Located near the Colorado River about five miles north of State Bridge, the Yarmony Archaeological Site is a prehistoric habitation that saw at least five separate occupations during the Archaic period (6650 BCE–150 CE) and the Late Prehistoric period (150–1540 CE). The most significant components of the site are two Early Archaic pithouse ruins, which are some of the oldest pithouses found in North America. They show that prehistoric peoples used the mountains throughout the whole year, not just during the summer.
Discovery and Excavation
In April 1987 archaeologist Kevin Black discovered the Yarmony Site while doing an inventory for Eagle County road improvements in the area. Like nearby Yarmony Mountain, the site was named for a Ute Indian who often visited the area in the late 1800s. It lies along a former Ute trail that could date to the prehistoric period.
In 1987 Metcalf Archaeological Consultants started excavations at Yarmony and soon uncovered several levels of cultural remains in the soil, including an Archaic pithouse. The Eagle County Road and Bridge Department modified its road plans to preserve the pithouse and provided funding for additional excavations, which in 1988 confirmed the presence of a second Archaic pithouse and a large midden (trash) area.
The Archaic pithouses are circular, two-room dwellings with large, rock-lined storage cists and unlined fire hearths. The larger and earlier pithouse dates to about 5300 BCE. It is nearly twenty feet in diameter and one and one-half feet deep. Burned sticks, chunks of charcoal, and burned mud near the pithouse suggest that it had a superstructure of some kind covering the pithouse basin, but the shape and method of construction remain unknown. The smaller and later pithouse lies a few yards away and was occupied about 300 years later, around 5000 BCE. It is about eleven feet in diameter and six inches deep. By the time this pithouse was occupied, the older pithouse had burned or decomposed and was used as a dump.
A diverse array of artifacts was found in and around the pithouses. There are bones from local animals such as mule deer, elk, bison, and rabbits. In addition, there are bone tools, antler tools, and stone tools such as knives, drills, borers, scrapers, and projectile points. Most of the stone used for the tools is local, but many points resemble the Pinto type, indicating a possible relationship with groups in the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau.
Each pithouse was probably inhabited by a single extended family (perhaps 6–10 people) and used for up to ten or fifteen years. Surviving evidence—highly processed bones, interior hearths, and interior storage bins—suggests that the pithouses served as a cool- and cold-season habitation from fall to late spring. The people who lived here could have left in late spring to use nearby areas and returned occasionally during the summer to maintain their dwelling and store supplies for the winter. The area might have had a warmer, wetter climate when the pithouses were occupied, making it more habitable in the winter than it is today.
The Yarmony pithouses are among the oldest found in the Rocky Mountains. It is unknown whether pithouses were typical residential units in the Archaic period. The quality of the Yarmony pithouses suggests that older pithouses must exist somewhere in the region, making it clear that the pithouse as a dwelling must date back to at least the earliest part of the Archaic period, if not before.
Toward the end of the study of the pithouses, the remains of an unmarked human grave were found eroding from the edge of a jeep trail northeast of the larger pithouse. Excavation of the grave followed in 1992 and revealed the Early Archaic interment of an elderly female buried in a flexed position, accompanied by two ground stone manos (seed milling tools). The buried woman may have lived to be more than sixty years old, and radiocarbon dating of 5540–5320 BCE indicates that her grave was made in the same general period as the pithouses. It is one of just a few burials in Colorado predating 5000 BCE. After the analysis was completed, the remains were reburied.
Aside from the two pithouses, the other three occupations identified at Yarmony appear to have been short-term camps. The oldest of these camps—which is also the oldest occupation at the site—is a bison-butchering area consisting of the remains of one bison, an end scraper, flaked stone debris, and charcoal. It dates to the Early Archaic period, around 6300–5600 BCE.
The final two occupations came much later. One dates to the Middle Archaic period, about 3700–3400 BCE, and contains few artifacts, probably indicating a brief occupation used for some special activity. The other dates to the 700s or 800s CE, making it the only post-Archaic occupation at the site. It consists of flaked stone and fragments of thin-walled ceramic jars and bowls.
In 1991 the Yarmony Site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Most of the artifacts recovered from the site are housed at the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder. Today the site is mostly undeveloped Bureau of Land Management property with one county road and several ranch access roads.