A Recent Discovery In The Search For The Northern Boundary of Southern Sierra Rock Basins

Linda C. Sandelin
Associate State Archaeologist
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
February 18, 2000

The so-called "Indian Bathtubs" are a fascinating group of rock-basin features that occur at high elevation archaeological sites in the Southern Sierra Nevada region. There are many theories about how these large rock basins may have been created. The occurrence of other archaeological evidence such as bedrock mortars, artifacts, or midden in direct proximity to outcroppings containing rock basins and other patterns and attributes of the basins themselves suggests that perhaps the basins are man-made. Several different theories have been offered to explain how they may have been created through natural processes, however, none of the theories have been proven and the mystery surrounding their creation continues. Regardless of how they were formed, there is no doubt that the Indians knew of these rock basins and sought them out as favorite camping locations. The evidence for this is the pattern that nearly all known rock-basin sites have confirmed archaeological evidence in direct physical association. For this reason, southern Sierra rock-basin localities are being recorded as archaeological sites. An excellent description of classic rock-basin sites, including a summary of the various theories regarding their creation and use by Native Americans, was recently written by David Dulitz, Manager of Mt. Home State Forest. Dave's article is posted on the CAL FIRE Archaeology Program website.

The CAL FIRE Archaeology program is participating in a multi-agency, on-going research project involving an inventory of the rock-basin sites found in the Southern Sierra Nevada of California. This inventory has resulted in the identification of approximately 200 confirmed site locations. Additional information regarding the inventory project, including a recommended reading list, is posted on the CAL FIRE Archaeology Program website in a separate article (by Linda Sandelin).

One of the primary objectives in conducting this inventory is to identify where such sites occur. We know that they occur in the higher elevations of the Southern Sierra Nevada, and sites are concentrated in eastern Fresno and Tulare counties, however the maximum extent of their distribution is not well known. The vast majority of the sites are located in Tulare County, however sites extend northward into Fresno and Madera County and southward into Kern County. Though the southern boundary is pretty well established in Kern County, the northern boundary of basin sites keeps expanding northward. Some colleagues have reported their occurrence as far north as Yosemite. William Wallace recently informed our inventory team that he believes rock basins exist as far north as "Achumawi territory" (e.g. Shasta-Modoc counties), although these reports have not yet been confirmed. We are actively searching for northern rock-basin sites to try to identify the northern boundary of the group.

Our inventory team is fortunate to receive the assistance of dozens of professional foresters that continuously search for archaeological sites throughout the Sierra Nevada region while preparing timber harvesting plans and vegetation management projects. These foresters have received archaeological training from CAL FIRE and are on the lookout for rock-basin sites. The foresters working on CAL FIRE projects on private and other non-federal lands are required to survey for archaeological sites and prepare documentation about their survey, including archaeological site descriptions and protection measures. Kirby D. Molen, one of these registered professional foresters, recently reported the discovery of a previously unrecorded rock-basin site found during his archaeological survey for a non-industrial timber management plan that he prepared in Madera County. This site discovery was brought to the attention of CAL FIRE Archaeologist Linda Sandelin during CAL FIRE's review of the plan, and she visited the site and confirmed that Kirby's discovery is indeed a new rock-basin site. She then arranged for members of the inventory group to record it.

Three members of the Southern Sierra Archaeological Society rock-basin inventory team (Sandelin, Bill Matthews, U.S. Forest Service Archaeologist and Tom Burge, National Park Service Archaeologist) met on January 12, 2000 to survey and professionally record the new discovery. The site, named Lucky 13, consists of 13 distinctive rock basins clustered on an expansive granite outcropping. The basins appear to be in a symmetrical order, averaging 3 meters apart, and arranged in a common straight-line pattern. A grouping of some 14 bedrock mortars was found on the same rock outcropping near the basins. A substantial midden deposit containing numerous artifacts (obsidian flakes and fire-fractured rock) was observed directly adjacent to the outcropping containing the basins and mortars. This evidence confirms that Native American Indians utilized the rock-basin site.

This site is one of the few confirmed rock-basin sites located within Madera County. Although these northern basins are similar enough to be recognized as belonging within the group it appears that there may be some subtle differences as well when compared to the classic sites from Tulare County. Many Tulare County rock-basin sites have polished, smooth sides and are over 50cm deep. The Madera County examples identified thus far appear to be more irregular and shallower. Irregular and shallow basin groupings do occur within the core group in Tulare County as well. The Lucky 13 basins average about 1 meter in diameter yet only 8-21 cm in depth with flattened bottoms and the sides that are rough.

We would appreciate your comments and information about southern Sierra Rock Basins. E-mail correspondence can be sent to the author at linda_sandelin@fire.ca.gov.