Ceramic Disks from the Colorado Desert and Their Uses in Native American Culture

by Michael Sampson

Director, Center for Research in Traditional Culture of the Americas



Certain artifact types from archaeological sites in the western Colorado Desert encountered within the San Diego Museum of Man collections captured my attention for their distinctive nature and uncommon distribution within the greater Southern California region. The particular collections to which I refer were mainly produced by pioneering archaeologist Malcolm J. Rogers from 1924 through the 1930s. Additional site collections I examined were produced by researchers in the 1950s and early 1960s. One such item of specific interest is the ceramic disk, also referred to as sherd disks.

Ceramic disks in the San Diego Museum of Man collections that I examined are almost exclusively round or sub-round in shape and made from potsherds [pieces of broken ceramic vessels] of local brown ware and buff ware pottery vessels. A few examples of oblong shaped ceramic disk-like objects were also observed in the collections (e.g., from the collections of SDM-C-123 and SDM-C-144); one broken siltstone disk (46.2 mm diameter) with center perforation was observed in the SDM-C-97 collection. Diameters of the ceramic disks I observed in the collections primarily ranged from 23 mm to 67 mm with most being under 50 mm. Thicknesses of the disks ranged from 4.0 mm to 7.4 mm with most of them measuring between 4.0 mm and 5.5 mm. Incompletely manufactured ceramic (sherd) disks in the San Diego Museum of Man collections, e.g., from sites SDM-C-128, SDM-C-142, and SDM-C-160, indicate that the potsherds were initially shaped by flaking into a rough, roundish shape.

Figure 1. Ceramic disk from SDM-C-142 showing flaked edges used to shape it.

Then, they would be ground smooth along its perimeter for final shaping into a disk form. Many ceramic disks have a hole perforated into the center; other disks remain unperforated. Hole diameters of the ceramic disks are small averaging around 4.0 mm to 5.2 mm, with diameters ranging from 2.7 mm to 8.3 mm. Many of the unperforated ceramic disks I examined apparently represent unfinished disks. Frequently, the disks I examined in the museum collections were broken across the center perforation. One ceramic disk from SDM-C-144 exhibited incised lines on a portion of the margin. The reader can consult Cline (1984:32-39), Rogers (1936), Van Camp (1979), and other sources for more in-depth information about pottery making among Native American groups in the western Colorado Desert and other areas of San Diego County.

The archaeological objects discussed here were collected from archaeological sites in the western Colorado Desert, although my study sample primarily consists of sites that are today located within Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a 591,353-acre state park located in eastern San Diego County, a small portion of southern Riverside County, and the edge of western Imperial County. Collections from certain archaeological sites on desert lands surrounding Anza-Borrego Desert State Park were also examined to provide a broader perspective on artifacts, such as ceramic disks, recovered from the western Colorado Desert. Thus, the collections examined in my study were recovered from sites situated with the traditional ethnographic territories of the Mountain Cahuilla, the Desert Cahuilla, the Kumeyaay (Ipai and Tipai), and the Kwaaymii Native American groups (as identified in Bean 1978:Fig. 1; Cline 1984:12-17; Luomala 1978:Fig. 1; Strong 1929:Map 5, 146-147).

The San Diego Museum of Man has traditionally employed a site numbering system, devised by the late Malcolm Rogers that is unique to their institution. The trinomial site designations for the collections in my study consist of “SDM” (referring to the museum), a “C” identifying it as a site in the Colorado Desert of southeastern California, and a number. Archaeological sites as documented by Rogers and his associates in the 1920s and 1930s vary broadly in size, and the size, mapping, and descriptions of the Rogers’ sites are not consistent with modern-day professional standards for archaeological site recordation.


“Camp 2” within SDM-C-135, a broadly defined archaeological site located in the northern end of San Diego County, is located within traditional Mountain Cahuilla territory. The collection from Camp 2 in SDM-C-135 contains a ceramic artifact assemblage noteworthy for containing 31 ceramic disks, none of which are whole.

Figure 2. Ceramic disks from SDM-C-135.

No other site in my study sample of the western Colorado Desert yielded this number of ceramic disks. The disks from Camp 2, produced from both Lower Colorado Buff Ware and Tizon Brown Ware potsherds, were shaped by grinding and have a hole drilled in the center. The breaks are primarily split along the center of the perforated disk. One of the broken buff ware disks from Camp 2 had a painted motif on it; no other evidence of painted designs was seen in the assemblage. The 1951 recorders of the Camp 2 collection (West and West 1951) stated that the 31 disks measured 1½ inches [37 mm] in diameter to 2½ inches [64 mm] in diameter. The SDM-C-135 sherd disks range in thickness from 3.9 mm to 5.1 mm, according to measurements I made of the specimens. The 1951 Camp 2 collections at the San Diego Museum of Man also contained several historic-period objects, such as, metal buttons and a porcelain button, a suspender buckle, two green glass bottle bases, one square nail, and other items, indicating that the site was occupied by Cahuilla people after Spanish colonization, most likely in the nineteenth century. It remains uncertain if the fragmentary nature of the disks from SDM-C-135 as well as disks found in other western Colorado Desert sites is due to prior scavenging of the site by relic hunters (leaving only broken ones on the surface) or they were broken during use. I am inclined to believe the breaks on a significant number of the disks were purposeful, and that they had been used regularly in ceremonies or other activities.

Site SDM-C-61, a Desert Cahuilla village site near ancient Lake Cahuilla, has seven ceramic disks in its collection. Other San Diego Museum of Man collections from the western Colorado Desert contain one or two ceramic disks per site, such as, SDM-C-133, SDM-C-141, SDM-C-142, SDM-C-144, SDM-C-160, and SDM-C-168. A number of Rogers’ site collections had no ceramic disks.

Figure 3. Two ceramic disks from SDM-C-160.

None of the sites from my study area contain even half as many ceramic disks as found at SDM-C-135 Camp 2. Indian Hill Rockshelter, a site located in Tipai (Kumeyaay) traditional territory, only yielded three fragmentary shaped ceramic disks, two brown ware and one buff ware during extensive excavations at the site (Griset 1986:95, Figure 48; McDonald 1992:266-268). Wallace (1962:Table 1) reported finding only one ceramic disk during excavations at site BW 9 also located in Tipai territory, although 509 total potsherds were recovered there. Only eight ceramic disks were found on sites in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in the mountains above the desert (an area within the territories of the Tipai and the Kwaaymii) during archaeological fieldwork directed by D. L. True (1966:159, Figure 16 J, K, 1970:Table 14, Plate 5) even though excavations at one of the village sites in the park yielded several thousand potsherds (True 1970:Table 15). Ceramic disks may have been employed more frequently by the Mountain Cahuilla and Desert Cahuilla than by the Kumeyaay (Tipai and Ipai) and the Kwaaymii.

The biconically drilled holes seen in the perforated ceramic disk specimens at SDM-C-135, SDM-C-144, SDM-C-165, and other western Colorado Desert sites make it possible the disks could have been worn as an ornament, attached onto the outside of clothing, or used a stopper for ceramic jars. Malcolm Rogers (according to his field notes for site SDM-C-165 on file at the San Diego Museum of Man) observed in situ a perforated ceramic disk tied onto the mouth of a “miniature” olla that itself had “two rim perforations.” It is not definitively known if other perforated ceramic disks in my western Colorado Desert study sample were used as lids for ceramic storage vessels, but it is reasonable to conclude that the ceramic disks of appropriate diameter served as lids. Bayman et al. (1996) described five whole late prehistoric ceramic (buff ware) storage vessels cached in a rockshelter close to the Colorado River, in an area inhabited by Yuman-speaking native people. The five vessels were sealed with round ceramic disks set in place with plant resin.

The artifact collection for SDM-C-146, a site in the western Colorado Desert, stored at the San Diego Museum of Man contains five quartz and two white chert projectile points (some broken from use), two quartz flakes, and a round ceramic lid with ground margins. This circular shaped ceramic lid (catalog number SDM 17158) measured 11.62 x 11.45 cm in diameter, which was much larger than other disks in the western Colorado Desert collections (see above).

Figure 4. Ceramic disk from SDM-C-146 used as a storage vessel lid.

The ceramic lid undoubtedly was specifically made to be used as a cover for a ceramic storage vessel (cf. Euler and Jones 1956:88, 94); the ground, slightly beveled edges indicate a finish produced to create a good seal. A similar looking buff ware ceramic lid with ground edges that measures 11.44 cm in diameter was recovered from site SDM-LC-51, a site in Baja California, Mexico. The diameter of these two ceramic lids being so close implies that this specific size is important for a potential use as a ceramic vessel stopper. The collection from SDM-C-61, a site located in Desert Cahuilla territory, has a ceramic disk with no center perforation (catalog number 17531) that measured 100 mm in diameter and clearly was made to serve as a lid for a ceramic vessel.


Given the context of ceramic (sherd) disks at various sites in my study area, I hypothesize they were employed in additional functions beyond simply serving as a storage vessel lid. It is my opinion that many of the unperforated or partially perforated disks observed at various sites are simply unfinished. The ceramic disks with small-sized diameters were most likely used as ornamentation or as gaming pieces, rather than being employed as lids to ceramic vessels. A variety of items also served as lids for aboriginal ceramic vessels, such as, large potsherds, flat stones, abalone shells, small ceramic bowls, and fiber stoppers (Euler and Jones 1956:88; Heye 1919:26-27; Malcolm Rogers field notes; Treganza 1947:169; personal observations in museum collections), and thus ceramic disks were available for other uses in traditional Native American society. And, it should be noted that ceramic storage vessels from southeastern San Diego County and northern Baja California often have openings greater than 5.5 cm, based upon an inspection I made of a sample of 31 whole ceramic vessels found in the eastern San Diego County and northern Baja California regions present in the collections of the San Diego Museum of Man. The relatively low number of ceramic disks in regional sites could be potentially explained if ceramic disks served as offerings during cremations or as lids to urn-gathered cremations [cremains placed within ceramic vessels]. The high temperatures produced by cremation pyres may have destroyed all or most of a ceramic lid or made them more apt to deteriorate over time. The western Colorado Desert collections at the San Diego Museum of Man, however, contain no tangible evidence of the use of ceramic disks to cover vessels with cremains. And, Malcolm Rogers’ field notes make no mention of ceramic disks being recovered at cremation cemeteries that he investigated in the 1920s and 1930s, except one observed at SDM-C-165 (see below). I cannot accurately assess the field collection sampling strategies employed by Malcolm Rogers and his associates in the 1920s and 1930s; many broken ceramic disks may have been purposely overlooked and not collected during their fieldwork.

Elizabeth Campbell (1931:61) reported finding ceramic disks in the Twenty-Nine Palms region that were round and measured 1 to 2 inches in diameter. Campbell offered no explanation of possible use for the ceramic disks. A limited number of ceramic disks made from potsherds were recovered at the Hohokam village of Snaketown in central Arizona and illustrated by Gladwin et al. (1965:CCIX), who attributed the disks to the Sacaton Phase. The latter southwestern time period is roughly equivalent in time range to the Late Prehistoric Period in Colorado Desert chronology. Gladwin et al. (1965:243) hypothesized that unperforated ceramic disks functioned as gaming pieces or as “mosaic plaques,” while the perforated disks were both used as spindle whorls and other uses of an undetermined nature. Aboriginal people of the American Southwest did grow cotton, thus, a tool such as a hand spindle would be necessary to make yarn. Ceramic disks were relatively abundant at site NA10754, a Sinagua village near Flagstaff, Arizona (De Boer 1976:49, Figure 29). The edges of the latter items were ground into a circular shape and exhibited perforations in the center, similar to the specimens observed in the San Diego Museum of Man collections from the western Colorado Desert discussed above. The NA10754 ceramic disks vary in diameter from 3 to 6 cm while the biconically drilled center holes ranged in diameter from 3 mm to 8 mm (De Boer 1976:49). De Boer (1976:49) speculated on the possible function of the ceramic disks recovered from this Sinagua village site as buttons, ornamentation, gaming pieces, or childrens’ toys.

I am not implying any direct, ongoing connection between the sites in Arizona and those in the western Colorado Desert. The site examples from the American Southwest were mentioned only to discuss ideas for the potential functions of ceramic disks. The ceramic disks from the western Colorado Desert were definitely not employed as spindle whorls. The commonly observed biconically drilled center hole in the San Diego Museum of Man collections would not hold a shaft on a hand spindle and the typical diameter of the hole is too small to accommodate a hand spindle shaft. I am a spinner and understand the uses of a hand spindle. It has been pointed out to me by Dr. Susan Hector (personal communication, 2015), who is an expert spinner and knowledgeable on ancient fiber technology, that fibers obtained from locally available plants, such as agave, yucca, dogbane, and milkweed, have exceedingly long staples [length of a single fiber] and thus would be ill-suited for spinning on a hand spindle without a distaff to hold the fibers. Such fibers could be most efficiently spun by prehistoric people into cordage on one’s thigh. Cotton fiber and wool fiber, both introduced to the California Indians by the Spanish at the missions in the late eighteenth century, are spun on a hand spindle which may have had a whorl. Supported spindles, often employed to spin cotton fiber, can spin fiber effectively with no need of a whorl, based upon my own long-term experience in hand spinning fibers. However, the inventory for Mission San Diego includes no mention of hand spindles but does cite the presence of spinning wheels (S. Hector, personal communication 2016). The Spanish missions likely only employed spinning wheels in textile production since these institutions wanted rapid production of yarn for weaving blankets and clothing. And, California Indians had no tradition for the use of hand spindles (S. Hector, personal communication 2016).

Earlier research had suggested that some shaped ceramic disks recovered within this region were used as lids for ollas (Heye 1919:27-28; Van Camp 1979:60). As noted above, Rogers’ observed one ceramic sherd with hole used as a lid for a ceramic vessel at his site SDM-C-165. Only a few ceramic disks I studied in the museum collections were large enough and distinctly shaped on the margins to indicate their use as lids for storage vessels. Ceramic disks in the collections often were broken at the center perforation.

Figure 5. Ceramic disk from SDM-C-133 showing a common break at the center perforation.

I would suggest this particular type of breakage represents use wear. However, this break was observed often enough in the collections to suggest that a break through the middle had been, in some instances, intentional on the part of the individual who used the ceramic disk or occurred after their death. Ceramic vessels and other personal possessions were destroyed upon the death of the owner of the objects among Southern California Indian groups (Bean 2017:62-67; Cline 1984:79; Luomala 1978:603; Strong 1929:121, 180). Malcolm Rogers (field notes on file at the San Diego Museum of Man) referred to finding “pottery sacrifice” locations and ceramic objects (and other artifacts) that had been “sacrificed,” that is, broken and thrown into a funeral pyre or other location, within sites in the Colorado Desert he investigated during his 1920s and 1930s fieldwork.

The hole in the center of ceramic disks present in the San Diego Museum of Man collections and disks of relatively small size also suggests at least some of the SDM-C-135 disks and those of other area sites may have been worn in some manner. A significant number of ceramic disks in my study sample are smaller in overall diameter than many ceramic storage vessel openings, as stated above. Van Camp (1979:60) hypothesized that the smaller-sized shaped ceramic disks could have served as gaming pieces, were used on necklaces, or served as buttons, while the larger sized disks could have been used as olla lids.

The ceramic assemblages of sites in the western Colorado Desert also contained ceramic pipe handles with holes drilled into it (see also observations by Rogers 1936:19). Holes were commonly drilled into ceramic vessels along either side of a crack in an effort to repair the break (Rogers 1936:19; Van Camp 1979:54-55; personal observations of ceramic artifact collections). Thus, holes were drilled into ceramic items for multiple reasons.


The use of ceramic artifacts dates back in time to around AD 1000 in the Colorado Desert region (Griset 1986:97, 99; Schaefer and Laylander 2007:252). The use of ceramic disks will obviously date to a period sometime thereafter. The dates obtained from resin sealant applied upon ceramic disks used as ceramic vessel lids reported by Bayman et al. (1996:135-136, Table 2), at a site close to the Colorado River, are late prehistoric in age: 260±120 RCYBP, 280±50 RCYBP, and 580±170 RCYBP. Site SDM-C-135 Camp 2 with 31 ceramic disks has strong evidence of Native American occupation during the historic era. Other sites in the western Colorado Desert with ceramic disks have Late Prehistoric Period components and some have considerable evidence of historic-period Native American use (e.g., SDM-C-144 and SDM-C-160), also. Certainly, Indian people including the Mountain Cahuilla, Ipai, Tipai, and Kwaaymii continued to occupy the western Colorado Desert during historic times into the twentieth century, based upon historic accounts (Van Wormer 1986; and others), ethnographic information (Bean 1978:583-586; Cline 1984; Strong 1929:148-155; and others), archaeological evidence in the Museum of Man collections, and field notes by Malcolm Rogers. Ceramic disks are found in various Spanish mission sites and sites dating to later in the nineteenth century in California (Farris 1991:34; Panich et al. 2017:2, 6, Table 1; Panich et al. 2018:21-22). Two aboriginal brown ware ceramic disks were found at a residential site within Old Town San Diego in a context dating from 1830s to 1850, along with abundant additional evidence of Native American use (Felton at al. 2014:241). A well shaped ceramic disk made from English earthenware, not aboriginal pottery, was recovered from the site of Casa de Bandini in Old Town San Diego, a residence dating between 1829 and the early 1860s (Schaefer et al. 2015:170-171).


In conclusion, ceramic disks were potentially employed for a variety of functions by Native American people in the western Colorado Desert. Certainly, their use as lids for effectively sealing the contents of ceramic storage vessels was one important usage of these objects. Although, other means of effectively covering storage vessels were also available, as noted above. I would hypothesize that ceramic disks of a diameter or shape not suitable for covering a storage vessel could have been used as either a gaming piece, as ornamentation on clothing, or worn as a pendant on a necklace. Pottery comes from the earth and inherently becomes infused with a spiritual nature. Ceramic disks are then more effective in any of these proposed functions given their connection to the earth. Ceramic disks were used both in pre-Contact times and in the historic period within my study area.

Traditional everyday aboriginal objects, including ceramic disks, would potentially take on additional roles and connotations for Native Americans living in a colonial and post-Contact setting such as the Spanish Missions, in Californio pueblos, on Californio ranchos, in American society, or in areas frequently visited by non-indigenous people in historic times (such as, the western Colorado Desert). Ceramic disks, flaked-stone tools, manos and metates, and other traditional tools represented conspicuous symbols of Native American identity and could have served to enhance their self-esteem; and, the continued use of traditional objects helped them remain connected to an indigenous world while also serving as practical, reliable implements for their daily tasks. The use of these artifacts would potentially support and strengthen internal social relations among Native American people. The continued use of ceramic and stone implements and objects represents a manifestation of the strong desire of Indian people in this region to maintain cultural practices and traditions.

It remains unsettled why ceramic disks recovered in my study sample appear in greater numbers at sites in traditional Cahuilla territory. An explanation may lie more in how the ancient Ipai, Tipai, and Kwaaymii used ceramic disks, such as regularly using them for lids on funerary vessels during cremations. The collecting bias of Malcolm Rogers can potentially explain the relatively low numbers of ceramic disks in the San Diego Museum of Man collections, in particular, leaving behind broken specimens at sites, while the individuals who collected artifacts at SDM-C-135 in 1951 (West and West 1951) gave more attention to ceramic objects. Artifact collection procedures do not fully account for the lower numbers of ceramic disks at archaeological sites within traditional Kumeyaay and Kwaaymii territories that were investigated after Rogers’ field career, such as BW-9, Indian Hill Rockshelter, and sites within Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in the mountains of San Diego County.

The ceramic disk represents a traditional aboriginal object that upon first glance can be overlooked and under appreciated, in particular since they are often found in a broken condition. As I have reflected upon this relatively simple artifact, the ceramic disk has an engaging story to convey when we strive to find it.


The author is grateful to staff of the San Diego Museum of Man Collections Department for granting permission to examine the Colorado Desert collections. My work on these collections took place in 2014 and 2015. Susan Hector reviewed a draft of this article and provided valuable comments. The photographs were taken by the author.


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