Image for Previous Work

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.


2017 Research Update (February 5, 2018)

Author: Erica Bradley, Colorado State University


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 A.D.) 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 non-invasive 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 non-invasive 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 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.

Learn More

Free Visits and Tours

Experience nearby nature and Colorado history during an exciting hands-on community opportunity this summer. 

Learn More


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.

Learn More
^ Back to Top