Inventory Project of the Rock-Basin Sites of the Southern Sierra Nevada of California

by: Linda C. Sandelin
Associate State Archaeologist
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection

February 14, 2000

The CDF Archaeology program is participating in a multi-agency, on-going research project involving an inventory of a fascinating and enigmatic group of archaeological sites – the mysterious rock-basin sites found in the Southern Sierra Nevada of California.  A study group has been formed and is actively pursuing the inventory.  Our goal is to identify and record all known rock basin sites, map them on a GIS database, determine the northern and southernmost boundaries of the site cluster, field visit as many as possible, and gather information on a number of selected site attributes.  The inventory data will enable researchers to more accurately describe this remarkable group of sites, and shall facilitate additional research and interpretation.  The inventory project is spearheaded by the Southern Sierra Archaeological Society (SSAS).  Linda Sandelin (CDF) chairs the Basin Committee which includes agency archaeologists Tom Burge (National Park Service) and Bill Matthews (USFS).  Society members with considerable expertise and interest in southern Sierra Nevada archaeology include Dave Dulitz, Mary Gorden, Louise Hastrup, and others.

The inventory has resulted in the identification of over 200 confirmed site locations, from the northern most sites in the Yosemite area south into Kern County.  Researchers need consistency in both rock basin field methodology and terminology in order for the sites to be adequately studied through the site records.  Since many of these sites have been recorded by non-archaeologists, SSAS has held several rock basin workshops where professional archaeologists have trained the non-professionals in field methodology for measuring and recording these enigmatic archaeological sites. SSAS provides site recorders with geologically compatible basin terminology.

At Mt. Home Demonstration State Forest near Springville, Forest Manager Dave Dulitz has spearheaded several survey and recording projects leading to the documentation of 20 sites containing 135 rock basins within Mt. Home Demonstration State Forest and the immediate area (Fig. 1). The sites in the Mt. Home area are scattered over an area of approximately 15 square miles. Elevation of the sites range from 5,440 to 7,000 feet.

Foresters also are drawn into our efforts of discovering new basin sites.  CDF requires foresters preparing timber harvesting plans to provide an archaeological survey within the harvest plan area.  Kirby D. Molen, a registered professional forester, recently discovered a previously unrecorded rock basin site while conducting an archaeological survey for a non-industrial timber management plan that he was preparing in Madera County.  This site was then brought to the attention of CDF Archaeologist Linda Sandelin during plan review.  A field inspection confirmed that Molen had indeed discovered a new rock basin site. Three members of the inventory team (Sandelin, Matthews, and Burge) met on January 12, 2000 to survey and record the new discovery (Fig. 3).  The site, named Lucky 13, consists of thirteen distinctive rock basins clustered on an expansive granite outcropping.  A description of the recently-recorded Lucky 13 site is also posted on CDF's Archaeology Program website.

The Sunset Point Archaeological Site self guided tour is available in the Mt. Home Demonstration State Forest where you can learn about 8,000 years of prehistory at a high Sierran campsite.  On this short hike you will see sign boards that discuss archaeological evidence from an excavation, the interpretation of this evidence, and a description of the basket making process.  You will be able to see and feel bedrock mortars and rock basins.

Even though researchers can not substantiate the natural theories, many researchers have rejected the suggestion that the Native Americans painstakingly pounded out these huge depressions from solid bedrock, though the possibility of a human origin cannot be completely discounted (Fig. 4, 5, and 6).  Studies will soon be underway at Mt. Home to determine if the theory that a combination of fire, freezing water, and human carving of the rock will be able to recreate these basins.

The Southern Sierra Rock Basin Inventory project is an on-going research effort.  As new sites are located we will enter them into the inventory.  There is no doubt this database will prove to be useful to anyone conducting research on this remarkable group of features and possibly lead to solving some of the mysteries surrounding their creation and archaeological significance. Your help is truly appreciated; anyone knowing about the location of a basin site is urged to contact Linda Sandelin at

Suggested Reading on Southern Rock Basins:

Barnes, Eric K.
1984 Sierra Sub-Glacial Potholes: Their Significance in California Geology with a note on Archaeology.  Manuscript on file at the CDF Archaeology Office, Fresno.

Dillon, Brian D.
1992 Excavations at the Sunset Point Site (CA-TUL-1052) Mountain Home Demonstration State Forest, Tulare County, California. CDF Archaeological Reports Number 11,
Reprinted by Coyote Press, Salinas.

Dulitz, David
2000 Rock Basins in Mt. Home State Forest and Immediate Vicinity. Manuscript on file at CDF Archaeology Office, Sacramento, and posted on the CDF Archaeology
Program Web Site.

Foster, Daniel G.
1991 Discussion of the Archaeological Significance of Southern Sierra Rock Basins. In: Archaeological Testing at the Salt Creek Ridge Site (CA-TUL-472): A Southern Sierra Rock Basin and Bedrock Mortar Encampment on Case Mountain, Tulare County, California. CDF Archaeological Reports Number 5, Sacramento.
Reprinted by CoyotePress, Salinas.

Otter, Floyd L.
1963 The Men of the Mammoth Forest. Edwards Brothers, Inc. Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Plotnicov, L. and A.B. Elsasser
1959 Additional Notes on the Granite Basins in Sequoia National Park. In: Archaeological Survey of Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks, A.B. Elsasser, ed., National Park
Service, San Francisco: 24-30.

Sandelin, Linda C.
2000 Lucky 13: A Recent Discovery in the Search of the Northern Boundary of Southern Sierra Rock Basins.  Manuscript on file at CDF Archaeology Office, Fresno and posted on posted on the CDF Archaeology Program Web Site.

Stewart, George W.
1929 Prehistoric Rock Basins in the Southern Sierra Nevada of California. American Anthropologist. 31:419-430.

Schutt, Harold G.
1962 Prehistoric Rock Basins. Visalia: Los Tulares, Quarterly Bulletin of the Tulare Historical Society, 54:1-2.
Wallace, William J. and Edith T. Wallace
1969 Observations on Some Sierra Rock Basins. Archaeological Research Associates Bulletin 14 (3):1-2.

Wallace, William J.
1993 Methuselah (CA-TUL-1173): A Southern Sierra Bedrock Mortar and Rock Basin Site, Mountain Home Demonstration State Forest, Tulare County, California. CDF Archaeological Reports Number 13, Sacramento. Reprinted by Coyote Press, Salinas.

Wallace, William J.
1993 The Great Indian Bathtub Mystery Solved?  Center for Archaeological Research at U.C. Davis, Publication #11.

Weinberger, Gay.
1981 Indian Slides and "Bathtubs". Archaeological Enigmas of the Southern Valley and Foothill Region. Paper presented at the 1981 Annual Meeting of the Society for California Archaeology, Bakersfield.