“Pocketing potsherds is erasure. It is the worst of colonization, the taking of the land. If you believe the stealing has ended, it has not.”
–Craig Childs Why Potsherds Matter
On this, the last day of Native American Heritage Month.
I don’t understand why people do what they do. Why they hunt things like this to peddle for so little money. So little money. Surely driven by avarice and in no way needful.
Several years ago I stood on the mountain locked in a thousand yard stare gazing intently at a particular geological feature.
I returned another day and by another route, hiking and scrambling over steep and loose, rugged and rocky terrain, a strenuous walk without a trail. There were no tracks but that of a bear.
I saw no recent sign of people at this place, although in years past marijuana growers had put the remote and hard to access south facing site to their advantage. I found three different old grow sites.
A wildfire had swept the mountain not long before I hiked and so the earth was stripped naked of its many forms of cover.
I walked over to the boulder that had captured my attention from far.
I stepped slowly around the monolith looking at the ground and the sides of the giant stone. I did not see anything remarkable.
Using the blackened skeleton of a scorched bay tree I hoisted myself atop the boulder. I took several steps and there they were, well-weathered and faint, but unmistakable in their form and placement: cupules. Sacred markings bored into the stone by human hands.
I spent hours sitting about and wandering around this place. It is perhaps the most extraordinary place I have seen in the Santa Ynez Mountains for its natural character and long views alone, never mind the landed artifact of the cupule boulder. The geography of the site alone is mesmerizing.
Then of a sudden other small stones of importance I had walked past began showing themselves.
This place was speckled in lithic scatter and other small artifacts. Projectile points of various designs and drills and beads and blades and a pestle. All of it laying bare to sun for perhaps the first time in hundreds of years.
A nest found in a bush but right smack on the ground, along a steep ridgeline, while walking to the place.
I returned to this place another day.
I loved to spend time there for its prehistoric presence and the natural ambiance and phenomenal view.
I’d walk there in different weather and different seasons to see what life was like in the forest there throughout the year.
I walked on warm, still summer days under spotless blue skies and on chilly, wet winter days of cold gloom and low ceilings within heavy cloud cover.
The fire had cleared the way for a steep route, which was a pleasure to hike. And so I did, repeatedly, because I knew the chaparral was growing back and it would not be long before the site vanished under the bush and trees.
I marveled how I was the only human around in this densely populated region that apparently had any interest in explorations of the freshly revealed forest. And to just walk, walk the rounded hills.
The Grouch of the Woods was astonished at this lack of interest on the part of his fellow humans, yet also very much pleased by their absence, obviously.
The mountains were steep and irregular and boney and jagged in places with exposed bedrock.
Yet, by and large, these slopes were mounds of bare soil, well-weathered and shaped into smooth, organic and curvilinear forms from the wind and the rain working with gravity to bring it all down, like groomed hills at a ski resort and heaving ocean swells.
Hillwalking here was steep work, but easy in the fire-scorched terrain and the smooth lines of the curvaceous mountains very much reminded me of the grass hills of Scotland.
Then one day on my return I found tracks to this sacred place. Some other humans had finally shown interest. Good for them.
Then, on yet another day, I noticed the soil in places had been disturbed and it was plainly evident that a body had been digging.
Artifacts that I had left at this place were suddenly gone on my next visit, obviously lifted.
An arrowhead I had picked up and set in a small pock mark concavity on the side of one of the boulders disappeared. The traps laid had been tripped.
While I cannot fault a person for taking an arrowhead laying on the surface in plain site, digging is another matter. Not just a difference between physical acts of removal, but in the letter of the law and intent.
I became agitated and defensive. I had come to feel a particular personal attachment to this place. To have found it myself, without being told by somebody else and let in on the secret. That meant something to me.
I made the snap decision to collect every flake of stone I could find. I did not know then and nor do I know now if that was the proper decision.
I left a single pile of those chippings in plain view for anybody to find.
But only I know the layout of the site as first found, and where exactly lie the specific areas that the people whom left these traces of their presence worked so diligently.
I have it all recorded in words and drawings and I will not share this information.
I collected those things and set them aside so that a plunderer might not have it so easy. I did not want to return again to find it all dug out.
Sure, the pirates may be able to surmise where best to dig, but, I reasoned, at least they don’t really know where. It is not as obvious as one might think.
Several days ago I experienced an odd chain of events.
I never use eBay. I don’t even look at eBay.
I do not buy Native American artifacts. The purchase of something like that does nothing for me.
I enjoy finding artifacts, indeed, I must confess. But it’s a casual pursuit, when I’m out there, but not always. I don’t make special trips. I have a long-standing and profound interest and I’m just observant by nature, and lucky. And I always walk with chin to chest.
I sure as hell am not going to patronize the business of plunder by buying items.
I struggle to make sense of our shared history and my place in it going forward. A part of this blog is about that, my open journal of sorts.
For some unknown reason in the cosmos I was on eBay and stumbled across this auction for what was listed as a rare Chumash artifact.
Oddly enough the item apparently had just been listed. What brought me to eBay that day I do not know. It’s remarkably odd.
I read the description and cursed out loud in astonishment.
This person had listed for sale an artifact they said had been found “ensconced” in the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara after a recent wildfire.
I could not help but believe that they had dug it up at the cupule boulder site. Of course, it is well within the realm of possibility it came from elsewhere on the mountain, but the description matches as well as it possibly could without being any more explicit in detail.
The listing was originally posted as a six day auction, but lasted only about one day or so before it was mysteriously terminated, without a bid or final sale price listed.
Here below is the listing:
Thank you for your story telling. For me it’s a strong reminder to think twice before “taking” wether it’s a plant or obsidian chip. Honorab
If it helps I heard through the grapevine (reliable source) that before that link was shut down, it found its way into the hands of the proper authorities.
As a lover of Native American culture, especially Chumash (my children are 1/4), I can’t tell you how sad it makes me to see this. Anyone who sells native artifacts is blatantly committing cultural appropriation for their own gain. Artifacts such as this should be returned to the tribe for their museum. I’m sure you were heartbroken to find so many of your finds missing upon your subsequent return. My hope is that a Chumash descendant purchased it. But we’ll never know now.
That must have felt really disheartening and disrespectful…to realize a site you had been visiting has been looted. Personally, I do have an arrowhead from a creek in Mississippi (near the town I am from)…as well as one found on a friend’s farm in Mississippi, given to me.
It felt right to keep those items…mostly to connect me to that place and that person, respectively. However, where is the line between taking something and leaving it?
There are a lot of people who search for artifacts in my home state of Mississippi… Often it looks like trophy hunting and very offensive… Yes, even worse when something ends up on eBay.
There are a lot of prehistoric items like mammoth teeth and american lion jaw bones…shark teeth…etc etc…in Mississippi as well. That feels all right to me…but removal needs to be respectful of the habitat, as well.
Back to artifacts…isn’t there something in place to keep places from being looted and sold on eBay?
Thanks for the comment. You speak for a lot of people I am sure.
Respect! Thank you.
This morning I was looking around google images for Chumash stone bowls to get ideas for a replica I’m creating using only stone tools. While trying to find examples I stumbled upon a listing to a small bowl found in the foothills of SB. I looked too perfect to seem true and sure enough at the bottom of the page there was another listing to another perfect Chumash paint bowl. After going through a few of these I realized that the wording and descriptions to each of these claimed artifacts was very similar to one another and I started to become skeptical that these listings were all from the same person attempting to sell fake artifacts. The last one I clicked on gave it away for me. He listed a mortar and pestle from up north where there are clear angle grinder aberrations not to mention the perfectly round and sharp edged bottom of the bowl where the modern creator must have used a drill bit.
My point is I am pretty sure this listing you stumbled upon is the same person I found online this morning and I believe theres a good chance nothing he has listed in even real. However he does seem educated and some of the items do look very authentic while others are a dead give away. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it all, but thought it might help ease your mind or at least give you some different insight.
Here’s some of what I am referring to..
“I believe theres a good chance nothing he has listed in even real.”
With respect to my post, the artifact didn’t look like anything I had ever seen from the Chumash.
I feel as though this must be the same person after now seeing this one of his.
From the same angle of the hand holding it with the vibrant grass in the background, to the similar slightly altered description of yet another stone palette from the same general area. However this one, if you look closely has the distinct circular markings left by an electric sander. No native person was using one of those back in the day. This reassures me this “artifact” is fake, but also certainly must be the same guy.
It’s still a bummer someone has been digging at the cupule site. Even though I’ve never been or know of it’s location, it still disappoints me hearing about it. As far as moving the flakes to a pile, that also kind of saddened me. I understand your cause of action, but I don’t think pilling up chippings away from their original location is good either. I know it’s because of you writing about this that I am even aware of it in the first place, but hope you can see my side to this last part, and maybe next time just bury anything you feel should be protected from looters just a few inches underground from where it was found. That way it’s basically right there where you found it, but out of view. mark it with a rock if you want to find see it again. I know that you said you weren’t sure if it was the proper decision, I just wanted to say what I thought.
“I don’t think pilling up chippings away from their original location is good either.”
I think you’re probably right about that. I regret that.