Shell and Stone Basketry Tools From a Village Site in Coastal San Diego County, California

By Michael P. Sampson

California Indians are renowned for their beautiful, well-made, and highly practical baskets. The famous California ethnologist, A. L. Kroeber, stated that basketry among the California Indian people was “…unquestionably the most developed art in California” (Kroeber 1970:819). In his excellent discussion of basketry among the Native American people of California, Albert Elsasser (1978:641) offered this observation: “Basketry reached one of its high points of artistic achievement, worldwide, in Native California…” Another researcher made the following observation: “California Indian basketry is the most diverse, complex and magnificent basketry in the world” (Shanks 2010:1). M. Kat Anderson (2005:187), an expert in California Indian plant uses, saw baskets as so important in traditional California Indian culture she made this observation: “Basketry captures the apotheosis of California Indian cultures.”

California Indians manufactured a variety of baskets used in many different functions, although a limited number of basic manufacturing techniques, predominantly twining and coiling, were traditionally employed throughout California (Anderson 2005:187-190; Elsasser 1978: Table 1, 634-640; Kroeber 1970:819-822; Moser 1993:17-27; Shanks 2010; and others). Among native people of Southern California, particular plants were most commonly employed in basket making, including, deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens), juncus or rush (Juncus spp., especially, Juncus textilis), pine needles (Pinus spp.), three-leaf sumac (Rhus trilobata), Yucca (Yucca schidigera and Yucca whipplei), and others (Bean and Saubel 1972:80-81, 89-90, 132, 150-152; Hedges and Beresford 1986:9, 23, 25, 29, 45; Moser 1993:13-16; Shanks 2010:151-153).  Among the Kumeyaay (Ipai and Tipai) people, whose traditional territory encompassed much of San Diego County and northern Baja California, the former five plants are reported to be the primary ones used in the manufacture of baskets (Hedges and Beresford 1986:9, 23, 25-27, 29, 37; Farmer 1993:142-145). Yucca cordage served as a foundation material when starting a basket, but seemed not to be considered as important in basket making as the other four plants cited above (Bean and Saubel 1972:152; Farmer 1993:146; Moser 1993:16; Shanks 2010:152). Some variation in plant use amongst Southern California Indian groups occurred, of course, due to geographic circumstances that dictated species availability and differences in group traditions.

Clearly, the plants, Juncus textilis and Rhus trilobata, represented key elements of baskets produced by Southern California Indian groups. The material from the latter two plants were prepared for basketry in a specific manner by basket makers. The plants first would be split at one end into three equal parts and then the individual strips of plant fiber so created by the splitting were formed into uniform thicknesses by using a tool to “size” the strips (Bean and Saubel 1972:80; Farmer 1993:143-145; Hedges and Beresford 1986:11; Moser 1993:15, 17). Moser (1993:17), in describing the process used on juncus plants, stated that the reeds were split into three “…and then sized (made thinner and narrower) by pulling through a hole in a piece of shell or stone in ancient times…” He further notes that can lids with holes are used for sizing among modern-day basket makers (see also description by Farmer 1993:143-144).

In spring 2012, the author had the opportunity to direct archaeological excavations at a small portion of a large prehistoric and early historic period Kumeyaay village site, designated site CA-SDI-17203, on the banks of Chollas Creek (Brodie et al. 2014) where evidence of basket making was observed by the present writer. The part of the site investigated in 2012 now underlies residential areas in the city of San Diego, and at the time of its prehistoric and early historic occupation the site would have adjoined a broad marshland created at the mouth of Chollas Creek where it flows into San Diego Bay. Thus, it came as no surprise to investigators that shellfish, either in the form of subsistence remains, tools, or ornaments, was the most abundant cultural constituent uncovered in the 2012 archaeological fieldwork at site CA-SDI-17203 (Brodie et al. 2014:61, 75-81). A distinctive shell tool (Catalog #304) produced from a Pismo clam (Tivela stultorum) was recovered from unit Central Pit 3 (Stratum A, 40-50 cm below surface) during the 2012 project.

Worked shell, cat #304, frame 573.JPG

This culturally modified Pismo clam shell measured 42.79 mm by 21.10 mm by 4.49 mm. The shell tool exhibited grinding along one edge and has a notch cut into this same edge; the notch has a width of 4.09 mm and the edges of this notch are conspicuously worn from use-wear. Eva Salazar, a noted Kumeyaay basket maker, worked on the 2012 excavation project at CA-SDI-17203 as a Native American monitor, so I took the opportunity to ask her opinion on the potential uses of the latter modified clam shell specimen. According to Eva Salazar (personal communication, April 5, 2012), the notch in this clam shell tool could have been used to shape and smooth juncus reeds or materials from three-leaf sumac during the basket making process, as well as being used to “size” basketry material.

Other modified shell specimens exhibiting one or more notches on the edge and at least one notched flake tool were also recovered from CA-SDI-17203 during the spring 2012 excavations. One notched fine-grain volcanic flake and one broken notched clam shell were recovered from Stratum B within Unit Central Pit 3 [thus, the two items came from a level underlying the level where the notched clam shell examined by Ms. Salazar was found]. The volcanic flake tool measured 40.82 mm by 23.23 mm by 10.57 mm with a notch width of 4.48 mm. The notched clam shell from Stratum B measured 24.46 mm by 16.91 mm by 4.15 mm and had a maximum notch width of 6.53 mm. While Eva Salazar did not specifically examine the latter two tools, I hypothesize that these, too, were used for “sizing” basketry materials. A chione clam shell found in a lower level of Central Pit 3, measuring 40.49 mm by 37.38 mm, exhibited two distinctive notches along one edge that also could have been used in processing split juncus reeds or three-leaf sumac for basket making.

Clam Shell with two Notches #834.JPG

Other modified shells were recovered from CA-SDI-17203 during the 2012 fieldwork, including at least one chione clam shell with a notch cut into one edge (recovered from Central Pit 3, Stratum B) and numerous hole-punched scallop shells, some of which possibly served as basketry tools. Some of the scallops recovered onsite had holes obviously too large for “sizing” while other holes seemed of the proper size.

California Indian basket making (and production of other textile items) is transitory, and thus, this culturally significant traditional practice will be exceptionally difficult for archaeologists and other researchers to recognize. Susan Hector (2006) eloquently referred to this cultural practice as “the unseen culture” and noted that few tools specifically employed in basket making or the manufacture of other textile products will be found in archaeological contexts. Hector (2006:108-109) recommended that archaeologists who study past human cultures in California must become familiar with the textile production process and become more keenly aware of the cultural landscape of an area in order to adequately document such a highly important cultural tradition as basket making and the creation of other textile products. The notched shells and at least one notched stone tool recovered at CA-SDI-17203 on Chollas Creek next to San Diego Bay that are discussed above provide a glimpse into the everyday practices of the Kumeyaay people who resided in this village and so enrich our picture of past traditional cultural practices. This archaeological story is made even more compelling by the testimony of an expert modern-day Kumeyaay basket maker who saw analogy between archaeological specimens and her own craft.


The archaeological excavations at CA-SDI-17203 were performed by staff of LSA Associates, Inc. of Carlsbad, California under contract to the City of San Diego; I was a temporary employee of the company in 2012 when I served as field director for the project. I wish to thank Rod McLean and Mike Trotta (LSA Associates, Carlsbad) for the opportunity to work at CA-SDI-17203. I wish to thank Dr. Susan Hector for encouragement to prepare this article and her comments on a draft of this article. The photograph of the notched clam shell was taken by LSA Associates laboratory staff.


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