Digging Through The Past, Enlightening The Future | Anna Cordova

a headshot of anna cordova

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — As the lead archaeologist for the city of Colorado Springs, the biggest discovery of Anna Cordova’s (’06, ’16) career are artifacts tied to the city’s founder, Gen. William Jackson Palmer.  

The first item surfaced at Garden of the Gods during a flood mitigation project: an intact cobalt bottle that Anna traced to 1889. As workers’ trucks wore away vegetation, more century-old artifacts were unearthed from what was determined to be buried trash heaps.  

Using historical documents and consulting with local historians, Anna linked the items to Palmer and his nearby Glen Eyrie estate, where he lived from about 1871 when he founded Colorado Springs until his death in 1909. 

Palmer, who co-founded the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, was known for his philanthropy, donating money and land to build roads and parks. He’s even connected with UCCS, having donated the original funds and acres on which the tuberculosis sanitarium — that is now Main Hall — was built in 1902. 

Uncovering artifacts tied to such a prominent historical figure is rare. Palmer has been called the Rockefeller of the West. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime find,” Anna said. “It’s very, very, very cool.” 

In 2018, archaeologists from across the country helped excavate roughly 60,000 artifacts from the site. The items included fragments of porcelain dishes, Bundt cake pans, satin-enameled bricks imported from Chicago, light bulbs, Worcestershire bottle caps, oyster shells, leather shoe soles, IV bottles, clothing buttons, fish bones, and peach pits. 

“We’ll be able to look at their daily life there, where they were importing things from and what they were eating,” Anna said. “I think the most interesting thing we’ll learn from the site is how a high-status person was living at that time in the West.” 

A collection of the artifacts, which are being analyzed, is scheduled to be on display at The Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum in late 2019. 

At UCCS, Anna took junior-level anthropology classes as a freshman. She unearthed her first artifact that summer during a UCCS archaeology field school east of Colorado Springs, finding shards of Plains Woodland pottery that dated back about 2,000 years. 

“On the inside was the maker’s fingerprints, and that was really cool,” said Anna, who received a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology with an emphasis in archaeology in 2006. “You can’t get more individual and personal than someone’s fingerprints.” 

As a sophomore, she did archaeological work in Belize at a 19th century Maya village with Minette Church, a UCCS associate professor of anthropology, who remains her mentor.  

Anna’s first paying archaeology gig was a work-study position for Churchanalyzing artifacts she and other students excavated from an 1880s Hispanic homestead in southern Colorado. 

“I had 100 questions for her every day. I was doing it all by myself, and there was a big learning curve. The patience she had to have, and it’s not like I was her only student,” she said. “I realize how lucky I was to have the opportunities I did as a student.” 

Anna spent about six years in Hawaii cataloging artifacts and meeting with native communities before returning to UCCS for graduate school. In 2016, she received a Master of Arts in applied geography and environmental studies, with an emphasis in archaeology and indigenous geographies. She remains heavily involved with UCCS, where she’s taught an archaeology field school, given guest lectures, invited students to intern with her, and confers with professors. 

Anna discovered her oldest artifact, a Folsom spear point, in southern Colorado as an undergrad conducting one of her first professional surveys. The spear point dates back at least 8,000 years. 

Not knowing what she may find next is part of the draw — and she has personal history with Colorado. Her family has indigenous ties here. 

“There’s something about doing archaeology in a place that your ancestors have been, some of them for thousands of years,” she said. “That connection, especially to these landscapes, it’s like my 10 times great-grandfather or great-grandmother could’ve seen this exact site, this exact view.” 

The UCCS Success Stories series aims to highlight an array of graduates from the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Do you know of someone we should feature? Submit a nomination here.

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