“An Analysis of the Party-Hill Bay Rock Alignments” – 1978

Posted on Friday, October 29th, 2010

ASA Journal: The Journal of the Archaeological Survey Association of Southern California: William T. Venner

This report covers the fieldwork by the author and a substantial crew of students who were especially interested in the unusual series of rock alignments at the Party Hill Bay site. This site is located in southeastern California, approximately 15 miles northwest of Baker, California. The specific area surveyed in this project covers about 1/3 square mile or about .86 square kilometer.

The site is situated just west of a chain of low hills that bound the Silver Lake playa on its western shore. These hills are basically of a carbonate nature, composed of meta-limestones and dolomite. They are underlain by Mesozoic quart diorite, or quartz monzanite which underlies most of the area (Grose 1959).

The morphology of the area is composed of three geologic features: (1) the playa, (2) the dolomite hills, and (3) the alluvial fans. The playa is a dry lake bed that covers about 10 square miles (26 sq. km.). This flat area has been created by the deposition of silt from waters that have drained from the surrounding higher elevations. The depth of the basin underlying the clay surface is not known and may be quite deep. Cores from wells dug in the area show evidence of silt deposition at least 200 feet (60 m.) deep (Rogers 1939). The majority of the silt is deposited by the ephemerally flowing Mojave River that drains into this basin from the south.

From the playa the elevation increases quickly along the western shoreline. The dolomite hills rise here to nearly 1700 feet (518 m.). These rocky hills were formed by the activity of the Soda-Avawatz Fault (Hamlin 1977).

On the eastern side of the playa, a broad alluvial fan stretched from the shoreline to the Turquoise Mountain range. This fan, nearly 15 miles wide (24 km.), displays a continuum of rock debris size from large fractured boulders of several tons to silt grains that weigh less than .1 gram.

The site lies in a small bay on the northwest margin of the playa. This area is mainly blow sand that has been deposited on the regressing playa shoreline. The terrain contains benches that have retained water-worn pebbles incorporated into desert pavement. One these benches the rock alignments exist.

The plants occupying this region have adapted to a severely harsh environment. The scant moisture, often below 2 inches (10 cm.) annually. Summer temperatures may exceed 120° F (49° C.) with surface temperature above 160° F. (71° C.) and winds may blow above 65 mph (105 kmph). The annual evaporation rate is nearly 15 ft. (4.75 m.). A list of the plants identified in the site area is as follows (Venner 1977):

Blooming Plants Not Blooming Plants
Kidney-Leaved Buckwheat Eriogonum reniforme Brittle Spine Flower Chorizanthe brevicornu
Desert Trumpet Eriogonum inflatum Inkweed Suaeda torreyana ramosissima
Rigid Spiny Herb Chorizanthe rigida Red Molly Kochia californica
Desert Holly Atriplex hymenlytra Wheelscale Atriplex elegans fasciculate
Desert Gold Poppy Eschscholtzia glyptosperma Allscale Atriplex polycarpa
Yellow Pepper Grass Lepidium flavum Parry Saltbush Atriplex parryi
Linear-leaved Cambess Oligomeris linifolia Tumbleweed Salsola kali tenuifolia
Desert Five-Spot Molvastrum rotundifolium Lowland Purslane Trianthema portulacastrum
Yellow Cups Oenothera brevipes Prickly Poppy Argemone intermedia corymbosa
Brown-eyes Primrose Oenothera clavaeformis Rock Mustard Sisymbrium diffusum jaegeri
Death Valley Phacelia Phacelia vallis-mortae Desert Heron’s-Bill Erodium cicutarium
Fat-Leaved Phacelia Phacelia crenulata ambigua Small-seeded Sandmat Euphorbia polycarpa
Purple Mat Nama demissum covillei Sonoran Sandmat Euphorbia micromera
White-haired Forget-me-not Cryptantha maritime Creosote Bush Larrea tridentada
Narrow-leaved Forget-me-not Cryptantha angustifolia Thurber Sandpaper Plant Petolonyx thurberi
Burroweed strangler Orobanche ludoviciana cooperi Desert Horn Cactus Opuntia acanthocarpa
Pursh Plantain Plantago Purshii Beavertail Cactus Opuntia basilaris
Woolly Plantain Plantago insularis Woody Bottle-washer Oenothera decorticans desertorum
Mojave Desert Star Monoptilon bellioides Dune Primrose Oenothera deltoids
Naked-stemmed Sunray Enceliopisis nudicaulis Desert Milkweed Asclepias erosa
Desert Sun Flower Geraee canescens Chinese Pursley Heliotropium curassavicum oculatum
Rock Daisy Pertyle emoryi Oxytenia Oxytenia acerosa
Spanish Needle Palafoxia linearis Burrobush Ambrosia dumosa
Pebble Pincushion Chaenactis carphoclinia Cheesebush Hymenoclea Salsola
Fremont Pincushion Chaenactis fremontii Rayless Encelia Chaenactis stevioides
Scale Bud Anisocoma acaulis Velvet Rosette Psathyrotes ramosissima
White Tack Stem Calycoseris wrightii Schismus Grass Schismus barbatus

Archaeological Fieldwork

We divided the fieldwork into two phases: (1) survey, and (2) mapping. The Party Hill Bay Site is not far from several roads and is located in an area that is subjected to occasional campouts and parties. The terrain is accessible to off-road vehicles such as jeeps, dune buggies, and motorcycles. Thus, vandalism has occurred to many of the alignments. The fieldwork was an attempt both graphically and photographically to record what is present, before any more damage can occur. In effect, this work can be termed salvage archaeology (Hole and Heizer 1973).

We began the survey by dividing the site into transects and walking over each transect. Any sites located, both historic as well as pre-historic were recorded. The mapping phase involved graphical placement of the alignments in relation to each other, as well as the mapping of the features of each alignment. This was accomplished by a combination of grid layouts and surveying techniques.

We examined any flakes and other materials of interest.

Rock Alignments

We discovered that the rock alignments were in close proximity to each other. They were all situated at about the same elevation, 920 ft. elevation, and embedded into the exposed desert pavement. Most of the alignments were found to be in direct association with some the lacustrine strandlines. All of the stones used in the alignments were collected locally from outcrops of quartz diorite. The early peoples gathered these clasts from Party Hill, which overlooks the site area.

The individual lithic pieces of the alignments were generally similar size and shape, with variations of course. The most commonly-sized rock was 9-12 inches long and 6-8 inches wide. They were usually embedded into the desert pavement about half their thickness. The exposed rock surfaces displayed evidence of sandblasting and desert varnish while the submerged portion had acquired the characteristic orange-to-yellow ground patina commonly found on the buried surfaces of desert rocks that have not been disturbed for a long period of time (Hayden 1976). A limited amount of caliche had also formed beneath the buried surfaces.

The alignments consist of three general descriptive types: (1) linear, (2) crescentic, and (3) ovid. These three shapes serve only as a means by which to group the alignments by shape so as to aid in our understanding of their nature. The functions of these alignments and the possible activities that occurred nearby will be discussed in the conclusion.

Rock Alignment Types

With one exception, alignments are all less than 12 feet in length or diameter. The exception is a large alignment nearly 75 feet long (23 m.). All alignments consist of one-course layering, and the alignment stones are distinct from the country rock, which is predominantly calcareous tufa. There are a total of 25 alignments. The most common is the crescentic form.

Linear Alignments

The linear alignments are a nearly-straight alignment of rock. Their positioning, in respect to the extinct shoreline, is almost always at right angles. Their deployment is generally east-west. The alignments of this type are; C, M, and AA. Alignments C and M are represented below. Alignment AA will be treated by itself because of its inherent size difference.

Crescentic Alignments

This type of alignment was most common. There has been a further subdivision of this type into two subtypes: I and II. All of the crescentic alignments are parallel to the shore strandlines. They are embedded into the tufa gravel and desert pavement that forms the crust on top of the benches in the area. All of these alignments have their wings pointed towards the extinct shore with their apex towards the lacustrine.

Subtype I

Subtype I can be described as ‘V’-shaped. Alignments B, E, G, and Q all possess a significant characteristic that differentiates them from Subtype II; this is the opening at the apex at the deeper end, and this difference is discussed in the conclusion.

Subtype II

Subtype II is best described as ‘U’-shaped. This form includes alignments; A, D, H, I, J, L, and N. These features lack the interruption at the apex that Subtype I contains. A second characteristic of difference between the two subtypes is the presence of small dunes on the windward sides of some of the alignments. The most likely cause for this Aeolian build-up is that some of these alignments have slightly larger rocks than Subtype I.

Ovoid Alignments

The ovoid-shaped features are rock scatters that conform to an overall circular form. This type includes Alignments; O, P, X, Y, Z, AB, AC, AD, and AE. They are all found up, away from the shorelines at higher elevations, 925-935 ft. (281-285 m.), than the other two types. They obviously have a separate cultural meaning.

Other Alignments

There are two types of alignments we separated from the three major types; (1) the large alignment, and (2) badly vandalized forms. Alignment AA is nearly 75 feet (23 m.) long and is basically linear. It is composed of nearly 250 stones, some weighing as much as 50 pounds (22.7 kg.). This alignment lies away from the shorelines in close association with the ovoid types. The possible function of this alignment will be discussed in the conclusion.

The remaining alignments have been disturbed to the point that it is not possible to obtain any accurate account of their original form. These alignments, thus, are of little archaeological value.

Other Alignments

A total of 48 siliceous flakes were recorded and separated into four descriptive types, based upon rock material. The descriptive types are; (1) fine grained basalt, (2) chalcedony, (3) jasper, and (4) rhyolite. The flakes were all small, ½ to 1½ inches long and ⅓ to 1¼ inches wide. They all were produced by percussion flaking. Some exhibited pressure flaking also. Wind damage is severe on nearly every piece.

Over ¾ of the flakes are classified as debris from a knapper’s workshop. These would be the discarded pieces that are wasted away in the knapping process of manufacturing lithic tools. Some of the pieces represented shapes that are associated with scraper forms, as well as knife forms. These will be discussed in the conclusion.

We found one projectile point. This artifact is a Silver Lake Point, which can be employed as a tentative temporal type. Silver Lake Points have been found in association with radiocarbon datable materials and a time frame for the manufacture of these artifacts can be assumed. The significance of this point is discussed in the conclusion.

Lithic Descriptive Types

Lithic type Count
Fine grained basalt 26
Chalcedony 11
Jasper 8
Rhyolite 3

Discussion

There is considerable evidence that dramatic changes in climate have occurred in the Lake Mojave basin since it was occupied by prehistoric peoples. At present the area exhibits the characteristics of the Lower Sonoran life-zone: precipitation is minimal, temperature range widely, as well as being extreme, and flora is sparse and well adapted to an arid environment. Factors support the idea of a pluvial condition during the last glacial period. There were cooler temperatures, considerably more precipitation, and a change in the vegetation zones.

Paleoclimatic reconstructions have been developed (Mehringer 1967, Leskinen 1975, King 1976, and Malde 1964). They have demonstrated that the climatic conditions fluctuated. Using fossil pollen studies, Mehringer suggests that vegetation zones were lowered nearly 3,200 feet (990 m.) during the last pluvial period. Malde stated, 12,000 – 13,000 years ago the annual temperatures were reduced 10-12° F. (5-7° C.). King has obtained samples of Juniper (Juniperus californica) and Pinyon Pine (Pinus monophylla) from woodrat  (Neotoma lepida) nests that have been radio-carbon dated from 8,000 – 12,000 BP. These nests now, are situated in areas that are too warm and too dry to support such types of plants.

The lowering of the annual temperature, as suggested by Malde would result in more precipitation. Malde postulates as much as 8 extra inches (20 cm) of moisture each year. This additional moisture could support life forms which now exist only at higher elevation. The decrease in elevation of the Pinyon-Juniper and the High Desert Woodland biotic community 3,250 feet (990 m.) from its present location would position this zone at about the 1,500 – 1,700 (457-518 m.) elevation level. This would bring this life zone to within a mile (1.6 km) or so of the Silver Lake shorelines. The higher elevation life zones would also be lowered accordingly: The Ponderosa Pine forest and the Lodge pole Pine—White Fir forests. There would also be an introduction of the Alpine Fell life zone (Jaeger and Smith 1971) near the peaks of the higher mountains.

The runoff and drainage of this additional precipitation , which would be amplified by a tremendous drop in the evaporation rate, would allow the creation of fresh water lacustrial stands (lakes); and, in such a fashion, the Lake Mojave basin was filled. There is evidence to support the suggestion that the body of water existed continuously, for nearly 2,000 years; from 11,000 to 9,000 years ago (Ore and Warren 1971).

This lake would have created its own biotic communities. Riparian woodlands would have appeared along the major drainages between the higher elevations and the lacustrial shoreline. This would have introduced such major species as Cottonwoods (Populus trichocarpa), Maples (Acer macrophyllum), and willows (Saliz sp.) (Jaeger and Smith 1971). Around the shorelines of the lake, a freshwater marsh environment would have existed. In these lake shallows, plants such as Tules (Acirpus acutus), and Cattails (Typha latifolia or T. angustifolia) (Weide 1968), as well as Rushes (Eleocharis spp.) and Sedges (Carex spp.) (Jaeger and Smith 1971). The existence of each one of these life zones would have also produced its own characteristic faunal communities as well.

It will be noted that the aqua environment of Lake Mojave has not been developed. The availability of a body of water the size of Lake Mojave creates possibilities for many sub-aqueous animal species. A walk along some of the shorelines is all that is necessary to document the existence of freshwater clams (Anadontis californicus). Tests for the presence of fish have not been made. Weide (1968) indicates that the pluvial fresh water lakes of neighboring Coachella Valley possessed fish. Further evidence for the existence of fish in Lake Mojave is presented by the interpretation of some of the cultural remains that have been found at the Party Hill Bay site.

The presence of Lake Mojave and the vegetation zones listed, as well as the animals appropriate to each life zone, would have presented a rich food source for prehistoric humans. We interpret the existence of the Party Hill Bay site as an area of exploitation of this rich food environment.

The presence of the rock alignments suggest three different functions, each function corresponding with a different alignment design. The rock alignment functional types will be termed as the following: (1) Fish weirs, (2) Hunting blinds, and (3) Shelters. The lithic artifacts were identified as food gathering and preparation tools used in hunting, hide scraping, flesh cutting, and wood and vegetable cutting.

Fish Weirs

Wilke (personal communication) has studied fish weirs along the shorelines of Lake Cahuilla and has developed a descriptive type, as well as suggesting how these forms were used. These features are described as being either ‘V’ or ‘U’-shaped with the wings extending towards the shore. They have an opening at the apex in the deeper water. These weirs were used to channel the escape of fish. The route of the fish was controlled so they had to pass through the opening at the end of the alignment. At this point, a dip net or some other form of catchment device awaited the fish.

The Alignments; B, G, E, and Q fit this description of the Wilke fish weirs. All four alignments can be described as ‘V’-shaped and possess the opening at the apex on the down-slope side. They occupy an elevational relationship to each other along a series of definable shorelines. The possibility of more fish weirs existing is present but so far only three can be confidently describes as fish weirs. There has been some vandalism in the area caused by vehicular traffic, as the bench that these alignments occupy provides a smooth and firm surface to drive across.

Hunting Blinds

Wallace (1976) has described hunting blinds in the Death Valley area. Two types are discussed: one for hunting large mammalian game such as deer and sheep, and a second type used for hunting water fowl. The Party Hill Bay features resemble the characteristics of the waterfowl blinds. The Death Valley waterfowl blinds were constructed near past bodies of water where Tules (Scripus acutus) and other marsh plants existed. The blinds consisted of brush and sticks that would form a small dome-shaped, house like structure. It seems likely that these blinds were anchored by an arrangement of stones which would be circular or crescentic in shape.

Alignments A, D, H, I, J and L present shapes that could have served this hunting function. They are all on a similar elevation. They could help conceal hunters who crouched behind, or within these brush shelters, lying in wait for ducks and geese, and other waterfowl to come within striking range.

Shelters

Rogers (1939) described certain rock alignments which he called house-shelter types. They usually consisted of a circular arrangement of rocks with an average diameter of 6 feet (1.8 m.). Rogers presented ethnographic evidence that supported his idea of these alignments being used as sleeping circles. He cited an 1872 report that described these rock circles as serving as an anchor for brush and sticks which would have broken the winds, as well as providing shade. The most common shapes are drawn below: (Pourade, ed. 1966)

While none of the Party Hill Bay alignment completely reproduces these forms, Alignments N and P closely approximate one of these features. The possibility of them providing a form of limited weather protection can be inferred. As with the hunting blinds, the vegetal material has been destroyed, but the rock alignments remain, providing a hint as to how the area was used by the ancients.

A second type of circular arrangement may also provide evidence of a dwelling form. Alignments X and AC are circular in overall form but have rocks scattered over the entire area, rather than just being confined to the “walls.” It is possible that these were also shelters but have been disturbed by vandalism.

Other Alignments

Two other types of alignment designs exist at the site. The first is composed of linear arrangement (Alignment M). Because of this alignment’s position with relation to the ground slope, the possibility exists that this was some form of check dam, used for controlling water runoff. A simply built water-control device would be a single line of rocks that would cross a watercourse at right angles; it purpose would be to slow the water and cause a small pool to form (Venner 1974).

The second example of alignment is also basically linear in design but the overall size dwarfs all the other alignments. Alignment AA is 75 feet (22 m.) long. It was first noted by Ore and Warren (1971). This feature may have served as a windbreak, in which living activities could have occurred on the lee side. This in inferred from the cultural materials found by the Ore and Warren excavations. They uncovered flakes, broken clam shells (Anadonta californica), and other possible artifacts. This seems to be a likely function for the alignment, envisioning the ancients using this rock line to hold down sticks and brush.

The alignment does not appear to be a water-control device such as Alignment M, as there appears to be no prehistoric water drainage seen in the area, nor is there any deposit of silt on the upstream side, which would have built up when the silt-laden waters would have been slowed by a check dam. Alignments of this shape and size have usually been defined as of ceremonial use (Rogers 1939, Pourade, ed. 1966, King and Casebier 1974, and Benton 1977). As more data becomes available we hope to be able to create a supportable thesis concerning the function of this alignment.

Lithics

Most of the pieces that were studies appear to be waste flaking from a general workshop area that lies west of the large alignment. These flakes show no evidence of retouch or of usage. At present there is no way to associate these pieces with any tool tradition or horizon. The scrapers that were located and examined (#8, 11, 15, 16, 17, 22, and 31) were mainly a thin percussion flake in which certain portions of the margin had been retouched. They were probably used on skins.

The knives in the artifact inventory (#7, 34, and 36) were of a plano-convex shape. They, as the scrapers have suffered the effects of blowing sand and show no evidence of usage. The knife types were probably used to cut flesh or vegetal materials. Both the scrapers and the knives can be classified as existing within the San Dieguito Playa Complex, as defined by Rogers (1939).

The hunting implement is a projectile point, a Silver Lake Point. This point type is well known and has been reported by many (Campbell, et all 1937, Hunt 1958, Davis 1964, Rogers 1939, Wallace 1962, and Bettinger and Taylor 1974). This artifact has a temporal range established from radiocarbon dates of associated artifacts from other sites at a date of from 6,000 to 8,000 BP (Wallace 1962, and Bettinger and Taylor 1974).

Final Summation

In conclusion, we have provided evidence establishing the activities which occurred along the northwest shore of Lake Mojave during the last pluvial period 12,000 to 8,000 years ago. During this age of wetter climates and more vegetation, the ancients lived along the shores of the lake and hunted game such as deer and sheep, and waterfowl. Artifacts from the site also indicate such life-support activities as fishing, clam collecting, processing vegetal foods, skinning hides, and preparing meat. We will continue to work along the shorelines of this playa and gather more information that will enable us to further develop a reconstruction of the various activities that occurred during pluvial times.

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A selection of rock alignments

une 1977.

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2 Responses to
““An Analysis of the Party-Hill Bay Rock Alignments” – 1978”

  • registered nurse says: January 24th, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    I just added your blog site to my blogroll, I pray you would give some thought to doing the same.

  • Robert S. Brown says: June 22nd, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    It is indicated that you published this paper in the ASA Journal, but the volumn, number, and pages are not specified. I had two papers concerning rock alignments publised in the Journal before the ASA was disbanded and am currently working on a rock alignment complex at Troy Dry Lake. Among the visitors I have recorded at the site is a William Venner, and I wonder if that is you. Please contact me at rsbrownco@aol.com

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