Artifacts found near Golden are older than first thought

Finds near Magic Mountain push back earliest estimated human occupation by 4,000 years

Posted 2/26/19

Magic Mountain, located near Jeffco Open Space’s Apex Park, is a prime spot for people to visit. “And it has been for thousands of years,” said Mark Mitchell, research director for …

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Artifacts found near Golden are older than first thought

Finds near Magic Mountain push back earliest estimated human occupation by 4,000 years

Posted

Magic Mountain, located near Jeffco Open Space’s Apex Park, is a prime spot for people to visit.

“And it has been for thousands of years,” said Mark Mitchell, research director for Paleocultural Research Group (PCRG). “Over thousands of years, people kept going back to that spot.”

That is what is so significant about it, Mitchell said.

One can “look at the changes in culture over time,” he said, and the “different times are preserved in the layers” in the ground.

Magic Mountain is the nickname given for an archaeological site near Golden that at one time served as a campground for nomadic hunter-gatherers.

This particular location was likely attractive to humans because there’s access to water, and with the nearby hogback, served as somewhat of a sheltered area along the Front Range, said Dr. Michele Koons, curator of archaeology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

During the 2017 and 2018 summers, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science offered community archaeological digs at Magic Mountain. The project is funded in part by a grant from the Colorado State Historical Fund. About 3,000 people attended the free archaeological site tours and participated in the excavation activities at the site.

Youths with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver participated in the digs both summers — about 10 children in grades third through sixth in 2017, and about 40 children from the same age range in 2018.

Archaeology was not something they necessarily knew a lot about, said Abbe Knake, the talent and development manager for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver who helped oversee the coordination of the partnership with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

“It got them excited to learn about old things,” Knake said. “It was fun for them to get to learn something new, then apply that knowledge alongside expert archaeologists.”

During the community excavation efforts, about 15,000 artifacts were found, Koons said, who is co-directing the project. They range from full tools, rock-filled hearths and roasting ovens that could have possibly been inside a structure; to fragments, or, shards — pieces of broken tools, grinding stones, ceramics or arrowheads — and burnt bone, Koons added.

Originally, the oldest occupation of the site was thought to be about 5,000-5,500 years ago. However, new research suggests that humans could have occupied Magic Mountain roughly 9,000 years ago.

“The fact that we’ve identified an early Holocene and potentially Late Paleoindian occupation at Magic Mountain only magnifies the site’s importance for understanding the ancient history of the region,” Mitchell said in a press release. “Only a few sites in the Denver Basin preserve archaeological deposits from that period.”

These new dates were discovered by using radiocarbon dating layers of soil and associated organic remains and artifacts.

Research for the new dates was done in partnership with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, PCRG and the University of Kansas Odyssey Archaeological Research Program (OARP).

“These new dates open up a potential new avenue of inquiry into early Coloradan life along the Front Range,” Koons said in a press release.

Although artifacts discovered at Magic Mountain so far are not the oldest found in Colorado, it’s an exciting and rare find, Koons said. She added the oldest artifacts found to date in Colorado came from the Dent Site in Weld County, southwest of Greeley. Known as the Clovis culture, these artifacts can date back to about 13,500-14,000 years ago, Koons said.

The summers of 2017 and 2018 are not the first time for archaeologists to be attracted to Magic Mountain.

The first artifacts from Magic Mountain came to the museum in 1936, according to Koons, during a Magic Mountain archaeological site tour attended by the Golden Transcript. These artifacts piqued the interest of other archaeologists affiliated with the museum, particularly a husband-and-wife team, the Huschers, in the 1940s. Following in their footsteps, Cynthia Irwin-Williams, the first woman to graduate with an archaeology degree from Harvard University, formally excavated the site in 1959-60 for her dissertation to earn her PhD.

Then, in 1996, Fort Collins-based Centennial Archaeology, Inc. conducted a community-based archaeology program at Magic Mountain.

The current project will take a break from fieldwork in 2019 as analysis/lab work continues and helps form research questions for the future. Mitchell notes experts haven’t finished learning all there is to know about the site, the humans that once inhabited it and the artifacts themselves.

“The new dates push back the earliest occupation of the site by several millennia,” Mitchell said in a press release, “into a period about which we know very little.”

This lab work, while possibly not as exciting as the actual excavation work, is just as important, Mitchell said.

“We’re not digging just to make a hole in the ground,” Mitchell said. “We’re digging with a goal.”

That goal, he said, is to answer one set of questions, and then come up with a whole new set of questions about those ancient people.

“That,” Mitchell said, “is how archaeology works.”

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