Archaeologists in Colorado Springs have unearthed a vast array of artifacts in Garden of the Gods downstream from Glen Eyrie, Gen. William Jackson Palmer’s estate, offering a new perspective on the life of one of the most celebrated figures in city history.

The artifacts are thought to be trash from Palmer’s estate dumped at the site from the 1870s through the early 1900s.

“We don’t typically get sites like this, especially in historical archaeology,” said Mike Prouty with Alpine Archaeology Consultants. “There have been hundreds of artifacts recovered … so the sites are really giving a voice to Palmer and his family’s everyday life, and we’re learning a lot.”

artifacts at Garden of the Gods 3 Kelsey Brunner The Gazette
Photo Credit: Kelsey Brunner; The Gazette

Palmer, a railroad engineer who came out West in the 1860s, built Glen Eyrie at the mouth of Queens Canyon in the early 1870s, expanding it into an elaborate stone castle in the early 20th century. The name Glen Eyrie — Valley of the Eagle’s Nest — is believed to have been suggested because of an eagle’s nest on large rock near the canyon entrance, according to coloradoencyclopedia.org.

Construction began in 1871 on the original clapboard house with more than 20 rooms. The family, though, was rarely together at the home. Palmer and his wife, Mary Mellen Palmer, known as “Queen,” often traveled because of his job.

Colorado Springs’ high altitude also was unhealthy for Queen Palmer, who had a heart condition, forcing her to stay at lower elevations. she lived primarily on the East Coast and in England with her three daughters. After her death in 1894, the daughters moved to Glen Eyrie to live with their father.

After selling the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad for $6 million in 1901, Palmer began extensive renovations on Glen Eyrie while he and his daughters toured Europe. The large stone castle had 67 rooms and more than 20 fireplaces. The exterior stone was quarried on the estate. The main level had parlors, a solarium and a dining room. Book Hall, a huge room large enough to hold 300 people, had a massive fireplace and balcony where an orchestra could perform.

Palmer barely got to enjoy his elaborate castle — in 1906 he was paralyzed in a horse-riding accident and died three years later.

The archaeological interest in the trash heaps came out of a drainage improvement project assessment by the Federal Emergency Management Agency intended to improve flood mitigation in Camp Creek, which frequently sees heavy debris flows from the Waldo Canyon burn scar, said Steve Hardegen, FEMA’s Region VIII regional environmental officer.

Colorado Springs native and the city’s lead archaeologist Anna Cordova discovered trash heaps in her analysis of the site, halting the multi-phase project until they could be excavated.

artifacts at Garden of the Gods Kelsey Brunner The Gazette
Photo Credit: Kelsey Brunner; The Gazette

Sample holes were dug to gauge the size of the site and the concentration of artifacts they might find. From there, the Alpine Archaeology team drafted a set of research questions that would guide their excavation of 135 1-meter by 1-meter square plots.

“This gives us a look into the day-to-day of the Victorian way of life,” said the Montrose-based team’s principal archaeologist John Horn. “We know how they entertained, but how did they live compared with the elite in the East?”

Artifacts include fragments of ceramic plates, building materials, lightbulbs, batteries, liquor bottles, textile and clothing remnants, buttons, cuff links, oyster shells, fish bones and shreds of the Gazette Telegraph newspaper.

Each artifact tells a story that written accounts of the time may corroborate, overlook or outright dismiss, said zooarchaeologist Shannon Landry.

Landry pointed out that despite Palmer’s Quaker faith, the liquor bottles indicate that he had alcohol at his home. Whether he drank it is another question, but archaeologists and historians theorize that he purchased alcohol for parties.

“If that’s the case, that can tell us more about what were the norms in the world of class and prestige in this era,” Landry said.

Depending on the artifacts the team unearths in the final four days of digging, the team could discover new insights into the day-to-day life of the founder of Colorado Springs, his family and the working class people he employed.

After the dig, archaeologists will analyze and catalog the artifacts and issue a public report next year. The Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum is planning a special exhibit to share the artifacts as part of a major new exhibit on Palmer and the city’s 150th anniversary scheduled for late 2019.

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