The Magic Mountain archaeological site, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, is recognized as one of the most significant stratified archaeological sites in northeastern Colorado. Nestled at the base of a sandstone outcrop along Apex Gulch in Golden, Colorado, the earliest artifacts found thus far date back to 8000 BP, when the site served as a camp for mobile hunter gatherers passing through the region. Later remains, such as ceramics and stone structures, indicate that it became a semi-permanent residence that was inhabited until roughly AD 1000 (Irwin-Williams and Irwin, 1966; Kalasz and Shields, 1997).
The history of archaeological fieldwork at Magic Mountain is entwined with the Museum. When he was just a kid in the 1930s, longtime museum volunteer Robert Akerley donated various projectile points, bone tools, and other artifacts. Akerley’s donation and his account of the site piqued the interest of museum-affiliated archaeologists Betty and Harold Huscher, who decided to conduct the first formal investigations in 1941.The first large-scale excavations of the site were done in the 1950s by Cynthia Irwin Williams and her brother Henry. Both siblings were Denverites and Cynthia was mentored by H. Marie Wormington, the first Curator of Archaeology at the Museum. The artifacts from subsequent excavations in the 1990s by the cultural resource management firm Centennial Archaeology Inc. and more recent salvage work on nearby trails are all under the care of the Museum. The renewed work on the site builds on the long institutional involvement with the site.
In the 1990s, the eastern portion of the site was privately owned and inaccessible for research. The site now sits completely on City of Golden property, which creates new research opportunities. In August 2016, the Museum and PCRG began a new research effort at Magic Mountain focused on employing non-invasive methods to the previously unstudied portion of the site. This phase of research consisted of drone photogrammetry to create 3D topographic maps along with geophysical surveys (ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and magnetometry) to understand what lies below the ground. The results of these surveys indicate that there are likely many cultural features still intact at this site.
Based on the results of the non-invasive work, in 2017 and 2018, we excavated 61 one meter square units. We focused on areas identified in the 2016 geophysical data as a way to maximize the data acquired while minimally impacting the site. The research goals of this project are threefold:
- Increase knowledge about Early Ceramic period (200-1000 CE), which has received less attention than earlier periods on the Front Range. We aim to address many questions about typical site activities, mobility patterns, and intensity/season of use of sites remain.
- Understand the older contexts at the site. We are exploring site formation processes and the oldest archaeological contexts, which date back 9,000 years ago.
- Magic Mountain’s connections to the larger cultural landscape of the front range, mountains, plains and western slope.
The research at this site adds tremendous knowledge to what we know about Colorado history. Although much of the analysis is still underway, preliminary results allow to us to begin to develop momentary population estimates, understand settlement patterns, deduce environmental data, reconstruct paleo-diets, identify local and non-local tool types, and explore the range of human activities that occurred on site.
Over the course of the three field seasons we have located and excavated numerous thermal features, which include earth ovens and fire pits that all date to the Early Ceramic Period. The contents of these pits, including the plant remains, animal bones, and wood charcoal helps elucidate what foods were eaten and the types of fuel used. The analysis of the stone materials on the site help us to understand where people were bringing stones and tools from, and by extension gives us insight into their migration routes. The deepest excavation units on the site uncovered an ancient stable soil, which contains evidence for people using the site 9,000 years ago. Overall, what we are learning from the site will greatly contribute to the narrative of Colorado history and contribute to the way we understand what life was like years ago.