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Students’ archaeological dig peers into Auraria campus’s past as Denver’s oldest neighborhood – The Denver Post

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Sitting in soil with dirt-caked knees and a “Jurassic Park” T-shirt, Adam Elves felt like he was 6 years old again digging in his backyard for buried treasure.
“We are such nerds,” the 19-year-old said while using a small broom and dustpan to comb through the earth. “My friends wonder why I’m spending my Fridays digging in the dirt, but I love it.”
The Metropolitan State University of Denver student was one of a couple dozen students dedicating the next several Fridays to an archaeological excavation on their school’s downtown campus.
The dig, a project years in the making, was led by MSU Denver anthropology professor Michael Kolb and Community College of Denver anthropology instructor Gene Wheaton, and is focused on uncovering information about the Auraria Campus’s historic Ninth Street.
The 50th anniversary of the displacement of Denver’s oldest neighborhood — established by miners in the 1850s — is approaching. The residents of Auraria, hit by discriminatory red-lining in the 1930s and a major flood in 1965, were eventually forced out by the city, which demolished the community during the early 1970s to build the campus that now houses MSU Denver, CCD and the University of Colorado Denver.
Decades after the displacement of the predominantly Latino neighborhood, campus leaders are undertaking a number of efforts to begin reparations and healing for the communities forced out.
One such effort: partnering with displaced Aurarians to create a museum to document who lived on the land before it became a bustling downtown Denver academic institution.
A block of original Aurarians’ homes remain standing on the campus’s Ninth Street Historic Park. Auraria faculty, students and volunteers are excavating a small section of the park to search for artifacts from the past while giving students archaeological fieldwork experience. Items found are expected to be donated to the forthcoming museum, Kolb said.
“We want to bring more awareness to what the Auraria campus was before,” Kolb said.
Mildred Saenz, 31, is a computer engineering major who never grew out of her childhood interest in ancient Egypt. Born to immigrant parents, Saenz said it was always instilled in her to get a stable, well-paying career, so she went the computer engineering route — but tacked on an anthropology major because the inkling to learn about what was buried beneath her feet was too strong to suppress.
Now that Saenz was getting dirt underneath her fingernails, she was certain she was hooked on excavation and was hoping to pursue it more seriously. She even got her parents’ blessing to follow her dreams.
“I was afraid something I had built up in my mind wouldn’t live up to my expectations, but doing this work, I am smiling so big at the end of the day,” Saenz said. “To know there were people living here before and to wonder how these things we’re finding got here — I can’t quit daydreaming about it.”
The spots chosen to excavate were surveyed using ground-penetrating radar, which, along with old maps of the area, informed the professors they would be digging near an old carriage house and, possibly, an outhouse and a trash pit.
So far, students have uncovered shards of pottery, beadwork, old brickwork, nails and some wood pieces.
Anthropology students with more experience supervised those getting their first taste of fieldwork, like 19-year-old Zoey Bourlakas.
Bourlakas emerged from the sifting station, her eyes wide with wonder, as she held out pieces of pottery she’d found in the dirt.
Professors gathered around her, inspecting her palm, which contained what they guessed were broken pieces of 19th-century ceramics based on the design.
“I am so stoked,” Bourlakas said. “This is my first time doing anything like this, and to find something like this is so exciting.”
It was important to Kolb that students not only learn the logistics of fieldwork — the digging, scraping, measuring, sifting — but also the need to partner with communities impacted by the work.
“It’s important to show the students how this should be done,” Kolb said. “To work with artifacts is one thing… but to understand the context of the things we find in our backyard adds so much meaning to it. To understand our partners — they’re very interested in students understanding who lived in Auraria before it became a campus. They really want that legacy to be remembered and documented.”
Dannell Mondragon, 38, sifted dirt, checking to see if any tiny artifacts — windows to the past — were hidden within.
Mondragon isn’t an Auraria campus student, but generations of her family grew up on Ninth Street. When she heard about the excavation project, she wanted to roll up her sleeves and get her hands dirty.
“I always wanted to dig up dinos when I was a kid,” Mondragon said. “Just to be on this ground where my family used to be when they were younger gets me so excited. This is so cool to be a part of history.”
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