Mountaineer, CO



Brian Andrews


            The Mountaineer site is one of the largest known Folsom sites on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. The site is located in the Upper Gunnison Basin, near the basin floor at an elevation of 7,800 feet. The topography of the Gunnison basin is unique. There are no routes into or out of the basin below 10,000 feet, except for the rugged black canyon of the Gunnison River to the west. No other high mountain basin in the Central or Southern Rockies is enclosed by such features. Due to these unique topographic features, travel into and out of the basin would be difficult, and would only be possible during the early summer through early fall.

            The location of the site provides a good view of almost the entire valley in which the town of Gunnison currently sits. From atop the site, the riparian zones of the Gunnison River and Tomichi Creek can be seen, as well as the broad flat floodplain that may have been covered with grasslands and open coniferous forests during the terminal Pleistocene. Such an overlook is favorable for monitoring the movement of animals on the floor of the basin.

            Work at the site began in the summer of 2000 by Mark Stiger and personnel from Western State College. Initial surface collection located at least fifteen separate artifact clusters with associated Folsom points, channel flakes, preforms, scrapers, a variety of other tools, and lots of flaking debris and bone fragments. The tool assemblage from Mountaineer is one of the largest known for Folsom sites on the western slope of Colorado, and the size of the assemblage continues to increase as more excavation is conducted. Currently, over 50 projectile points and preforms, and over 100 channel flakes have been found. The high diversity of tool types represented in the assemblage (including tool and point production debris, preforms broken during manufacture, broken/discarded point bases, and food or raw material processing tools like scrapers and gravers) suggests that Mountaineer may have served as a residential campsite where food items were processed.

            Patterns of raw material usage at the site are interesting. The assemblage is dominated by local quartzites, and the majority of all tools, including projectile points, are made on this quartzite that is available within several kilometers of the site. The only exception to this are the scrapers – the majority of these are made out of what may be non-local chert, though the exact source location is currently unknown. The nearest known chert sources to the site, however, are no more than 10 kilometers away.

            Excavations at Mountaineer have been conducted in two of the cluster areas. Excavation by Western State College in two clusters in an area on the southern edge of the mesa top has exposed a hearth feature and a series of post holes. Debitage and bone concentrations are high in an arc shape following the layout of the post holes. The tool assemblage from this cluster is dominated by point production debris, with only a limited number of scrapers, and relatively low concentrations of bone. Excavation in a cluster approximately 10 meters to the west have produced a tool assemblage with few projectile points and preforms, but a high number of scrapers and a very high density of bone. Bone at the site is highly fragmented.

            SMU initiated excavations at Mountaineer in the summer of 2002. We began excavations in an area approximately 100 meters to the north of Western State College’s main excavation blocks. We first conducted a fine-grained crawling surface collection of the area in order to locate the densest concentrations of artifacts on the surface.

            We identified three closely spaced clusters. A fourth, located about 15 meters north, had previously been collected by Western State. On the surface, the westernmost surface cluster consisted entirely of flakes. About 10 meters to the west, there were fewer flakes, but substantially more tools on the surface, including five scrapers and one Folsom point fragment. Our initial goal was to determine if the surface sample adequately represented the subsurface sample, so we began excavations in each of the clusters, with the ultimate goal of joining the blocks in order to expose the entire area. The western cluster excavations, totaling 5 square meters in 2002, yielded several tools, including most notably a sidescraper and a graver. The eastern block excavations, totaling 9 square meters in 2002, yielded three scrapers and four Folsom point fragments from three different points. All of the points are represented by bases. Though our excavations are only preliminary, several interesting patterns are emerging. All scrapers recovered in our surface collection and excavation are made from a reddish brown chert, rather than quartzite, which fits the pattern previously noted. However, out of the four projectile points recovered, three are made out of chert that is different from the material on which most scrapers are made. It may be locally available Cochetopa white chert, available approximately 20 kilometers from the site, though this is only a tentative assignment.

            Though samples are relatively small at this time, initial patterns suggest that there may be variability in raw material usage between clusters. Likewise, there appears to be variability in the representation of different tool classes and differences in bone frequencies among different clusters. Two possibilities exist that may explain this apparent variability. If the site represents a relatively limited occupation in which the clusters are all contemporaneous then different activities may have been spatially segregated. However, this is likely not the case given the sheer number of artifacts and clusters and the horizontal separation of cluster areas. A more likely scenario is multiple occupation of the site. In this case, variability in artifact representation among the clusters may indicate that the site played different roles in the settlement system at different times. Resolving these and other related issues will be a main focus of future work.