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Digging up the past: Rolfe Mandel (from left), Mark Mitchell and Michelle Koons at Magic Mountain archaeological dig.EXPAND
Digging up the past: Rolfe Mandel (from left), Mark Mitchell and Michelle Koons at Magic Mountain archaeological dig.
Rick Wicker/Denver Museum of Nature & Science

While Heritage Square Is History, Magic Mountain Keeps Making History

The Magic Mountain archaeological dig in Golden has surprised scientists who've done recent excavations at the site.

The area was occupied by nomadic hunter-gatherers thousands of years earlier than originally thought, according to new findings from Denver Museum of Nature & Science paleontologists working in partnership with the Paleocultural Research Group and the University of Kansas Odyssey Archaeological Research Program.

The Magic Mountain dig is an important archaeological site in a sandstone outcropping that first caught the attention of artifact-hunters back in the 1860s, when people living in the mining boomtown of Apex would spend their free afternoons digging up ancient keepsakes. In the 1940s, amateur and professional archaeologists noted the significance of these finds and set up a proper excavation to uncover the historical secrets of the region.

The site didn't get its name until the ’50s, when modern prospectors who wanted to make their fortune with a Disney-like amusement park bought up property along Lena Gulch for Magic Mountain, which opened in 1957. Although that theme-park venture collapsed after only a few years, the name stuck to the dig area, and the Magic Mountain Site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, which protected it from potential development. (The defunct amusement park later morphed into Heritage Square, then Heritage Amusement Park, which closed for good this past summer.)

Over the years, excavations uncovered everything from arrowheads and bone fragments to stone foundations and fire pits, from which scientists gleaned that this was perhaps more than a simple camp, and instead a settlement of sorts. In 2017, the DMNS began its first excavation of the area in two decades, and while previous excavations and radiocarbon dating had estimated the oldest occupation was roughly 5,000 to 5,500 years ago, new findings move that back to closer to 9,000 years ago.

“The new dates push back the earliest occupation of the site by several millennia, into a period about which we know very little. Only a few sites in the Denver Basin preserve archaeological deposits from that period,” explains Mark Mitchell, co-director of the Magic Mountain project.

“Sites of this age are pretty uncommon,” he continues. “We knew they were here, that they lived here, but finding evidence is very rare …. Over 9,000 years, there are many floods and big rain events that wash things away. So this is exciting!”

And the finds also indicate that the Magic Mountain site is more significant than scientists had thought, and needs more study.

“[Artifacts] are so deeply buried, we get just the tiniest little look at items…but they tell us what we can find, and while it’s a real challenge to expose enough, there is a lot of potential here,” he says. “Something that amazes visitors, people who live right here…it’s just so cool to discover more of these people who lived here. How much history is buried in our back yards? Just imagine what the past might look like.”

Over the past few summers, about 3,000 people who live in the area participated in dig-related activities, including free tours. This year, the team will take some time off from fieldwork as members continue to analyze their new findings, developing areas of interest for future projects.

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