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July 18th, 2002

CU-Boulder researchers excavate mammoth skull

Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder have been working to excavate the skull and tusks of a mammoth that died more than 10,000 years ago in what was once a freshwater spring near Roxborough State Park.

The CU-Boulder researchers, including graduate students in the Museum and Field Studies program, plan to hoist the ancient skull out of the ground by the end of July, according to anthropology Professor James Dixon, project leader and curator of the museum and field studies program at CU-Boulder. The skull will then be transported from the site, which is known as Lamb Spring, to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science where it will be stored until an on-site museum is built.

"This site is exceptional because it has well-preserved bones of ice-age animals in the spring deposits," Dixon said. "And because it is located in the Denver metropolitan area, Lamb Spring provides unusual opportunities for public education and participation in science."

The excavation, funded in part by a $75,000 grant from the State Historic Fund and a $25,000 contribution from the Douglas County Historic Preservation Board, is part of a larger plan to develop Lamb Spring into a museum and education facility, Dixon said. The site was discovered in 1960 by landowner Charles Lamb when he was digging a stock pond and came upon the mammoth tusks.

Shortly after the discovery, researchers from the Smithsonian Institute and the U.S. Geological Survey excavated the site and found the bones of several mammoths, bison and other ice-age mammals. Some of the mammoth bones they discovered were radiocarbon dated as older than 13,000 years. In the early 1980s, another Smithsonian Institute archaeologist, Dennis Stanford, found spear points and other evidence indicating that people hunted and butchered bison at the spring between 8,000 and 9,000 years ago.

"The Lamb Spring site is significant for many reasons, one of which is that it has served as a focal point for human activity since the end of the last ice age," Dixon said. "The spring attracted animals, and the water and animals attracted humans. As a result, the remains of many ancient camp and hunting sites are located around the spring."

The mammoth skull currently being excavated was originally found by Smithsonian researchers in 1981, and reburied for later retrieval.

Once excavated, the skull and tusks of the mammoth will be stored at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where a mold and cast will be made. The museum also will have the skull on public display. A cast of the skull and tusks will be displayed at Lamb Spring next summer as part of an ongoing project to develop a museum at the site.

In 1995, the Archaeological Conservancy, a national nonprofit organization, purchased the 35-acre Lamb Spring site with help from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Smithsonian Institute, Douglas County Historic Preservation Board and Colorado Historical Society.

The Lamb Spring site is one of 24 State Historical Fund success stories from across Colorado highlighted in the High Stakes Preservation exhibit on display at the Colorado History Museum in Denver. The exhibit, which runs through October 2003, highlights projects funded by gambling tax revenues from Cripple Creek, Central City and Black Hawk.