Stumbling Upon Chumash Bedrock Mortars

Chumash bedrock mortar grinding stone in the Santa Barbara County backcountry. There are four different mortars visible in this photo, although hard to see except the deepest one at center frame.

“In certain almost supernatural states of the soul, the profundity of life reveals itself entirely in the spectacle, however ordinary it may be, before one’s eyes. It becomes its symbol.”

Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867)

I first walked by this exposed chunk of sandstone two decades ago. If I noticed the rock at all it was only in passing, and I thought nothing more of it than any of the other countless slabs of stone protruding from the thousands of acres of surrounding wilderness. I certainly had not seen the bedrock mortars bored into its surface by Chumash Indians long ago.

On my last passing, during a backpacking trip, I had walked right by it once more without a glance. Yet, this time it was more exposed than in years past due to the Zaca Fire (’07), which had incinerated the brush cover previously obscuring it. On my way back a few days later it so happened that a snake lay across the trail beside the outcrop, which caused me to stop for a moment.

I’ve seen innumerable snakes over the years, as most people who spend any amount of time in the mountains do. They are common. For whatever reason on this occasion, perhaps it served as a good excuse to take a break, I decided to stop. And then I made the choice to remove my backpack and to take a photograph of the snake, because it presented an easy subject to try and get a close-up picture of.

I leaned my backpack against the sandstone outcrop holding the mortars which was a few feet away. It was after having snapped a few photos of the snake, and when returning my camera to its place in my pack, that I happened to glance over and spot one of the mortar holes. A quick look around the stone from where I stood revealed several other mortars of varying depths.

The rock sits on the edge of a hill overlooking a seasonal creek, but at a particular section of the stream where the water flows over a  ledge of exposed bedrock. And so while other portions of the creek in the area may go dry, the water collects at the foot of the ledge and remains longer than in other places. As with other Chumash sites, this one was well chosen.

The grinding stone is located, as well, between at least two other Indian sites in the near vicinity, one of which is among my favorite camps in all the forest and holds numerous bedrock mortars. The other site contains a large red pictograph several feet tall, as shown above.

While sitting on the outcrop resting, I thought about how many times I had obliviously walked right on by without noticing it was an old Indian grinding stone. Were it not for the wildfire having burned the brush away I might not have seen the mortars. Had it not been for the snake I definitely would of missed them.

 Two mortars seen here filled with dry grass sprouts.

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10 Responses to Stumbling Upon Chumash Bedrock Mortars

  1. Nico says:

    I found these exact same mortars a few years back, the first winter after the Zaca Fire. It’s amazing how fire changes the landscape… Like you, I’d never noticed them before. Makes me wonder how many other secrets that area is still holding…

  2. Stillman says:

    Jack, I got a rock in the neighborhood of Chorro Grande that I have to show you.

  3. Tom Pierce says:

    Jack, I live in Cayucos, just north of Morro Bay. I was walking on the beach the other day and found a small grinding stone,that appears to be of some volcanic rock. It is approximately 10 inches long and kinda oblong with two areas that have been ground down. This stone fits really well in your left hand. I would like to send a photo but I do not see ant where that I can upload a photo. Tom Pierce

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Hello Tom. Wow. I would love to see a photo! Unfortunately there is no way for a reader to directly upload a photo to the blog. It would be nice if the WordPress platform offered that option, but they don’t. However, if you like you can email me a copy through my Contact page. I would be happy to post it and credit it to you.

  4. Anonymous says:

    bad bad bad..archaeological site are not for the public

  5. jonette ford Krzciuk says:

    Anonymous get some courage and say who you are. You appear to be one of many obnoxious
    zealots. Jack Elliot, thanks for sharing the pictures. I don’t need to go see it now.

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