Michele Koons, PhD

About Dr. Michele Koons

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I am an anthropological archaeologist with an interest the Archaeology of Complex Societies, Andean Archaeology, Southwest Archaeology, Desert Archaeology, Environmental Archaeology, Human-Environmental Dynamics, Geophysical Archaeology, Ceramic Analysis and Petrography, Radiocarbon Dating, GIS, Public Archaeology, and Museum Studies. I received my Ph.D. from Harvard University in July 2012, my Master’s degree from the University of Denver in 2006, and my Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 2001. I’ve been at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science since 2012.

Check out my academia.edu page.

Proyecto Arqueológico Licapa II (Licapa II Archaeological Project)


This project examines Moche (A.D. 250-900) sociopolitical organization in northern Peru at the previously unexplored site of Licapa II, a mid-sized ceremonial center in the Chicama Valley. Moche’s distinct archaeological signatures, chiefly, ceramics and architecture, have long been seen as emblematic of an ethnic and political reality and defined as evidence for the first South American state although recent scholarship has begun to view Moche as a more complex mosaic of interacting settlements across a landscape. My research at Licapa II is the first study of a site of its size and kind, thus constituting a novel contribution to the paradigm shift in Moche research. My excavations, surface collections, and geophysical surveys contributed to understanding the nature of the site and the activities performed there. Licapa II consists of two pyramids (huacas), a canal, and other buildings. I show that the two major structures, Huaca A and Huaca B, are characterized by different material culture, are different in form, and date to different time periods. Huaca A has local ceramics and was mainly used before A.D. 600. Huaca B has Moche IV and V style ceramics and was in use after A.D. 600. Based on my evaluation of radiocarbon dates, the changes in buildings and ceramics seen at Licapa II around A.D. 600 also occurred throughout the Moche world and included the adoption of Moche IV ceramics and soon after, in some places, Moche.



The goal of this project is to look at past land-use history and human-environment dynamics in the Chicama Valley on the desert north coast of Peru. We are interested in the time period from when humans first started farming (about 3000 years ago) in this region up until the Spanish Conquest of the Peru in the 1500s. This region of the world only received on average .2 inches of rain a year except during El Niño events, which occur roughly every 10 years or so. Severe events can bring torrential rains and floods that destroy buildings, roads, and irrigation systems. To live in this part of the world, the people had to construct elaborate canal systems to pull water of the major rivers. Some of our questions include understanding the nature and use of the canal system, looking at where and what crops they grew, and investigating how people planned for and responded to floods and rains from El Niños and periods of prolonged drought. 

Tiwanaku Ground-Penetrating Radar


Between A.D. 500 and 1000 the site of Tiwanaku located in Highland Bolivia became the major political and ideological center in the southern Andes.  As Tiwanaku influence expanded across the region, an architectural transition occurred within the city sometime around the 8th and 9th century.  This transition has been traditionally interpreted to have reflected a city that was becoming increasingly exclusive and dominated by competing elite factions.   My master thesis uses ground-penetrating radar (GPR), a geophysical technique capable of three-dimensional imaging and selective excavations to demonstrate that a move to exclusivity may not necessarily have been the case.  Through the integration of GPR and excavations numerous occupation layers of both monumental and residential structures have been identified and demonstrate a very dynamic space that was constantly in flux.  These structures include a monumental platform structure which is similar to the Putuni, another structure at the site.  There is also a very complex conduit and canal system that is apparent in the GPR maps.  During the architectural transition the residential area on the east site of the main Akapana Pyramid was razed and a large public area was constructed.  Drawing on traditional Andean models of organization and kinship and theoretical approaches to the landscape and space, research from this these demonstrates that these changes reflect a city that transformed to accommodate more public space for increasing pilgrims from the region surrounding Tiwanaku. 

Reserve Area Archaeological Project


The Reserve Area Archaeological Project (RAAP) is investigating changes in population density, settlement location, subsistence strategies, paleoclimate, social dynamics, and resource availability in the mountainous Gila National Forest near Reserve, New Mexico. Little archaeological work has been undertaken in this area since the 1950s and there is still much to discover about how people lived there in the past. This project brings together many datasets, such as existing collections in Chicago’s Field Museum excavated between 1939 and 1955, GIS data from the Forest Service, paleoclimate data, and new research that focuses on non-invasive methods. To date, field work has consisted of relocating and rerecording archaeological sites, locating new sites through pedestrian survey, and employing remote sensing techniques, such as ground-penetrating radar, to some of the sites.  Through extensive radiocarbon dating and ceramic sequence correlation, the project is also reevaluating the occupational chronology of the entire region. I am co-directing this project with Dr. Steve Nash (DMNS) and Dr. Deborah Huntley,

Magic Mountain Archaeological Project


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.  The earliest artifacts date back to 5000 BC, when the site would have served as camping grounds for mobile hunter gather groups passing though the region.  Later remains, such as ceramics and stone structures, indicate that though time it became a semi-permanent residence that was inhabited until roughly 1000 AD. Magic Mountain was excavated twice in the past; first, by Harvard University in the 1950s, and second by the Cultural Resource Management firm, Centennial Archaeology, in the 1990s. DMNS houses the collections from the latter excavation.  Members of the DMNS Anthropology Department offered a class through the University of Colorado, Denver (Special Topics 501) in Spring 2016. The class worked to process and digitize this collection to get it online and accessible to researchers.  Additionally, thanks to Micropasts.org and the British Museum we were able to use crowd sourcing to transcribe information from handwritten forms into a digital format. This exercise is now complete, but proved to be very successful. Stay tuned for more crowdsourcing projects like this one!  Over the next few years through a community oriented outreach project we hope to revive excavation efforts at Magic Mountain to learn more about this important site. This new research and reevaluation of old collections will make Colorado archaeology more accessible to the general public and foster a better appreciation of  what life was like long ago on the Front Range.

Egyptian Mummies Exhibit Update

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science houses two Egyptian mummies on permanent loan from the Rosemont Museum in Pueblo, CO. These mummies recently underwent a series of scientific tests in order to know more about them and update the exhibit. These tests include:

1. CT scanning the mummies at .5 mm resolution. The mummies were last scanned in the 1990s at 1 cm resolution. With the new, higher resolution scans we can see so many more details than before.  A special thank you to Children’s Hospital and the Colorado Flight for Life team for transporting the mummies by ambulance to the hospital and conducting the scans.

2. Tree-ring sampling of the sarcophagi and an analysis of the different woods and construction techniques of the sarcophagi.

3. XRF study of the pigments (and how they were layered) on the sarcophagi.  

4. Radiocarbon dating of mummy skin, linens and wood.

6. Isotope analysis of mummy hair, skin and linen.


We hope to have results on all these tests by the Fall of 2016. Stay tuned as the research updates roll in!

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