Magic Mountain Community Archaeology Project

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

The archaeological site Magic Mountain in Golden, Colorado, has served as a crossroads of culture throughout human history. From the nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived there for over 9,000 years, to the Pioneers of the 1800s, to those who bike and hike the area today, there is a collective awareness that the area is special. The Magic Mountain Community Archaeology Project (MMCAP) taps into that shared sense of place and explores the stories of the people who lived there long ago, while making these tales relevant and tangible to people today.

The MMCAP is a multi-disciplinary, public archaeology collaboration between the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Paleocultural Research Group (PCRG), and various local Colorado communities to conduct world-class research at one of the most important archaeological sites on the Front Range. The MMCAP has enjoyed two exceedingly successful field seasons of community-based archaeological fieldwork (2017 and 2018) and continues to offer outreach opportunities during the analysis phase of the project. We designed MMCAP to bring our backyard history into the hands of the public. We accomplish this through public tours and youth programming, teen internships for students in underserved communities and underrepresented groups, community group partnerships, targeted marketing and an intertribal meeting day, among many other activities.

Magic Mountain receives the Steve H. Hart Award for 2020

Watch us on RMPBS


Although Magic Mountain is very important to Colorado’s past, no popular literature exists and it is not a large part of local lore or the identity of the region. One of the major goals of this project is to revive excavation efforts through a citizen science project to learn more about this significant site and publish both popular and scholarly literature. During the fieldwork in 2017 we offered two types of tours to interested stakeholders and the general public. The first was a standard site tour covering the prehistory and history of the region while highlighting what was found in past investigations and recent finds. The second tour type allowed participants to try their hand at excavation side by side with a real archaeologist. In 2017, the Magic Mountain Project partnered with the Boys & Girls Club of Metro Denver and TeamWorks/Teens, Inc. to deliver programming and guided excavation experience.

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 nonlocal 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 PhD, 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 BCE and were associated with what they called the Magic Mountain complex. Materials from the more recent Middle Archaic Period (3800–1250 BCE) made up the Apex complex and the most recent cultural deposits correspond to the Early Ceramic Period (200–1000 AD). 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 the Museum as of 2001.

2017 Research Update

by Erica Bradley, Colorado State University, February 5th, 2018

Since mid-September, we, four student interns, have been hard at work cataloging and analyzing the 2017 Magic Mountain field collections. You can find us tucked away in the back of the Museum in the “Pest Mitigation Lab,” which is normally used for freezing zoological specimens, but thanks to Dr. Michele Koons, has become a well-equipped archaeological laboratory.

The cataloging process begins with sorting the artifacts from each provenience (x, y, z coordinate location) into categories including: ‘lithics’ (projectile points, other stone tools, and flakes), ‘ground stone’ (manos and metates), ‘ceramics’, ‘faunal’ (animal bones), ‘botanical’ (seeds and other plant debris), ‘historic’, and ‘other.’ An example of something we have classified as ‘other’ were pieces of red ochre (pigment), one of which was the size of a fist. After sorting, we carefully clean the artifacts with toothbrushes and place them in a custom-made drying rack. When everything is clean, dry, and sorted, they are put into archival-grade bags and are assigned a catalog number. Finally, the artifacts are photographed using studio equipment and their information is entered into the Museum’s anthropology database.

Then begins the fun work— lithic analysis. At this point, we break out the magnifying headbands, calipers, and scales to collect quantitative and qualitative data that, once compiled, will help us understand the types of activities that were taking place at Magic Mountain. One interesting discovery was the identification of several microliths, which are thought to be a type of specialized technology used in composite tools. We can also identify where stone was quarried for stone tool manufacture, and this may inform us about migration patterns and trade. So far, most of the raw materials appear to be from a petrified wood forest near Parker, and a lot of this material has undergone heat treatment. We also suspect that some of the chert and chalcedony may from originate from as far as Middle Park, South Park, and northeastern Colorado. 

Field Work 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 Early Ceramic Period (200–1000 CE) mobility patterns, seasonal use, and site activities. The magnetometry survey was extremely productive in helping us place our excavation units. Based on the results we identified and excavated five rock-filled hearths and a roasting oven that is possibly inside a structure. On the living surface of this potential structure we found an in-situ mano and metate (hand stone and grinding stone). In general, we found countless fragments of grinding stones, various projectile points and other stone tools, and a handful of gray cord-marked ceramic fragments. Preliminary data suggest that people were primarily using raw stone materials from South Park and the Southern Front Range, which helps us understand where they were traveling to and from on their repeated journeys to Magic Mountain. The topographic location points to a cooler season occupation and the distribution of hearths and features suggests regular to intermittent use over a long period of time. Activities included food preparation, cooking, and projectile point manufacture. The analysis of the artifacts, botanical remains, and C14 samples begins in September 2017 and we will have much more to report soon. Please follow our Updates from the Lab 2017 to learn more. 

Field Work 2016

In August 2016 we began the first noninvasive phase of work at the site with permission from the City of Golden. The City of Golden now owns all the land that encompasses the site, so there are new opportunities to investigate in areas that were previously privately owned during the last project in the 1990s. Since the 1990s there have also been huge advances in technology in archaeology. This first phase consisted of UAV photogrammetry to create 3D topographic maps and geophysical surveys (ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and magnetometry) to understand what lies below the ground. Magnetometry detects subtle changes in the magnetic properties of the soil. Areas that were burned or disturbed in the past will have different properties from the surrounding matrix. Ground-penetrating radar is a technique that uses electromagnetic energy to map features and structures below the surface in three dimensions. Both of these techniques are noninvasive and ideal for understanding large areas in a short amount of time. The results of these surveys indicate that there are likely many cultural features still intact at this site. Signatures produced by these likely features are what we investigated through excavation in June 2017.

Project History

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Community Outreach and Public Impact

“I will remember flint knapping the most. It really gave a feel on the time and effort it took to make tools and weapons. I also loved digging with the experts”

—Boys and Girls Club member

I don't personally know a lot of archaeologists but it was super cool to meet a bunch of new people in this field. It definitely makes me want to look into it as a career.”

 –Volunteer Excavator

As Colorado's, and specifically the Denver metro area's, population increases and puts more pressure on open spaces, it is urgent that projects like this help to preserve important sites through education and heritage appreciation. Magic Mountain is located adjacent to the Apex trailhead. Given its publicly accessible location we recognized an excellent opportunity to engage people in the exploration of the human-environmental history of this area going back at least 9,000 years. Overall, the project is designed to research, to teach, and to contribute directly to Colorado’s heritage program through engagement with audiences who will care about and protect our historic and prehistoric places. In 2017 we piloted the community project and excavation work. In 2018 we received a Colorado State Historical Fund grant for continued research and community outreach at this site. The 2018 season focused on connecting with people who might not otherwise be engaged with archaeology, fieldwork, or the Museum.

  • In both years the project offered youth programming. Partners included the Boys & Girls Club of Denver, Sun Valley Youth Center and TeamWORKS/ Teens, Inc. who learned alongside our volunteers about excavation methods and archaeological stewardship. Their excavation experiences was enhanced with age-appropriate programming onsite to help them develop their understanding of archaeological context and techniques.
  • Both years we offered volunteer-led tours to the. The tour covered the history of the region while highlighting past and recent project findings. It also emphasized the importance of historic preservation and stewardship and allowed the participants to try their hand at excavation while supervised and guided by trained archaeologists. Tours were free and available to anyone who registered. Over 3,000 people participated in the tours.
  • In both 2017 and 2018 we invited representatives from all tribes with historic association with the state of Colorado to visit for a dedicated intertribal day. Both years we sent emails and letters to representatives from all tribes with historical association with the state of Colorado. These letters resulted in visitations from representatives from five tribes (Ute Mountain Ute, Southern Cheyenne, Kiowa, Cheyenne River Sioux and the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation) over the two years. Other tribal members offered feedback and advice via email. Participation and feedback in 2017 led to creating Native American Teen Internships for the 2018 season.
  • In 2017 and 2018 the excavation crew consisted of mostly volunteers and university graduate and undergraduate students studying anthropology. The experience of the volunteers varied greatly and training was provided to make sure everyone was on the same page. Many of the volunteers had extensive archaeological experience, and some were professional archaeologists who were excited to participate in the project. The more experienced volunteers were paired with the less experienced.
  • In 2018, students from the Museum’s Teen Science Scholar program, a program that aims to engage teens from underrepresented backgrounds in science, and the Native American Teen Interns, were integral members the field crew every day. 
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