The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is digging up ancient Front Range artifacts, and you can help

Denver Museum of Nature and Science volunteer Alexis Thiel sifts through dirt for bits of stone tools excavated at Magic Mountain, an archaeological dig site in Golden, June 22, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver Museum of Nature and Science volunteer Alexis Thiel sifts through dirt for bits of stone tools excavated at Magic Mountain, an archaeological dig site in Golden, June 22, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

KEVIN-lighter

On a sunny June morning, Lisa Yemma led two families up a trail into Apex Park in Golden. This was no ordinary hike.

“Scientists are really good at making observations. I want you to look around this area,” she said, passing Heritage Square amusement park with four elementary school students in tow. “It’s really easy to notice the people and the power lines and the modern things, but I want you to think back before electricity was here.”

Lisa Yemma leads a tour of Magic Mountain, an archaeological dig site run by Michelle Koons of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, June 22, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Lisa Yemma leads a tour of Magic Mountain. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Back then, before white settlers built a village here, this place was the start of a major thoroughfare that Native American tribes crossed from the plains to the mountains. The Apex Gulch nearby was the opening in which those people began to ascend into the high country.

Yemma led her group over to a ridge nearby where the kids looked out to see Denver in the distance and, right below them, an archeological dig site buzzing with activity.

Denver in the distance and, below, Magic Mountain, an archaeological dig site run by Michelle Koons of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, June 22, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver in the distance and, below, the Magic Mountain dig site. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

This site is known as Magic Mountain, named for a failed Disney-style amusement park that predated the also-struggling Heritage Square. The work this summer is the second excavation led by Michele Koons, a scientist with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, but there have been excavations here as far back as the 1930s.

Today, much of the work here is done by volunteers and families, like Yemma’s tour group. They dig into an array of holes in the ground, millimeters at a time, in search of stone and bone tools. All this work is scientifically valid and crucial for Koons’ team to keep a fast pace. The bits and pieces volunteers and visitors have found here are helping to create a timeline of events at the gulch stretching back 7,000 years.

It’s “awesome,” Koons said, “because little kids were finding projectile points and pieces of ceramics. That’s going into the museum.”

Arrowheads discovered at Magic Mountain in Golden, Feb. 1, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)  denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; denver museum of nature and science; dmns; archaeology;

Arrowheads discovered at Magic Mountain in Golden, Feb. 1, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By analyzing their findings, Koons’ team can determine where native peoples were coming from and where they were going. Bits of rock that might not be found on the Front Range point to mobility patterns and trade. Much of Koons’ research focuses on the Early Ceramic Period, about 1,000 years ago, when tribes were beginning to settle down in the area, a transition from a more nomadic lifestyle.

Koons believes Magic Mountain was a winter camp, probably a place where tools like arrowheads and grinding stones were manufactured. The people she’s studying were here so long ago that she can’t say with certainty which tribes might have used the site.

Michelle Koons chats with Debbie Budden at Magic Mountain, an archaeological dig site in Golden, June 22, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Michele Koons chats with Debbie Budden at Magic Mountain. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

While her study is an important step to advance Front Range archaeology at large, Koons said it’s also a big deal for her to work on something that locals can get their hands on.

“I’ve always enjoyed having a community project going on,” she said. “I think it’s really important to connect the people who live in a place with the ancient past.”

Debbie Budden, who took Yemma’s tour, lives just a few minutes away and agreed.

“I think it’s amazing,” she said, even more so, “because it’s our backyard.”

Budden said she likes giving her kids an idea of how “lucky” they are to live in an era with modern convenience. Plus, she said, learning the history “gives different context to where we live.”

There’s still time to take a tour of the site this summer. Koons’ team will be digging July 5-14. You can sign up to join them at the museum’s website.

Amy Gillaspie photographs stone tools excavated from the Magic Mountain archaeological site in a Denver Museum of Nature and Science Lab, Dec. 15, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Amy Gillaspie photographs stone tools excavated from the Magic Mountain archaeological site in a Denver Museum of Nature and Science lab, Dec. 15, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

A grinding stone discovered at Magic Mountain in Golden, Feb. 1, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)  denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; denver museum of nature and science; dmns; archaeology;

A grinding stone discovered at Magic Mountain in Golden, Feb. 1, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Stone drills discovered at Magic Mountain in Golden, Feb. 1, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)  denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; denver museum of nature and science; dmns; archaeology;

Stone drills discovered at Magic Mountain in Golden, Feb. 1, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Pottery pieces discovered at Magic Mountain in Golden, Feb. 1, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)  denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; denver museum of nature and science; dmns; archaeology;

Pottery pieces discovered at Magic Mountain in Golden, Feb. 1, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Lisa Yemma shows depictions of ancient life on her tour of Magic Mountain, an archaeological dig site run by Michelle Koons of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, June 22, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Lisa Yemma shows depictions of ancient life on her tour of Magic Mountain, an archaeological dig site run by Michele Koons of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, June 22, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver Museum of Nature and Science volunteers work at Magic Mountain, an archaeological dig site in Golden, June 22, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver Museum of Nature and Science volunteers work at Magic Mountain, an archaeological dig site in Golden, June 22, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver Museum of Nature and Science volunteers Cory Bertelsen and Alexis Thiel sift through dirt for stone tools excavated at Magic Mountain, an archaeological dig site in Golden, June 22, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver Museum of Nature and Science volunteers Cory Bertelsen and Alexis Thiel sift through dirt for stone tools excavated at Magic Mountain, an archaeological dig site in Golden, June 22, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver Museum of Nature and Science volunteer Cory Bertelsen shows bits of stone tools he excavated at Magic Mountain, an archaeological dig site in Golden, June 22, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver Museum of Nature and Science volunteer Cory Bertelsen shows bits of stone tools he excavated at Magic Mountain, an archaeological dig site in Golden, June 22, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver Museum of Nature and Science volunteer Brianna Dalessandro (with the hat) shows Gavin Budden (from left), Andrew Waskosky, Evelyn Budden and Amanda Waskosky how to excavate for artifacts at Magic Mountain, an archaeological dig site in Golden, June 22, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver Museum of Nature and Science volunteer Brianna Dalessandro (with the hat) shows Gavin Budden (from left), Andrew Waskosky, Evelyn Budden and Amanda Waskosky how to excavate for artifacts at Magic Mountain, an archaeological dig site in Golden, June 22, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Andrew Waskosky looks at Denver out in the distance while on a tour of Magic Mountain, an archaeological dig site run by Michelle Koons of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, June 22, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Andrew Waskosky looks at Denver out in the distance while on a tour of Magic Mountain, an archaeological dig site run by Dr. Michele Koons of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, June 22, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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