Ice Age relics return to Snowmass

Jan 31, 2017

Students at the Aspen Community School swarm a high-quality replica of a mastodon skull from the Snowmass dig site.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Public Radio News

Some of Snowmass’ oldest residents recently returned to their old stomping grounds.


Last week, the Ice Age Discovery Center received a few iconic replicas of fossils from the 2010 Snowmastodon dig at Ziegler Reservoir at the foot of the ski area, but first, they stopped at the Aspen Community School.

“This is the first step in a homecoming of bones that originated in Snowmass and have been preserved and are now starting to find their way home,” Ice Age Discovery Center executive director Tom Cardamone told the students.  

About 100 students got to check out a skull and a femur from a mastodon, and a few more large bones. Six years ago, a bulldozer driver unearthed a mammoth tusk while excavating Ziegler Reservoir. It was the first of tens of thousands of Ice Age bones found at the site and taken to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science; some of the fossils are being replicated by an expert in Fruita.

Former ACS teacher Chris Faison and a student pose with a mastodon femur.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Public Radio News

These reproductions are made of a resin that is durable enough to withstand this welcoming. The kids swarm the mastodon skull, petting it like a puppy and running their fingers down the tusks. They pass around the femur, which dwarfs many of them.

Eventually, that femur will be joined by the rest of the skeleton in Snowmass, as a gift from the Denver museum.

Cardamone is working with the Town of Snowmass Village, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and a local architect to create a new home for the Ice Age Discovery Center in Base Village. And he hopes this school visit is indicative of the kind of place it will be.

“That’s what we hope this facility does, is attract that kind of intense interest,” Cardamone said.

While the approval process is expected to take at least six more months, the vision for that museum is starting to take shape.

“There shouldn’t be an imposing, intimidating giant skeleton when you walk in the door,” Cardamone said. “There should be something that a young person would want to run up and hug.”

Ultimately, Cardamone said, this facility will help bring the Ice Age to life, using all the senses. He has hopes of commissioning artists to recreate not only visuals of Ice Age creatures, but also their heartbeats and the sounds of their vocalizations.

Video above: This is a conceptual model of what may welcome visitors to the Snowmass Ice Age Discovery Center in years to come. The artist is Gary Staab. 

The goal is to capture the story of the Ice Age, and much of that story is about climate change. The finds span 80,000 years and provide new understanding about the changing environment in which those plants and animals lived.

“When you change climate a little bit globally, it’s amplified in the mountains,” Cardamone said.  

While this is often a heated political topic, Cardamone said the goal of the Discovery Center is to provide clear information so visitors can make informed decisions.

“It’s such a great platform to lead into the more difficult discussions about climate change and extinction, and our role as conscious beings that could have a positive influence on forestalling, slowing down, mollifying in some way, those things,” he said.

Cardamone and the Discovery Center board are calling on the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies for help. Last month, the two organizations told the Snowmass Village Town Council that they were exploring a partnership.

The focus on environmental understanding and education binds these two organizations. Cardamone said the findings from the Ice Age dig site can reveal a lot about our current ecosystem. Of the 51 vertebrate species found, only seven went extinct, and all the plant communities still surround us.

“So it’s really not just a study of the ancient past, but of today’s environment,” Cardamone said.  

Still, ACES executive director Chris Lane said his organization needs half a year to explore what such a partnership would mean.  

“We are just very cautious. It’s a process of analyzing more strategically where we’re going as an organization in the future,” Lane said.

It could also come with a hefty financial commitment. Snowmass Town Council has directed the Discovery Center, and any future partners, to raise $4 million to outfit the interior of the building and an additional $2 million as an endowment.

Cardamone is confident that the funds will come, and it’ll be worth it. Eventually, some of the actual fossils will be coming home to Snowmass.

“It’s like the relic of the saint,” Cardamone said. “It’s the real thing and there’s something almost sacred about it — or maybe truly sacred about the real thing.”

But those hallowed bones can’t return until they have a climate-controlled home in the new museum to keep them from turning to dust.