Yamony pit house unearthed prehistoric history 30 years ago on Trough Road

Crews from Metcalf Archaeology excavate the Yarmony Pit House back in 1987.
Special to the Daily |

EAGLE COUNTY — One of the oldest archaeological sites ever unearthed in Colorado was discovered on a sagebrush plateau in northern Eagle County 30 years ago this summer.

In May 1987, a crew from Eagle-based Metcalf Archaeological Consultants discovered the Yarmony Pit House — a well-preserved archaeological site with much to tell about prehistoric life in Eagle County 6,000 years ago in the ranch country north of State Bridge.

It was the find of a lifetime. Evidence collected at the site shows that Yarmony was inhabited thousands of years before the Ancestral Puebloans — Colorado’s famed “ancient ones” — built their dwellings at Mesa Verde. People were residing at Yarmony thousands of years before the pyramids were built in Egypt or the boulders were placed at Stonehenge.

“Yarmony has kind of become the gold standard by which you measure pit-house discoveries,” said Michael Selle, former White River Field Office archaeologist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Google the name of archaeologist Michael D. Metcalf, and one of the top entries is a tome called “Archaeological Excavations at the Yarmony Pit House Site.” A weighty report published by the Bureau of Land Management in its Cultural Resource Series, the book details the scientific discoveries made at Yarmony beginning in April 1987.

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“You get three or four sites like that during a lifetime,” Metcalf said.

Tools already there

The Yarmony discovery began as a routine dig. Eagle County was the client. Metcalf Archaeological Consultants was hired to conduct a cultural resource inventory required by the BLM in anticipation of widening and upgrading the Trough Road.

Metcalf archaeologist Kevin Black, who recently retired as assistant archaeologist for Colorado, found some chipped stone flakes, a projectile point and some pottery shards in the proposed roadway.

“Kevin made a good call about the need to do a test excavation at the site,” Metcalf said. “I started digging, and it kept going down. I got pretty excited because of the nature of the fill.”

Early on, the crew knew Yarmony was special. Their excavation uncovered evidence of a prehistoric pit house — a dwelling space dug into the ground, with dirt walls. The structure had a roof, few remains of which were found, but it was likely a dirt- and brush-covered framework supported by poles set into the ground. There may have been a hole in the center of the roof to provide access into the dwelling and ventilation for the fire inside.

Metcalf said the pit house was elaborately constructed and large. The house site covers 151 square feet.

“Maybe Yarmony was the area’s first trophy home — but it certainly wasn’t a luxury home,” he said. At 151 square feet, it would now be more in the tiny home category.

Archaeologists have determined that Yarmony was used for winter habitation, and its dwellers obviously struggled to survive the cold season. The pit house has a series of deep storage-bin holes where inhabitants stocked food.

Archaeologists had expected to find evidence of short-term prehistoric camping activities at the site. The scale of the finds changed abruptly when test holes indicated much longer-term use.

“These houses, of which Yarmony is an example, are kind of a Rocky Mountain phenomenon,” Metcalf said. “This was one of the better opportunities to dig one systematically. It is extremely well preserved.”

The pit house offered archaeologists information about how its inhabitants lived: what they hunted and ate, how they built tools and how they adapted to the weather. It also shifted a long-held paradigm in the archaeological community, one that held that prehistoric peoples basically abandoned the high country during the winter season, moving to lower, more temperate areas.

“The information you get out of a survey answers some questions, … and then new questions start being asked,” Metcalf said.

While Yarmony was first occupied 6,000 years ago, it remained in use through the late 1800s, as nomadic Native Americans passed through the area. As a result, the site was rich in artifacts. The survey uncovered more than 4,600 individual artifacts, including chipped stone tools, ceramics and bone and antler tools.

Maybe that was one of the appeals for later dwellers — not only did they have a shelter that had already been built, but they also could find tools lying around. Some of the Yarmony artifacts show adaptations later dwellers made to “modernize” ancient tools.

Roadside classroom

Back in 1987, word of the Yarmony discovery quickly spread. Newspaper articles detailed the find, and a television segment about Yarmony aired on a Denver television channel.

People started showing up at the site while archaeologists worked, prompting on-the-spot lectures and educational discussions. The Eagle County commissioners trekked up to Yarmony to see what their little road project had spawned.

Metcalf figures more than 1,000 people visited the dig that spring and summer, including every student in the South Grand (County) School District. Metcalf relished these opportunities to give students a look at real-life archaeology, he said.

Interest in Yarmony hasn’t waned in archaeological circles. Metcalf has traveled to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to talk about the site for an archaeology class.

Metcalf notes that the site was well suited to public observation because it is located on public land. Back in 1988, the Bureau of Land Management considered building a covered and protected roadside exhibit at the location, but that plan never panned out.

When the excavation was complete at Yarmony, crews filled the site with sand to preserve it for future study. Some of the artifacts and information about the Yarmony excavation are on display at the Eagle County History Museum at Chambers Park in Eagle.

In the 30 years since Yarmony was unearthed, older pit houses have been unearthed in Colorado. That didn’t surprise Metcalf.

“What we said at the time we found it was this was obviously not the first house these people built,” he said.

Metcalf’s dream isn’t to re-excavate Yarmony but rather to expand the survey along the Colorado River valleys to see if other similar sites dot the landscape, he said.

“But these days, the money for archaeology is directed at energy-development locations,” he said. “It’s not likely anyone will be working at Yarmony anytime soon.”

So Eagle County’s trophy artifact remains preserved in sand. Anonymity is its best protection — not even a roadside sign gives travelers a clue about the pit-house location.

But Metcalf believes Yarmony still holds information for future study when technological advances and more sophisticated questions warrant.

“We are still fleshing out pit-house information. How Yarmony fits in is unclear,” he said. “At some point, Yarmony will answer more questions.”

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