Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Learning about The Antiquities of Anza-Borrego with a Park Archaeologist

Boulder with Morteros

Boulder with Morteros

©Bert Gildart: We were a small group of about nine and had joined Sam Webb, a volunteer archaeologist in Anza Borrego, on a hike described as the Morteros Hike. Less than a hundred yards into the walk Webb stopped and asked our group what we saw.

Webb was looking at a small pile of rocks that didn’t appear particularly unusual, and when none responded he picked up one of the rocks and asked us if we could see the darkness in the rock. “Burn marks,” he added, helping us out.

We moved on a few steps further and then he turned and asked us about a huge boulder which glistened with smoothness. “It’s a milling slick,” said Webb. “It’s where the Kumeyaay Indians worked so hard preparing flower the granite became smooth.”

The amount of Indian ruins in Anza Borrego is immense, but as we had been discovering the past few days, all is not apparent. To improve our chances of learning more about the way in which the various tribes once lived, we concluded that we’d be much further ahead joining a naturalist-led walk. Yesterday, that’s what we did, driving from our campground over Yaqui Pass to Blair Valley just off Highway S-2.


In this way we learned over a relatively short period of time about some of the problems now confronting park archaeologists as they attempt to catalogue the richness of a past culture. On this short walk of about one-mile, Webb led us to morteros, pictographs, and one rock grinding that was a thousand-year-old predecessors to pornography pictured in Playboy. There’s just no other way to describe it.

“It’s probably about fertility.” said Webb. “Maybe there was sickness and many in their tribe died; maybe warfare. Who knows? It does seem to be an obvious attempt to foster procreation, but perhaps,” he added with a chuckle, “it’s just the interpretation of a deranged archaeologist…” Then growing more serious, he added, “Native American informants don’t say much; in fact they’re non committal about such subjects.”

Artifacts that required but little explanation were some of the morteros, and one huge boulder included four. Here, the Kumeyaay placed the agave into holes–the morteros–where they ground it into flour. As well, they pulverized seeds from the mesquite. They flocked to such areas on a seasonal basis–but mostly when the agave bloomed. They stayed for several months.

Because the boulder with morteros also contained a number of smaller holes, Sam thought the rock might have possessed a spiritual component. “The smaller holes,” theorized Webb, “the cupoles, may have been created to release the spirits.”


Another large boulder contained a mortero in which the bottom had been drilled through, a condition Webb revealed by inserting his hand from the bottom of the hole. “Maybe the Kumeyaay were trying to simplify their techniques for recovering the flour.”

Sam Webb asks about unusual morteros

Sam Webb asks about unusual morteros?

Interlaced throughout this vast boulder field were a number of pictographs. Most were deteriorating with time, and were difficult to interpret (not like the ones in Zion we photographed several weeks ago), but not all. One huge boulder contained a pictograph, one that appeared as though it had been made yesterday–but that wasn’t the case. Several decades ago an archaeologist had enhanced the badly deteriorated image created hundreds of years ago from pigments. “Our policy has changed since that time,” said Webb. “Now we simply let time take its toll. That seems to be what Native American advisors want us to do.”


Throughout the walk Webb also shared some of his concerns for the future of Anza-Borrego State Park. He said there was a certain element that had little regard for the park’s antiquities. “Someone came out here and dug around this rock,” said Webb, pointing at what appeared to be a small pounding rock. “They thought the rock was a mortar, and were trying to abscond until they discovered the exposed portion was part of a huge boulder the rest of which was covered by dirt.”

Enhanced pictograph

Enhanced pictograph

Other activities also worry park officials, one that might seem innocuous, but which is not. Geo-caching (where participants leave an object and then challenge others to find it with the pro-offered clues) in fragile areas can be detrimental to the resource. Several years ago someone directed geo cachers to the area protecting the Kumeyaay morteros-and other antiquities. In the course of looking for the geo-cached item they destroyed Native American works that had been created hundreds of years ago.

“The superintendent was furious,” said Webb. “For one thing, park policy specifically states that you take nothing-and leave nothing. Here’s an example of what can happen when those rules aren’t followed.”

The day’s explorations lasted several hours, and though we didn’t cover many miles, we learned a great deal. As well we were delighted to realize the degree to which the park’s volunteers are attempting to preserve resources that are struggling in this premier desert park for their very existence.




4th ed. Autographed by the Authors

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2 Responses to “Learning about The Antiquities of Anza-Borrego with a Park Archaeologist”

  1. Dirk Says:

    Hi guys,
    We hope to spend several weeks in Palm Canyon starting next week. Now in snowy Oregon! Did I hear that you got a little rain there in Palm Canyon? I sure hope so for the sake of wildflowers in Mar-April.’
    Have fun.

  2. Kimmy Says:

    It’s so sad when people destroy things that should be left alone. I’m a firm believer in ‘take only pictures, leave only footprints’.
    Love the history you’ve uncovered here.