The Jurgens Archaeological Site is a Paleo-Indian period (before 6000 BCE) bison processing site that dates to about 7120 BCE and includes the remains of at least sixty-eight bison spread across three separate camps. Located about nine miles east of Greeley near the South Platte River, the site was named for landowner George Jurgens and excavated in 1968 and 1970 by Joe Ben Wheat and Marie Wormington. Close analysis of the different concentrations of bones and artifacts at the Jurgens site helped provide a more complete understanding of the different techniques Paleo-Indians had for using bison on the High Plains.
Discovery and Excavation
In 1962 George Jurgens leveled part of his land near the South Platte River north of Kersey to make irrigation easier. The land was part of a shelf called the Kersey Terrace, which was once the channel of the ancient South Platte. When the river shifted thousands of years ago to a new channel farther north, it left behind flat land braided by low gravel bars.
Three years after Jurgens leveled the low ridges on his land, geologist Frank Frazier discovered two Paleo-Indian sites in the area while investigating gravel deposits along the river. The first site, known as the Frazier site, was excavated in 1966–67 by Marie Wormington and the Denver Museum of Natural History (now the Denver Museum of Nature & Science). During Wormington’s excavation of the Frazier site, she sent Frazier and Henry Irwin to dig test pits at the other site Frazier had discovered, which was named for Jurgens. Working with William Biggs and Robert J. Burton, they soon found a bone bed and concluded that the Jurgens site merited a full excavation.
In late 1967, Frazier invited Joe Ben Wheat of the University of Colorado Museum, who was known for his work at the Olsen-Chubbuck Bison Kill Site a decade earlier, to excavate the Jurgens site in partnership with Wormington. After securing permission from Jurgens and funding from the National Science Foundation, they excavated the site for two months in the summer of 1968 and another two months in the summer of 1970. Laboratory work on the thousands of bones and artifacts recovered from the site took several years, and Wheat published reports of the findings in 1978 and 1979. Because of the site’s importance for understanding the Paleo-Indian bison economy on the High Plains, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.
Site Description and Significance
The Jurgens site consisted of three main concentrations of bones and artifacts. The two largest concentrations represented bison butchering and processing sites, which could be distinguished from kill sites because they had few low-priority bones—such as skulls and other bones with little meat—and no unbutchered animals, which were often left at the bottom of mass kill sites because the hunters could not reach them. Large sections of the bison, such as the front and rear quarters, were cut apart at the kill sites and brought to the butchering areas for further processing. Stone artifacts found at the processing sites indicated that projectile points used for killing bison could also be used as knives for carving bison carcasses.
Area 1, located at the southeast part of the site, represented a long-term camp where at least thirty-one bison from a nearby mass kill were butchered. The presence of at least seventeen other species, including moose, elk, deer, pronghorn, and a variety of smaller animals, suggested that the people butchering bison there also performed daily hunting for subsistence. Area 2, near the center of the site, represented a short-term camp focused on immediate consumption and hide preparation from a few small-scale kills. It included bones from at least two bison and three pronghorns, as well as about seven other animals, with most of the bones smashed for marrow consumption. Area 3, at the northwest corner of the site, represented a camp focused almost entirely on processing at least thirty-five bison from a nearby mass kill. The original kill sites have not been found.
A piece of charcoal from area 3 returned a radiocarbon date of about 7120 BCE, placing the site solidly in the Plano complex of the Paleo-Indian period. When taken together with the Olsen-Chubbuck kill site, the three camps at the Jurgens site suggested that Plano people on the High Plains developed a variety of techniques for dealing with bison, which was their most important resource. The range of responses that Plano people could use to solve problems led to clear functional distinctions between mass kill sites, butchering sites, long-term camps, and short-term camps.