Terrarium Site: A Window into The Pomo World of 2,000 Years Ago

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Some of the Many Petroglyphs at the Terrarium site that will be protected when the Conservancy and our Members are able to preserve the site. Photo The Archaeological Conservancy.
Some of the Many Petroglyphs at the Terrarium site that will be protected when the Conservancy and our Members are able to preserve the site. Photo The Archaeological Conservancy.

The Conservancy is working to preserve a remarkable Central Pomo site in California. Populated about 2,000 years ago, the Terrarium site has the potential to yield new and important insights into the proto-Pomo expansion of 550 B.C.

Located in what is now Mendocino County, the Terrarium site incorporates five archaeological sites over a 360-acre property.  These sites include middens, housepit features, lithic scatters, stone tools, rock cupules and several large petroglyph boulders. There are likely more sites that have yet to be discovered on the property.

Your gift of $25, $50, $100 or more for the Preservation Fund designated for the Terrarium site will make such a difference in our efforts to preserve this important archaeological site.

Between 7,900 and 2,500 years ago, the prehistoric peoples of this region generally lived in small-scale, loosely organized social groups that moved frequently in search of plants and game.  They exclusively used local chert which suggests there was no trade system.  Around 2,500 years ago, a radical shift took place indicating total cultural replacement.  Archaeological and ethnographic evidence suggests the development of a robust trade network, explosive population growth, and a unifying belief system.

Because the Terrarium site was occupied during the proto-Pomo expansion 2,500 years ago, research at the site may answer questions relating to how the colonizing population and the local population interacted, how the robust proto-Pomo trade system contributed to the success of colonization, and the role of petroglyphs within the social system.

Documenting the many petroglyphs on the Terrarium Site. Photo The Archaeological Conservancy.
Documenting the many petroglyphs on the Terrarium Site. Photo The Archaeological Conservancy.

There are two distinct middens located on the property.  During a 1972 archaeological survey, one midden (locus A) was found at the confluence and was described as rising three feet above its surroundings.  Nine associated pit house features were documented and a number of artifacts were found including chert projectile points, a chert drill, chert scrapers, fire-affected rock, and mortar fragments.  In 2012, the Conservancy’s Western Regional Director visited the site and found the second midden (Locus B) and an associated artifact scatter.  Locus B is located on the south end of the site on a high terrace overlooking the Middle Fork Feliz Creek.  The site lacks surface features, but has a moderate to high density of cultural material including fire-affected rock, chipped stone points and bifaces, mortar fragments, and obsidian and chert flakes.

The soil at both middens indicates village life focused around cooking and heating fires, a sign that they were both fall-winter settlements.  The Pomo relied on fishing, hunting and gathering for their daily food supply.  The fire-affected rocks were cooking stones, used for basket boiling.  They used the mortar and pestles to process acorns which were an important part of their diet.  The presence of chipped stone indicates the on-site manufacture and maintenance of hunting weaponry and tools for processing deer and other game.

Locus B appears to be older than Locus A due to the soil weathering, lack of surface features, and presence of Archaic dart points.  Locus B is half the size of Locus A, suggesting that it supported a much smaller population.  The artifacts found at Locus B date it to the earliest, colonizing phase of the Pomo expansion.  Locus B was most likely abandoned in favor of a settlement near the confluence of the Middle Fork and Main Fork Feliz Creek at Locus A which was populated during the settling-in phase of the Pomo.

A density of Rock Cupules and other grinding Stones abound on Site.
A density of Rock Cupules and other grinding Stones abound on Site. Photo The Archaeological Conservancy.

The Terrarium site also has two large petroglyph boulders with associated lithic scatters.  The boulders are black chlorite schist and have an amazing variety of designs including cupules, concentric circles, and cross hatching.  According to ethnographic literature from the late 19th and early 20th centuries in which the authors consulted with Pomo elders who possessed knowledge of traditional practices before indigenous lifeways ceased, the petroglyph boulders were used in fertility ceremonies.

Large Boulder with ritual petroglyphs on Terrarium site. Photo The Archaeological Conservancy.
Large Boulder with ritual petroglyphs on Terrarium site. Photo The Archaeological Conservancy.

Some were private ceremonies where a woman would fast for four days, then visit a boulder by herself.  After a ritual she would use a flint knife to make four cuts in the boulder and use the dust to make ritual marks on her body.  Then she would speak to the rock, asking for a child.  Other ceremonies would involve a couple.  They would visit the boulder together and say a fertility prayer.  They would then use a pecking stone to chip small fragments from the cupules and then grind the chippings into a fine powder that they turned into a paste to paint the woman’s body with.  The location of the boulders at the Terrarium site made them ideal for use in fertility ceremonies because they were close to the village making them very accessible but also providing privacy.

Stone Tools and Points found on the surface at the Terrarium sites.
Stone Tools and Obsidian Points found on the surface at the Terrarium sites. Photo The Archaeological Conservancy.

To date, there have been no excavations on the property and the site has suffered little looting.  The owners of the property have built a few structures, but have been very respectful of the site so it has only been minimally disturbed.  They have agreed to sell the Conservancy an archaeological easement on the property for $75,000.  This legal contract grants the Conservancy the complete rights and responsibilities to preserve and protect the site’s archaeological resources in perpetuity.

Your gift to the Preservation Fund designated for the Terrarium site or for the protection of other important archaeological sites will make such a difference. It’s the continuing support of people like you that make it possible to save even more of America’s cultural heritage before it’s lost forever.

A Close Up of one of the many petroglyphs documented at the Terrarium site. Photo The Archaeological Conservancy.
A Close Up of one of the many petroglyphs documented at the Terrarium site. Photo The Archaeological Conservancy.

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