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Previous Work

Old newspapers indicate that homesteaders and miners knew about the site in the 1860s, when the town of Apex was established nearby to supply mines in Central City via the Apex and Gregory Wagon Road. The site was previously known as the Apex or Apex Gulch site due to its proximity to the eponymous town. The town of Apex is now reportedly beneath the parking lot associated with the Heritage Square Amusement Park. The earliest professional report on Magic Mountain appears in the 1877 Smithsonian Institution Annual Report and describes it as a camp with great quantities of tools and arrowheads made from diverse local and non-local materials. By as early as the 1920s, the site was described as a “treasure-trove” of artifacts and a “cratered minefield” due to looting.


Despite that history of disturbance, intact archaeological deposits were still present at the site when systematic archaeological investigation began in the late 1950s by Denver native Cynthia Irwin-Williams, then a Ph.D., student at Harvard University. Irwin-Williams renamed the site as Magic Mountain to acknowledge the now defunct amusement park by the same name that owned the land at the time. Irwin-Williams identified six zones (Zones A-F), corresponding to roughly three periods of use. The earliest levels date back to the latter part of the Early Archaic Period, roughly 5000-3800 B.C.E and were associated with what they called the Magic Mountain complex. Materials from the more recent Middle Archaic Period (3800-1250 B.C.E.) made up the Apex complex and the most recent cultural deposits correspond to the Early Ceramic Period (200-1000 A.D.). The multidiscipline approach to the research, as well as the sheer quantities of new material types has made her work one of the major references for much of the subsequent work in the Rocky Mountain region.


By the early 1990s half the site was owned by the City of Golden and the other half by private owners. Partnering with the City of Golden, Centennial Archaeology Inc. (CAI), along with volunteers, resumed studies on the city owned sector of the site in 1994 and 1996. They initiated a public education program that included tours, lectures and other public outreach efforts, which we re-engaged in 2017. Archaeologically, the goal was to determine the extent of intact cultural remains and confirm the units identified by Irwin-Williams. The CAI investigation quickly changed gears when they found two enigmatic structures dating to the 1000-1800 years ago. Because of this they never got to fully test Irwin-Williams units. The project produced more than 80,000 artifacts, mainly consisting of stone flakes, chipped and ground stone tools, and bone. The CAI collections are housed at DMNS as of 2001.

Project Overview

Nestled in the foothills along Lena Gulch in Golden, CO, Magic Mountain is proclaimed to be one of the most important archaeological sites on Colorado’s Front Range.

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Fieldwork 2017

In June 2017, we returned to the site to excavate areas of interest identified in our 2016 geophysical surveys and with our goals of better understanding the Early Ceramic Period.

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One of the major goals of this project is to change this by reviving excavation efforts through citizen science project to learn more about this significant site and publish both popular and scholarly literature.

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