Astor House archaeology dig unearths fragments of building’s past

154-year-old nickel, bones, glass among pieces of history dug up in yard

Paul Albani-Burgio
palbaniburgio@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 7/14/21

Golden’s historic Astor House is on the verge of a new chapter as the Foothills Art Center is moving forward with turning the old hotel and boardinghouse into a gallery and community art space. But …

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Astor House archaeology dig unearths fragments of building’s past

154-year-old nickel, bones, glass among pieces of history dug up in yard

Posted

Golden’s historic Astor House is on the verge of a new chapter as the Foothills Art Center is moving forward with turning the old hotel and boardinghouse into a gallery and community art space.

But first, a group of archaeologists and volunteers are reaching further into the house’s past by turning their attention to a space with potential insights that have mostly gone unexamined: the sprawling Astor House yard.

On June 22, a group of archaeologists and interested volunteers descended on the yard for a 16-day archaeological dig.

Local archaeologist Nathan Boyless, who is on the Foothills Art Center board, approached Michele Koons, an archaeologist with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, about collaborating on the project. Boyless felt the time was right to see what kind of artifacts could be unearthed from the yard now before work begins on a rear addition that will take up a significant portion of the yard.

“I thought it sounded great,” said Koons. “I love community archaeology and I think it’s a really great opportunity to get people connected to the history of their town.”

To start the project, Foothills brought in an expert named Jennie Sturm to use ground-penetrating radar to map the yard. Sturm said that radar process was able to pick up on sections of the yard that might have been disturbed by people in some way and contain material or artifacts that might add new insight into the house’s past.

“It’s a really efficient way to do archaeology because you are targeting areas more specifically rather than randomly digging and just hopefully hitting something,” she said.

Based on the maps, a team of archaeologists then set about the process of excavating the two sections of the yard that seemed to hold the most promise. That process involved digging down about 10 centimeters at a time, mapping and documenting each layer and then excavating any artifacts that were found on that layer.

“It’s like draining a bathtub with toys in it,” said Amy Gillaspie, a volunteer archaeologist with the museum, who co-led the project with Koons. “As the water gets lower and lower you start to see the toys come up.”

Gillaspie said the radar approach had proven to be a successful one as the team had unearthed a variety of artifacts, including rib and rib-eye bones that were likely discarded from the kitchen and a nickel dating back to 1867.

Also discovered were several pieces of ceramic with maker’s marks on them that can be dated back to the late 1800s in England as well as the old nails and pieces of brick one would expect to find on an archaeological dig of this sort.

Many of the most interesting artifacts, including the nickel, will go to the Golden Historical Museum and Park, which will add them into its collection.

However, there are other pieces, such as broken glass fragments, that wouldn’t be of much use to the museum and are instead slated for another purpose.

“We’re actually donating those to Foothills Art Center and they are talking about incorporating them into a future art piece that will be part of the building,” she said.

The archaeologists are also in the process of creating a report outlining their findings for History Colorado. That report, to be made available to the public sometime next year, is important because it will also contain information about insights gained from examining the presence of different rock and dirt layers.

Those include foundations that suggest the presence of a fire pit and foundations of a wooden structure Gillaspie described as a “kitchen lean-to.”

Overall, Gillaspie said she felt the dig had been “a fantastic project.”

“We’re not necessarily finding treasure or anything crazy cool but we are finding stuff that will tell an interesting story,” she said. “Such as what was cooked here and stuff like that. And it’s super rare that we have the chance for different research companies and universities and their students come in and work together, so it’s been super unique in that regard.”

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