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
In the early 1990s, Northern Nevada author and historian Dennis Cassinelli inherited a collection of Great Basin Indian artifacts from his aunt, Clare Perino. By using a projectile-point identification system developed by David Hurst Thomas called the Thomas Key, Cassinelli was able to type and date nearly every piece in the collection. He then decided to donate the artifacts to a suitable museum where they could be enjoyed by anybody interested in early Great Basin culture and history.
In his book Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians, Dennis discusses the process of putting the collection together and includes detailed descriptions of the artifacts, as well as up-close photographs and stunning pen-and-ink drawings. The book also includes a fold-out chronology chart showing the projectile points across a 12,000-year time scale.
The collection contains hundreds of Great Basin projectile points laid over a beautifully painted display board. Items include:
- A Topaz Lake point
- Surprise Valley Split Stem
- Steamboat points
- Round and Turtleback scrapers
- Rosegate Series
- Resharpened Steamboat
- Pinto Series
- Petrified-wood points
- Personal adornment items
- A mocassin last
- A mammoth tooth
- Martis Stemmed
- Martis Side Notched
- Martis Leaf Shaped
- Martis Contracting Stem
- Humboldt Concave Base A
- Humboldt Concave Base B
- Martis Corner Notched
- Great Basin Crescents
- Elko Corner Notched
- Elko Contracting Stem
- Early Pre-Mazama Points
- Desert Side Notched
- Daphne Creek Side Notched
- Daphne Creek Eared
- Chopping and Cutting Tools
- Cottonwood Leaf Shaped
- Cottonwood Triangular
- Cutting Tools
- Bone Awl
- Arrow-Shaft Straightening Stone
- “Lopsided” points
- Various “Untyped” points
The Cassinelli-Perino Artifact Collection is on permanent display at the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center at 1477 U.S. Hwy. 395 in Gardnerville, Nevada. Be sure to drop in when you get a chance to see the artifacts, as well as the museum’s many other fascinating exhibits!