Mine Wash

by Michael P. Sampson

The village site on Mine Wash, open to public visitation by the state, lies about 1.5 miles south of State Route 78 and measures approximately 8.4 acres in area. This archaeological site, at an elevation of 1600 feet, is situated on an alluvial fan facing north at the base of a boulder-strewn slope. [Note: Archaeologists employ the term “site” to refer to any geographic location with tangible evidence of past human activity.] Vegetation is dense onsite and within the surrounding terrain and includes numerous plants important as food, for their use in fiber production, and for other domestic activities among prehistoric peoples, such as agave, beavertail cactus, cholla, desert ironwood, galleta grass, Indian rice grass, Indian tea, Mojave yucca, and others. The village on Mine Wash has been designated with the California state site number of CA-SDI-813, indicating it is an archaeological site recorded in San Diego County with records maintained by the California Historical Resources Information System (a program of the State Office of Historic Preservation). Based on the results of archaeological research conducted here in the 1980s, the village was initially occupied at least 1110 years ago, and perhaps slightly earlier, and no longer occupied after about 300 years ago.

View of CA-SDI-813 with Mine Wash.JPG

It showed no evidence for occupation by Indian people in historic times, although many other villages in the western Colorado Desert were indeed occupied through the 19th century and early 20th century. Previous archaeological work at the village on Mine Wash and so many of its conspicuous surface bedrock mortars, metates, and pounding areas tell us plant food processing and plant fiber processing were important prehistoric work activities. It is no surprise that the village has a large number of these bedrock surfaces used in pounding and grinding activities, implements used in concert with handstones, given its setting at the base of a boulder-strewn slope of the Pinyon Mountains.


The site surface exhibits an abundance of the material remains of stone tool making, known as flintknapping, and the pit roasting of food plants, especially, agave, in earth ovens. Quartzite and granitic rocks were most commonly employed to create the tools observed onsite; both are relatively hard, readily available materials and quartzite when flaked makes a sharp, durable working edge. A source of high-quality quartzite was found by us within Mine Canyon a relatively short distance south of the village.


The inhabitants of this village were traders and active users of nonlocal materials, as shown by the presence of beads from the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of California, obsidian from the Salton Basin (where the Salton Sea is located today), and fish and mammal bone from species not native to the immediate area. The setting of the Mine Wash village site and its abundant material remains are in our view consistent with ethnographic accounts about prehistoric lifeways of this region, such as the information provided by Kwaaymii Elder Tom Lucas in the 1984 book Just Before Sunset and other works. Thus, we see that the cultural information obtained in the early decades of the 20th century from Indian people reflect ancient cultural practices.


The village on Mine Wash also has granitic boulders containing cupule petroglyphs, which are manifested as small, roundish, shallow, smoothed depressions. Cupule petroglyphs served a variety of critical functions in prehistoric society throughout California and elsewhere, and has been associated with the enhancement of female fertility, employed in attempts to manipulate weather, produced during boys’ puberty ceremonies, used as trail markers, produced while praying for a special benefit, and created to access power located within rocks. Certain rocks or other landscape features did indeed represent places of power, as told in many ethnographic accounts of Indian people in California and beyond.



We find particularly compelling the statement that cupule petroglyphs provided a means to access this power or spirituality inherent in specific rocks. In archaeological sites of San Diego County these pecked and smoothed cultural features most often occur in groupings on a single boulder and regularly will also be observed placed in a row; this pattern of cupule petroglyph clustering is seen at the Mine Wash village site too. One large boulder at the Mine Wash village contains over 200 cupule petroglyphs that are situated under an overhang of a rockshelter that have been exclusively placed on the downward portion of the boulder. The orientation of the clustered cupule petroglyphs suggests to us a purposeful positioning so that the petroglyphs faced into the interior of this rockshelter.


Within Native American culture, rockshelters and caves provided a portal into the underworld. The orientation of the cupule petroglyphs on this particular boulder then can be viewed as a recognition of the rockshelter’s function and a reason the cupule petroglyphs were placed on this specific boulder. We noted that at least seven bedrock metates, or grinding surfaces, had been established on the upper area of this same boulder. The placement of the metates, a mundane implement in prehistoric society, does not represent a contradiction to a use of this same boulder in rituals or acquisition of spiritual power. Rather, it more firmly identifies the rockshelter and the outcrops within and around the rockshelter as a women’s place. Another, smaller-sized boulder within the village site had cupule petroglyphs aligned in a row, a patterning observed by us at other village sites in San Diego County.


Two additional boulders at the village site showed evidence that the natural fractures characteristic of the granitic rock formations in the region had been artificially enhanced by pecking. Such enhancement appears to be similar in purpose to that of the manufacture and use of cupule petroglyphs on specific boulders. The presence of the cupule petroglyphs here fit within a broader regional cultural pattern indicating that the presence of powerful (“sacred”) landscape features such as rocks served as an important criterion employed by prehistoric people in choosing where to locate their villages.


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