Thursday, October 17, 2013

San Diego Archaeological Centre: a spectacular find in the Californian hills

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I had planned to put this post out ages ago, but then I found out that October is California Archaeology Month ... so it just had to wait!

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As some readers of this blog will know, I spent part of March and April this year (2013) in San Diego, California. While there we did all the tourist things: SeaWorld, Legoland, San Diego Zoo, along with sampling large amounts of the local seafood and beer (I strongly recommend the Red Trolley ale). I even managed to get myself invited to the beautiful campus of the University of San Diego to talk about Irish archaeology. As part of Anthropology 494: Native Peoples of Northwest Europe, I was invited to speak to the senior class of undergraduates about two sets of excavations I directed at Gransha,Co. Londonderry, and Gortlaunaght, Co. Cavan. I had a fantastic time and enjoyed myself immensely, and I hope that the students and faculty members that listened to me did too.

On one particular day we left the relative cool of the beach and headed inland to the San Pasqual Valley and the San Diego Archaeological Centre. Their website (which is well worth a read) explains their mission best: They are a “curation facility and museum where visitors can learn the story of how people have lived in San Diego County for the past 10,000 years. In addition to its role as a museum, the Centre serves as an education and research facility and is the only local organization dedicated to the collection, study, curation and exhibition of San Diego County's archaeological artifacts”. I was visiting there merely as a tourist, rather than a professional archaeologist, so I did not have the opportunity to catch more than a glimpse of the impressive storage and curation facilities on site. But what I did see – the public exhibition spaces – are just stunning! Rather than write at any length about the Centre (again, read their webpage – it has everything you need to know about the wonderful job they do), I wanted to post some photographs of the exhibition to give a flavour of what's to see.

Kumeyaay Ollas from Cleveland National Forest. These date to the Late Prehistoric (c. 900 - 1796 AD) period. Large Ollas like these were used for storage, while smaller examples would have been used for cooking and carrying water.

A group of flakes from the Palaeo-Indian period (c. 8000 - 5500 BC). The most popular stone utilised during this period was Santiago Peak metavolcanic, a fine-grained felsite. The artefact on the bottom-right is labeled as a 'spoke shave' and is relatively similar to Irish Middle Neolithic (c. 3500-2900 BC) 'hollow scrapers'. However, during a discussion with the immensely helpful and knowledgeable staff, I was informed that these are something of a rarity with only five (I think) being known from the region.

A display of artefacts from the Archaic Period (c. 5500 - 1000 BC). The appearance of grinding stones (querns in Irish terms) indicates an increasing reliance on plant sources that required processing before use.

A collection of stone bowls, found 'many miles off shore'. Their function is unknown, but may have been to allow the transportation of burning embers, or for processing bait.

Nice collection of projectile points ... not too dissimilar to what we've got in Ireland

Grinding stone ... again, it wouldn't look terribly out of place on an Irish site!

Donut Stones ... these are a new one on me and don't (I think) occur in the Irish corpus. Apparently, there is no consensus on their function, though it's thought that they may be weights for digging sticks.

More querns/mortars from the Late Pre-Contact period (c. 1000 BC - 1700 AD) 
Another Late Pre-Contact period artefact - an arrow shaft straightener. As the caption says, it was used 'to gently bend prepared and heated wooden sticks to create an arrow that would fly true'. Obviously, there is evidence for the use of bows and arrows in Ireland, not just the relatively frequent arrow-heads, but even the bows themselves (e.g. Drumwhinny, Co. Fermanagh). What gives me pause is the though that, should something similar to this artefact be found in an Irish context, even our best known and most respected lithics experts may have difficulty in identifying it ... maybe we should be keeping our eyes open ... just in case!
Selection of Post-Contact (c. 1700 - present) (or Post-Medieval in a European context) glass and ceramics. One aspect of the interpretation of this period that I was very taken with was the identification of cut marks on bone. For example, the presence of cleaver marks may indicate that the household was rich enough to employ a Chinese cook, while saw marks would indicate that the meat had been prepared by an American butcher.

These days, there is a huge upsurge and interest in what we term  'community archaeology', where local communities actively take ownership of their own heritage - as opposed to seeing it as the sole preserve of the academic archaeologist. It is tempting to see this as a new development, but it's not so! In 1970, profits from the sale Girl Scout cookies allowed the orginasation to purchase a large tract of land in the Cuyamaca Mountains. An archaeological survey of the land, later renamed Camp Winacka, revealed the presence of Native American cultural material, including bedrock milling stations. This material had to be archaeologically resolved prior to any construction work taking place. San Diego State University, in co-operation with the Girl Scouts, conducted a series of excavations here from 1971 to 1978.

Selection of the ground stone tools recovered from the Camp Winacka excavation, and interpreted as having beenused in the processing of acorns.

A selection of finds, tools, and field books from the Camp Winacka archive.

In the foreground there are a collection of display cases dedicated to the pursuit of archaeological science and analysis. While I was engrossed in the displays, my two sons were equally engrossed in the children's crafting area, just visible in the background of the shot. They have a whole assortment of archaeological-themed crafts to keep children entertained and enthralled. Admittedly, Oscar managed to subvert the intended uses of the crafting materials and, with a little assistance, construct a rather nifty UFO!
 I think that the only thing that the Centre’s website fails to mention are the humming birds. Outside the building, in the shade of the overhanging eaves, humming birds – dozens of them – come to feed and drink. They’re easily startled, but if you sit still and wait they will hover just feet from you. I loved the archaeology displays and hope to return again one day, but it’s nearly worth the trip just for these beautiful little birds as they dash, dart, and just as suddenly hover in mid-air, their wings all blurred. If you have an archaeological inclination, and are heading in that direction, please drop in to the San Diego Archaeological Centre – you’ll not be disappointed! To the good people of the SDAC, I say: Thank You for a wonderful day out, keep up the good work, and please don't forget to feed the humming birds!

Note: I am aware that the San Diego Archaeological Centre spell the last word of their name in the American fashion ‘er’, rather than in the English manner, ‘re’. I also know that I should have respected this and preserved their spelling … but it was just too alien to me … I tried, but it just looked wrong! Sorry!

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