History Colorado staff is currently moving its amazing archaeological collections—most of which focus on the American Southwest—into our new state-of-the-art storage areas. Besides making sure that the objects are stored in the manner that best protects them, we wanted the store the collections so that they would facilitate research. To that end, we decided to store the most significant collections together so that they can be viewed in context and in their totality.
Our first and certainly one of our most significant archaeological collections is the Wetherill Collection. In December 1888, Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason began to explore the large cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. According to the Ute Mountain Ute, it was Acowitz, a Ute tribal member who lived at the mouth of Mancos Canyon, who originally told the Wetherills about the canyon ruins and how to get to Cliff Palace, but credit for the “discovery” went to the Wetherill family and Charlie Mason.
The Wetherills collected artifacts from Mesa Verde over the years and made several attempts to sell the artifacts in Durango as “Ancient Aztec Relics.” They also approached History Colorado and the Smithsonian Institution. In 1889, History Colorado purchased the entire collection for $3000. This was an astounding act for the fledgling museum, considering the entire legislative appropriation for the whole year was $1500. The balance was carried personally by staff! Exhibiting the artifacts from Mesa Verde marked the first public success for the organization.
Wetherill and Mason collected human remains, then a common practice, and the Wetherill Collection originally included some of those remains. History Colorado has since repatriated those individuals per the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
The comprehensive collection consists of close to 1,300 ceramic vessels, baskets, textiles, sandals, stone, bone, and wooden implements, ornaments, and more. The knowledge gained and analytic techniques developed over recent decades suggest this and other archaeological collections at History Colorado have the potential to tell us a great deal more about the people who lived in the Mesa Verde region centuries ago.
Sheila Goff, NAGPRA Liaison, Department of Culture and Community
Contact the Library
Stephen H. Hart Library and Research Center
History Colorado Center
Denver, CO 80203