The Cramer Archaeological Site is an Apishapa phase site located near the mouth of Apishapa Canyon on a peninsula about 100 feet above the canyon floor. Consisting of vertical stone slabs arranged to form at least two rooms, the site was probably used around 1250–1350 CE. In 1985–86 James Gunnerson performed extensive excavations at the site and proposed that it originated as a ceremonial structure that was later put to other uses.
University of Denver archaeologist Etienne B. Renaud published the first descriptions of the Cramer site in the 1930s. In 1930, when Renaud first surveyed eastern Colorado, a Fowler man named R. D. Mutz guided him to the Cramer and Snake Blakeslee sites near the mouth of Apishapa Canyon.
Renaud returned to Apishapa Canyon the next year and again in 1941, when he completed new descriptions and maps of the sites. He believed they were ceremonial in function and possibly related to the worship of the sun. He performed no excavations at the Cramer site, but in 1941 N. W. Dondelinger and Robert Tatum performed limited excavations at the site.
The site’s most extensive excavations during this period came in 1949, when Columbia University anthropology students Haldon Chase and Robert Stigler visited Cramer while spending the summer at Snake Blakeslee. They prepared a manuscript about their work but never published it. Their photographs, notes, and artifacts were deposited at the University of Denver. In the 1950s the Apishapa Canyon sites, particularly Snake Blakeslee, became the type sites for the newly identified Apishapa Focus of the Panhandle Aspect (now called the Apishapa phase), which flourished in southeastern Colorado from about 1050 to 1450 CE.
By far the most extensive and meticulous investigations of Apishapa Canyon archaeological sites occurred in 1985–86 under the direction of James Gunnerson of the University of Nebraska State Museum. Gunnerson did three months of work at the Cramer site, whose slab ruins he described as “somewhat awesome.” Despite decades of vandalism at the site, he still recovered roughly 80,000 specimens, including pottery sherds; stone points, tools, and flakes; shell ornaments and beads; and bone beads and tools as well as crushed and burned bone.
Vertical stone slabs at the site formed an enormous circular structure about eighty feet in diameter. The structure originally had two rooms, a large circular one twenty-five feet across and an oval one with diameters of sixteen and twenty-one feet. A third, D-shaped room was probably added later. The walls of the rooms would have been up to three feet thick and perhaps as much as six feet high, with a wooden roof held above the walls by vertical supports in the middle of the rooms. Other areas of the site may have once had rooms as well, but they were too vandalized for Gunnerson to tell for sure. Most of the ruin was surrounded by a low stone wall about two feet thick and less than three feet tall.
Gunnerson suggested that the structure was originally built for ceremonial use. The presence of domestic artifacts indicated that it was also used for habitation. Later—perhaps when the third room was constructed—the site was used for bone processing. The people who occupied the site would have been hunters rather than farmers, and given the types of bones found at the site, they were probably pressed by necessity to kill whatever they could and to use as much of the animals as possible.
Seven radiocarbon dates from the site yielded a large spread of 520 years (890–1410 CE), but the nature of the site’s artifacts led Gunnerson to conclude that it was used intensively for only a decade or two in the late 1200s or 1300s. He proposed that the Cramer site and the nearby Snake Blakeslee site be considered type sites for the “Classic Apishapa” phase in the 1300s. They were built not long before the Apishapa phase ended in the early 1400s, when droughts probably caused a migration to wetter climates farther east.