On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Norma Miller and Mark Howard huddled over a small arrowhead held in the palm of Howard’s hand.
Before them was a table laden with more arrowheads, tips and “atlatls,” or spear-like tools that pre-date bow and arrow technology.
“Perfect,” Miller and Howard called the artifacts from Blackfoot Cave, some of which were carved with antlers.
Several minutes later Miller poured a cup of coffee — her morning ritual — when Howard walked up holding a flat, round and rusted object.
“Oh!” Miller exclaimed, before identifying the disc as a stove lid — the kind one might see topping a woodburning stove.
The item was discovered at a historical home along Highway 83, Miller said, where they took home more than a single stove lid.
They found the hubcap of an Overland Willys Touring car they believe to be from 1913 or 1914, and within the home many women’s items. The finds showed there was a female in the house, Howard said, and indicated the family had children.
“So, we’re putting the story together of who lived there,” Howard said. “Forensically.”
A hidden gem
The history buffs aren’t mere hobbyists. They are two of the loyal workers who spend hours a week at the Douglas County History Repository — a county facility that isn’t open to the public because of its valuable historical contents.
This year the repository will celebrate its 10th anniversary, but also the retirement of Miller — its archaeologist and curator.
“Norma’s passionate and tireless dedication to the preservation of Douglas County’s prehistory, history and heritage is not only a gift to the citizens of Douglas County — young and old — but to archaeologists worldwide,” Douglas County Commissioner David Weaver said.
The repository was established by the Douglas County Board of Commissioners in 2007. The facility researches, preserves and houses prehistorical and historical artifacts from Douglas County.
The repository’s success is largely credited to the devotion of Miller.
Miller began her career as an educator. She taught music in the late 1960s until she and her husband had children, at which point she became a stay-at-home mother.
When her children had all left the house she chose to pursue school once more.
In 1993, Miller earned her degree in anthropology with an emphasis in archeology from Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Before the repository opened in 2007, Miller worked with Douglas County artifacts on a volunteer basis. But the collection was housed in warehouses without climate control, and they were quickly deteriorating, she said.
Miller was influential in advocating for the current facility. She helped pick its office location and set the place up when they moved in during December 2007.
Ruth Bandy, a fellow Metropolitan State University graduate, has volunteered one day a week at the repository since 2007. She calls those days the highlight of her week.
“Norma has made it very comfortable,” she said. “It just kind of feels like a second home.”
When asked to reflect on her years working with Miller, Bandy’s face transformed with a look of genuine fondness.
“She’s intelligent and resourceful. And just an overall nice human,” Bandy said. “She knows more about Douglas County than most.”
Miller says she’s proud the repository has gained a reputable name in the state’s archeological community, but also throughout the country. Two of their artifacts were named to the Top 10 list of most significant artifacts in Colorado, Miller said, and she gets calls from historical organizations spanning from coast to coast.
Despite her nearing retirement, Miller has further hopes and dreams for the place she’s dedicated the past decade.
She envisions a brick-and-mortar museum, in addition to the virtual museum on the county website.
“We have all these wonderful artifacts and they sit here in boxes,” she said.
On the county website, people can view photos of the repository’s artifacts and read background on the items, plus various projects.
But it’s not the same, Miller said. A virtual museum is important but she longs for a place where people can see and possibly touch the bits of history she’s collected.
There, she could tell the story of what Bandy called a “diverse” local history.
“That’s really what we are trying to do,” Miller said. “To tell the story of the people who lived here before.”
Bandy agreed, saying their work is important for the county and its children. It’s why she’ll continue volunteering after Miller takes her leave, although she admits she’ll miss her friend and faithful curator.
“She,” Bandy said of Miller, “really is the driving force.”