Many, many years ago, I was looking at home lots being cleared in a new residential area along the Carson River southeast of Carson City. As I walked through the sagebrush across a rather steep slope, I noticed a smooth, fist-sized cobble on the ground that seemed to be out of place for the area when compared to the rough, broken natural stones that littered the hillside. Being somewhat of a rockhound and an amateur archaeologist, I picked up the stone and examined it more closely. I immediately recognized that the rock had been worked by the hands of man, and at first I thought it was a mano.
For those of you who may not know, a mano is a flat, smooth stone used by the American Indians with a larger flat or slightly concave stone for the purpose of grinding or hulling nuts, seeds or grain.
Upon closer examination, however, I determined that the stone was not the common mano, which really is quite abundant in the fields and places where prehistoric Indians were known to have lived. This stone differed from a mano in several distinct ways. These differences enabled me to identify the item as an arrow-shaft straightener rather than a common mano.
Carved or worn into the edge of the stone was a distinct groove that was highly polished. The groove was about 1/4” wide and 3” long. The stone was flat, and both sides were blackened from having been heated in a fire. During the process of making arrows, the wooden shaft must be perfectly straight in order for the arrow to fly straight and true for the desired accuracy. This was accomplished by using a heated stone to rub along the arrow shaft to work out the natural irregularities in the wood. The user held the hot stone with a piece of leather and rubbed it back and forth on the convex side until the arrow became straight. The hot stone also helped to smooth and polish the arrow shaft.
I since have seen other specimens of shaft straighteners from different areas around Carson City, Virginia City and Como almost identical to the specimen I found. The straightener obviously had been a tool that was widely used by the local Indians. This is just one example of the rescue of an unusual artifact from a construction site before it was buried by heavy equipment or hauled away during construction. I donated this specimen to the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center in Gardnerville, Nevada, where it remains on display with hundreds of other Indian artifacts in the Cassinelli-Perino Artifact Collection.
I have written a book about this and the other artifacts in the collection. The title is Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians. It is available at the Mark Twain Bookstore and the Gold Hill Hotel bookstore. There is a delightfully humorous story in the last chapter that tells how the local Indians made their arrows, including how the arrow straighteners were used. The book contains hundreds of illustrations and descriptions of arrowheads, tools and other artifacts found in western Nevada. Every spring, I do a lecture about prehistoric Nevada at the Gold Hill Hotel, where I display and discuss this and many other Great Basin Indian artifacts. I hope to see you there.
I hope the title of my article does not prompt some local nimrods to apply to the Nevada Department of Wildlife for a mammoth tag. On the other hand, I can tell you with some authority that at one time, mammoth and other giant animals left over from the Pleistocene Age were hunted and eaten by some of the earliest hunters to enter the areas around the Great Basin.
In my younger years, I was an avid hunter of deer, antelope and upland game found in the deserts and mountains of the Great Basin. In those days, a hunting license cost $5, and a deer tag could be purchased over the counter for $7.50. Those days are long gone, but I still enjoy getting out in the hills and letting the elusive Chukar partridge make a complete fool of me.
I honestly can say that I have hunted one native Nevada animal that most hunters never even knew existed here. It may come as a shock to some people living in or visiting our fair state to learn that in years past, the slopes of the mountains and valleys of Nevada were grazed by herds of elephants, more properly known as mammoths. Imagine, if you can, driving across the desert hills near Winnemucca and spotting a family of elephants browsing along the banks of the Humboldt River. My first encounter of this beast was in the early 1960s when I was a field engineer for the Nevada Highway Department. I was working in the Winnemucca District Office when Jerry Fitch, the local resident engineer, invited me to go with him to the Rose Creek Gravel Pit about 10 miles west of town where an equipment operator had just uncovered a huge tusk in the floor of the pit. The blade of the scraper had skimmed the tusk, revealing the distinctive, nearly full curl of a mature mammoth tusk fossil.
Fitch notified Donald Tuohy at the Nevada State Museum of the discovery. Tuohy came out and spent several days hand-excavating the tusk and encasing it in a plaster-of-Paris cast so it could be transported without breaking. The tusk was taken to the museum storage facility in Carson City. I recently asked archaeologist Eugene Hatouri whatever became of the tusk. He told me it was still in storage and never had been removed from the plaster cast. I have seen other museum displays where such tusks were cleaned and polished so visitors could see, touch and feel the warmth and grain of the beautiful fossilized ivory. It almost gives a person a connection to the original animal to be able to touch and feel this polished ivory.
The Nevada State Museum has a display of a huge Imperial Mammoth skeleton that was found in the Black Rock Desert. The display is made of plastic castings of the original bones, as the originals are so heavy. I would challenge the staff at the museum to clean and polish one of the original ivory tusks for people to see and touch. The experience is unforgettable. Many mammoth sites have been discovered in the Black Rock Desert. Some of the sites had Clovis points nearby, indicating early hunters may have hunted or killed the animals. Clovis points are the stone lance tips that were used by early man for hunting mammoth before the creatures went extinct about 10,000 years ago.
It is well-known that Early Man entered the Great Basin more than 10,000 years ago. These people were hunter-gatherers who roamed the region in search of food. It’s also known that a few mammoths still roamed the region at the same time. Many mammoth remains from that time period have been uncovered. Many human hunting camps have been found from that same time. Clovis points have been found at some of these hunting camps. In other areas, Clovis points were used exclusively for mammoth hunting. By simple logic, we can conclude that the hunters were engaged in hunting the few remaining pachyderms.
My next encounter with a mammoth was a few years later when I was the one who made a discovery of mammoth remains. I was taking soil samples under the West Winnemucca Interstate-80 interchange when I noticed some fossilized material in the recently excavated roadway fill. I gathered up the fossils and put them in a canvas sample bag. I called Amy Dansie, fondly known at the Nevada State Museum as “The Bone Lady.” When I told her I had found some fossilized bones, she was skeptical and said I probably had just found some old cow bones. When I took them in to the museum for her to see, she looked in the bag and exclaimed, “Wow! These are Pleistocenes!”
I replied that I did not know what they were, but that there sure weren’t any live ones running around. Amy told me the fossils I had found were the teeth and jawbone of a young mammoth. She sent a paleontologist out to investigate further, but no more remains were found. She put the bag of mammoth teeth into storage with other such samples — except for one tooth, which I kept. I coated the crumbling fossil with resin to protect it and donated it to the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center, where it is on display with a collection of Indian artifacts I had given to them. In Douglas County, there have been some excavations of mastodon bones in the Pine Nut Mountains. The Bureau of Land Management is limiting off-road vehicular travel into the Ruhenstroth area to protect the fossils in this region.
If you would like to read about how Early Man hunted and processed mammoth meat 10,000 years ago, I suggest you get a copy of a book I have written titled Legends of Spirit Cave. It is available at the Gold Hill Hotel bookstore near Virginia City. The book is a prehistoric novel that shows how people lived in this area near the end of the Pleistocene Age about 10,000 years ago, including how they hunted and killed the last mammoth. (The first chapter of the book, titled “The Last Mammoth,” can be read in its entirety right here.) Although the book is fiction, the way the people lived, the foods they ate, the medicines they used and the ways they interacted with one another all is researched and factual information. It is a fun book to read, and it really takes you back to the time when ancient hunters of Nevada pursued the mighty mammoth with nothing more than sharpened sticks and stones.
This column is dedicated to Angela Mann, editor of the Comstock Chronicle, a weekly newspaper serving Virginia City and outlying areas. She posed to me the question of how the Indians who inhabited the Great Basin region hundreds and thousands of years ago were able to cope with the severe winters we have in Western Nevada. She wondered about the Indians of old and where they went to hunker down when these unpredictable winter storms set in.
People who live here today and complain when the Nevada Department of Transportation hasn’t plowed the road in time or when their heating bills are too high should look back in time a few hundred years to see just how winter weather affected the earliest inhabitants, the Indians.
The first people to enter our region came here at least 12,000 years ago, just after the last Ice Age. They had no horses or other means of transportation except walking. They were hunters and gatherers who lived off whatever they were able to forage from the land. Over the years, they were able to develop a seasonal traveling lifestyle that took them to the best places to hunt and fish, and to gather berries, roots and nuts for their sustenance. As winter approached, they knew they had to have a stockpile of preserved foods and a relatively sheltered place to “hunker down” when the really severe weather set in.
Because these people lived a nomadic existence, few of them had any permanent home. They usually returned to a familiar place each winter to seek shelter. Some of the favorite places used by the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone Indians and their predecessors to spend the winter were near the many natural hot springs found throughout the region.
Most of these are located in a lower elevation than the surrounding mountains, and archaeological evidence shows that they were used extensively by the Indians. Simple shelters were set up using sagebrush, willows and stone. Food was placed in baskets and stored in grass-lined pits. Even in winter, some fresh fish, small game and waterfowl could be hunted.
Another favorite place for winter habitation was the thousands of small caves and rock shelters that could be found throughout Nevada. Whenever you see a cave or rock shelter in the nearby mountains, chances are it was used for human habitation at some time in the distant past. These caves include Lovelock Cave, Hidden Cave, Spirit Cave and hundreds of others found along the shore of ancient Winnemucca Lake and in the Grimes Point area just east of Fallon. The openings of these shelters often were covered with a wall of brush to keep the wind out. Small fires helped to break the chill, but the smoke was almost intolerable. Many of these caves have been found with well-preserved weapons, tools, artifacts, food-storage pits and even human remains in a mummified condition.
The people suffered greatly when the extreme cold weather set upon them. Frostbite was a common occurrence. Living in cramped quarters with nothing to break the chill but a smoky sagebrush fire and nothing to sleep on but a bed of branches covered with matting or hides surely made the long winter months miserable. The most severe condition happened when there was “pogonip.” The Indians called this condition the “White Death.” It occurred usually after a severe snowstorm followed by extremely low temperatures. The high humidity created an icy fog that clung to trees, sagebrush and other flora. Anyone breathing the icy crystals was exposed to a terrible respiratory ailment that sometimes caused death.
A woman having a child during the winter months had to be able to care for the child and travel with the clan when spring came. A shocking reality happened when twins were born: The woman was expected to kill one of the children in order to be able to care for the other. When the first white explorers came into the region, a common remark seen in their diaries was the fact that the Indians wore very little clothing, even in the winter. The natives had become so accustomed to the severe conditions that they simply did not need the amount of clothing their white counterparts did.
All this and more is described in detail in my book about the Spirit Cave Man, titled Legends of Spirit Cave. In this exciting prehistoric novel about the ancient Nevadans, you can get a true feeling of what life was like for these people thousands of years ago.
Throughout Nevada and other places in the American West, examples of American Indian rock art, otherwise known as petroglyphs or pictographs, can be found.
Petroglyphs are images that are carved, pecked or scratched into the surface of a suitable stone. This can be as simple as grooves etched or scraped into the rock to create a desired image, or it can be done on rock surfaces covered with a brown or black coating known as “desert varnish.” This method reveals a lighter color of rock beneath the thin coating of the rust-colored desert varnish.
Desert varnish is a complex chemical reaction that occurs over a long period of time when moisture, dust, manganese, iron and other elements stain the surface of stones, boulders and rock cliffs in a desert climate. Most of the petroglyphs found in Nevada have been drawn on surfaces having desert varnish. Modern people have attempted to decipher or speculate on the meaning of these images. Despite these efforts, the true meaning of most of these remains a mystery.
Another type of rock art is called pictographs. These are created when the artist uses stains of natural materials to paint an image on stone. These are usually found only in caves or sheltered locations where the dye or paint cannot be easily washed away.
There are several types of petroglyphs and pictographs. Those with geometric patterns of wavy lines and circles are called the curvilinear style. Rock art with straight and parallel lines in geometric patterns are called rectilinear style. Both of these can be found at the Grimes Point petroglyph site east of Fallon, Nevada. Rock art representing animals can be found at many sites in and around the Great Basin. These can show bighorn sheep, deer, lizards and other animals. They are called zoomorphic images. Any rock art showing images of human figures, shamans or imaginary human-like creatures are called anthropomorphic images.
The question always arises of how old the rock art images might be. This has been one of the most difficult questions to answer with any accuracy. We do know that images showing the use of the atlatl or throwing stick are likely over 1,500 years old. Representations showing figures using the bow and arrow are more recent and are likely less than 1,500 years old. Occasionally, pictographs with organic binders in the pigments can be dated with the radiocarbon method. Relative age can sometimes be determined by the amount of desert varnish that has covered over the images since they were originally made. Recently, petroglyphs in the Winnemucca Lake area were determined to be about 14,000 years old.
For people on the Comstock, the closest rock art site for them to see is also one of the largest in the state of Nevada. Just a few miles north of Virginia City along the Lousetown Road is the Lagomarsino Canyon Petroglyph Site. This can also be reached
from Reno and Sparks from I-80 east at Lockwood and traveling south on Canyon Way.
Another popular site nearby is the Grimes Point Petroglyph site a few miles east of Fallon, Nevada just off US-50. There are petroglyphs in the Peavine Mountain area, Pyramid Lake, Winnemucca Lake and several other scattered locations around western Nevada. It is best to get a map of the area you wish to visit and follow a few basic rules of rock art preservation. I have seen many petroglyphs while on hunting trips around Nevada over a period of many years. One of the sad things about the petroglyph sites available for us to see is the damage that has been done to this valuable prehistoric resource by thieves and vandalism. Please do not even touch the petroglyph images when you visit these sites. People have damaged many of the carvings with spray paint, firearms, chalk, oily hand prints, graffiti and even careless footprints.
The Nevada Rock Art Foundation has taken up the task of helping to preserve the many rock art sites in Nevada. They have stewards who visit the sites on a regular basis and report vandalism and damage to the authorities when it occurs. Several people have been prosecuted for stealing or damaging petroglyphs found on public lands. Feel free to take all the pictures you want, and please stay on the designated trails when visiting a site. It can be an enjoyable experience seeing the amazing art created by the people who inhabited the area hundreds and thousands of years ago.
For those of you who would like to own a sample of rock art legally, I will tell you how this can be done in an upcoming post. (Hint: They’re very modern, and are made by a person with the initials D.C.)
Stay tuned for a surprise!
Every fall for hundreds of years, the local Indians made their annual trek to the hills in search of the pine nuts that were a necessity for their sustenance. The various tribes, including the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone, set up camps in the areas where the gathering was most productive. For several days each fall, they combed the short, single-leaf pinyon trees (Pinus monophylla) to gather the pitch-covered cones and extract the plump, nutritious nuts.
The traditional way the nuts were prepared by the Indians was to hull them with a flat stone, winnow away the shells and then grind the nuts into a paste, which they used to make a thick soup. They also ate them raw or roasted, which enhanced the delicious flavor. Following the discovery of silver in the Comstock mines and the increased demand for timber and wood products, the stands of native pinyon pine practically disappeared. The Indians soon were without one of the staples of their existence. No longer were they able to gather enough of the rich, nutritious nuts to survive the cold Nevada winters. They became more and more dependent on jobs they found working for the same white men who had destroyed the pinyon forests.
After the Comstock boom entered a decline, the pinyon forests began a gradual natural reforestation. Today, there are many thousands of acres of fine, thick pinyon and juniper forests in the lands where they once grew abundantly. This includes the immediate areas around Geiger Grade, the truck route toward Dayton and the Como hills. The pinyon forests are thriving in all traditional areas except where periodic fires have destroyed them or the Bureau of Land Management practice of “chaining” the forests have destroyed some sections. Chaining is the process of dragging a long section of ship anchor chain between two Caterpillar tractors through a forested area. This is done to tear out the trees to make the land more suitable for livestock. It is highly questionable whether or not this method works at all.
There are many traditional ways of gathering the nuts. Once promising trees are found, gatherers can pick the nuts off the ground if the cones have opened and the nuts are falling out. This can be made easier if long poles are used to knock the cones to shake the nuts loose. Some people spread tarps or blankets under the trees to facilitate picking up the nuts. If the cones have not opened yet, the task is more difficult. The cones must be taken from the tree and pulled apart to reveal the dark brown nuts in pairs beneath the scales of the cones. This method quickly results in pitch-covered hands, fingers and clothing. The pitch can be removed with Crisco, baby oil or turpentine. I carry a small plastic bottle of baby oil and a few rags so I can clean my hands every few minutes.
Sometimes the nuts are small, and other times they are plump. Only the dark brown ones are good to eat. The light tan ones usually are dried out and hollow. They can be separated by floating off the hollow ones in water after you get home. We usually sprinkle salt over the wet nuts and bake them on a baking sheet for about 15 minutes. You can tell when they are done by the intense pine smell or when they pop.
In modern times, the white residents of the area have joined the Indians in the annual hunt for the prized pinyon nuts. Not every area will be productive every year. Some years will be more productive than others. Usually, there will be at least one area around the state where pine nuts can be found in a given year. Years ago, I remember gathering the cones from the trees along Geiger Grade and putting them in burlap potato bags. We took them to the then-active steam vents at Steamboat Hot Springs and placed the bags of cones in the hot steam. The steam melted the pitch, roasted the nuts and opened the cones so the nuts could be removed easily. Archaeological evidence shows the Indians of old used similar methods.
At Anchor Storage along U.S. 395 just south of Steamboat, there is a huge boulder the size of a large SUV. You can drive up to the office and look at the boulder. It is the largest Indian artifact I have ever seen in Nevada. The top of the boulder is covered with several smooth metate-shaped indentations where Indians ground their pine nuts for centuries. The people at the storage facility don’t mind if you stop to take a look.
The old Italian families had a favorite pesto recipe for using pine nuts. My wife still makes pesto with fresh basil, garlic, parmesan cheese, salt, olive oil and, of course, pine nuts. This is blended into a paste and used as a pasta sauce or as a spread for pizza or on French bread. It just isn’t pesto without the zesty flavor of pine nuts.
Pine-nut gatherers have a myriad of excuses for unsuccessful trips pine nut hunting, such as the following:
(1.) The weather has been too hot or too cold.
(2.) It is too early or too late in the season.
(3.) The birds, squirrels or chipmunks ate them all.
(4.) There has been too much or not enough rain.
(5.) The Indians beat us to the best areas.
(6.) Or, my favorite: Let’s buy them at Raley’s for $12 per pound, because it will be cheaper in the long run and we won’t get pitch all over everything.
Between May 2008 and January 2009, I was working as an inspector on the section of the Carson City Freeway Bypass from US Highway 50 to Fairview Drive. Before the project began, I attended a public open house of the project site to see the archaeological excavations being performed by the Louis Berger Group, Inc., consulting archaeologist hired by the Nevada Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. It appeared that the project route passed over a known prehistoric site that included a large Indian village that had been occupied for over one thousand years between 425 AD and 1470 AD.
The Louis Berger archaeologists discovered over 150 prehistoric features such as houses, storage pits, fire hearths, roasting pits and activity areas. The site represents one of the largest prehistoric villages ever discovered in northern Nevada. Thousands of prehistoric artifacts were uncovered during the scientific excavations, indicating the various daily activities which the people living there performed. These artifacts included projectile points, scrapers, manos, metates, mortars and pestles. I submitted a resume of my qualifications to help identify the artifacts but my offer was not accepted.
Several months after the archaeological field work was completed, construction began on the project. I was contacted by PBS&J Consulting Engineers to be an inspector for several phases of the work. I was told that the Louis Berger Group archaeologists had completed their field work and even though there was a possibility some artifacts may still remain undiscovered, they had sufficient material to complete their report. One of my assigned duties was to inspect the installation of highway lighting components along the freeway ramps north of the Fairview interchange. This included grading, trenching and installing conduits and concrete lighting system footings.
Having developed an eye for spotting arrowheads and other traces of ancient habitation, I noticed some charcoal remnants of old fire pits along the west slope of the Fairview exit ramp. As work progressed on the lighting system, I picked up a few broken projectile points and a 4” piece of a stone pestle that appeared to have been broken by excavation equipment. It appeared to have both ends broken off and the breaks seemed to be recently done. I had discovered many fragments such as this in the past and did not consider it of much importance. I put the stone in my toolbox and forgot about it for several days.
A stone pestle is a long piece of stone intentionally shaped to be used in a bowl shaped piece of stone called a mortar. The Indians used these tools to grind up seeds, cattail roots and other food items they had gathered. These have been found in several different sizes ranging from a few inches to a foot or more in length. After a few days I found another piece of the same pestle near where the first one was found. This one was about 7” in length and fit perfectly onto one end of the first piece.
The amazing thing I noticed about this second piece of the puzzle was the shape of the end, which resembled a male appendage. This surely perked up my interest and I made an all-out effort to find the last piece so I could reassemble the entire artifact. Sure enough, after a few more days of carefully inspecting the slope, I found the third and final piece and was able to connect the three together with stone masons epoxy. The resulting completed artifact was a whopping fifteen and one half inches long and weighed seven pounds.
I looked online and found that such artifacts are very rare and are called “Phallic Pestles.” I found several photos of similar items, but without bragging, I can honestly say that none of those shown were as long as mine. Because I found the pestle on state property, I felt an obligation to take it to Eugene M. Hattori, curator of anthropology at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. Gene was the archaeologist who was called in to excavate the 500 Carson City coin dies I had found at the old mint building back in 1999. He confirmed that the item was a genuine phallic pestle and said that to his knowledge, it was the first one ever reported from Nevada.
I agreed to make a donation of the amazing artifact to the “Under One Sky” exhibit at the museum with the understanding that it would be placed on public display and not hidden away in some storage room where no one would ever see it again. The Museum is expanding their Native American display area and the pestle will be displayed when the expansion is completed.
My first attempt at serious writing was when I self-published “Gathering Traces of the Great Basin Indians” in 1996. Within the next ten years, this title completely sold out, so in 2006, I made some improvements and changed the title to “Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians.” The word “gathering” made it sound like I was encouraging looting archaeological sites, so I changed the wording to “preserving.”
Of the four books I have written, this has always been the best seller. It is the story about a collection of Indian artifacts that family members and I have collected over the years, mostly from our own family farm in Sparks and other farms and ranches in Nevada. Collecting Indian artifacts on public and Indian lands has been prohibited by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. Picking up projectile points, arrowheads, knives, scrapers and other stone tools can still be taken from private property with the permission of the owner.
Human remains and grave goods are protected wherever they are found in respect to the Native American Indians. Caves and known archaeological sites are off limits to artifact hunting.
The collection described in the book is now located at the Carson Valley Historical Museum in Gardnerville. It contains over 1,000 items that I have identified and dated with a method used by archaeologists known as the Thomas Key Method. Some of the stone points can be dated in excess of 10,000 years. There are many drawings of the various types of points and photographs of knives, scrapers and household items used by the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone Indians throughout Nevada.
Archaeologists have been reluctant to write about or do any further research on a mysterious set of mummified remains found in a cave east of Fallon, Nevada known as the Spirit Cave Man. I have written about this discovery in my book and I describe some of the research done on this person before the ban on further studies happened.
All indictions are that this person lived nearly 10,000 years ago and was placed in a dry cave in the Grimes Point area complete with fur clothing, moccasins and woven matting coverings. When a forensic study of his skull and facial measurements was made, it was determined he was not related to any modern Indian tribe, but had skull measurements of a Caucasian person.
A group of Native Americans requested that no DNA testing be done out of respect for the dead. The BLM and the Nevada State Museum have honored this request and none of the grave goods found with this individual will be displayed. I have always disagreed with the ban on study of this individual, since I consider it to be one of the most amazing archaeological discoveries ever made in the United States. Allowing study of this individual could change all theories about how and when the north and south American continents became populated.
“Preserving Traces” contains copies of the Nevada State laws relating to artifact collecting and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. There is an interesting fold-out chronology chart in the back of the book that shows on a time scale what types of projectile points have been used in the Great Basin for the past 12,000 years. There is a chapter that is a humorous fictional account that tells how the Indians were able to make arrows from the sticks and stones they found in their natural environment.
I once had a call from the Folsom College in Folsom California for 24 copies of the book. When I asked why they wanted so many, they said the professor had seen the book and wanted it to be the text book for his class on Great Basin Anthropology. I had never considered it would be used as a college text, but stranger things have happened.
Unfortunately, the Mark Twain Book Store and the Gold Hill Hotel Book Store are no longer active, so my books are not available on the Comstock. If you would like copies of any of my books, please write to me using the contact form. The books also are available via amazon.com.
Copyright © 2014 by Dennis Cassinelli
On a Father’s Day outing to Fort Churchill about 15 years ago, I happened to discover one of the most interesting Indian artifacts I ever found in my many years of searching the Nevada deserts.
The finely chipped artifact was made of shiny black obsidian just over 2” long. This material commonly was used to make arrowheads, scrapers and other tools by the Great Basin Indians. The shape of the item completely baffled me. It was as if someone had fused together two large arrowheads. It also bore a striking resemblance to a butterfly or the tail of a fish, such as a trout.
Fort Churchill is situated along the Carson River about 30 miles east of Virginia City. It was built in the 1860s to protect the people of the Comstock from Indian raids following the Pyramid Lake Indian Wars. The area where I found the artifact was on a privately owned ranch across the river from the ruins of the fort. It is illegal to pick up artifacts from state or federal lands such as a state park or BLM land.
Out of curiosity, I took the artifact to an archaeologist friend of mine at the Nevada Department of Transportation, Joe Moore. He was able to identify the curious piece as a “Great Basin crescent.” Joe told me they were extremely rare and are found only where the water level of ancient Lake Lahontan was between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago. He said they probably were used for something to do with the abundant marshes that existed around the lake at that time. They are so old and so unusual that no one today is sure exactly how they were used.
I studied a map of the Great Basin that showed where the shorelines of Ancient Lake Lahontan had been. Sure enough, the lakeshore touched the exact place where I had found the crescent. In fact, I was surprised to learn the lake extended as far west as Dayton, including all of Dayton Valley. I was able to confirm this recently when I discovered chunks of tufa in Dayton Valley. Tufa is the white “popcorn” rock like the ones you can see around Pyramid Lake. It’s always formed only when rocks are submerged underwater for a long period of time.
I contacted Donald Tuohy at the Nevada State Museum to see if he could tell me anything else about the crescents. I learned there were three basic shapes, including a crescent moon, a half moon and the butterfly shape, which is the type I had found. Don confirmed that the crescents were very old and that archaeologists do not know for sure how they were used. He said they may have been hafted as some type of projectile point or perhaps as a throwing stick. At that time, there were no crescents on display at the museum. I asked if a display could be created so the public could see these interesting artifacts. The museum now has constructed such a display.
Many crescents were found years ago at certain places around the perimeter of the Black Rock Desert. It is illegal to look for artifacts there anymore due to the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. This is BLM land, and there probably is nothing to be found there after so many years of being picked over. At the time the crescents were made, the Black Rock Desert was a lake with marshes and abundant wildlife along the shore. The crescents likely were used for some hunting or gathering function along the marshlands. Crescents are an artifact confined to the Great Basin. No similar artifacts ever have been found in any other areas.
When I prepared the collection of Indian artifacts I donated to the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center in Gardnerville, I included several crescents and some theories about how they may have been used.
If you would like to see the crescents, including the one I found near Fort Churchill, you can visit the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. You also can see a slideshow of the collection, here.
This article originally appeared in The Comstock Chronicle