed probably because they were concerned about self-defense and prepared for conflict during the tense two-year period between the Meeker Massacre in September 1879 and Ute removal in September 1881.