Current Research

Archaeology is about discovery, not in the acquisitive manner of looters and treasure hunters, but in the true spirit of curiosity and sharing the human past. What happened among people who left no written record? Can we also gain deeper insights about people with literate traditions that go beyond the incomplete and often biased narratives preserved in documents? Comparing material remains, records, and oral history is the most satisfatory way to approach accurate reconstruction of the human journey. That is the impetus for my investigations. The intent is not to produce a single 'correct' version of the past, but instead to honestly explore and share the diverse stories, perspectives, and trajectory of cultural interactions over time as they are revealed in those various sources of data.

This page is devoted to my research interests and new posts will be added from time to time. You may also be interested in some of my articles on previous research, as well as musings on local history. To begin, I am posting a piece about Charmstones.

Charmstones

Charmstones have interested archaeologists from the time Yates (1890) first applied the term to various plummet-shaped stones found in Central California sites. Despite that longstanding fascination, however, surprisingly few specimens have been directly dated and as a result, systematic analysis has been hampered. The most ambitious prior investigations sought to establish their relative age and gross patterns of distribution (Elsasser 1955; Elsasser and Rhode 1996; Gifford and Schenck 1926; Ragir 1972). But insights into their function, periods of use, and cultural affiliation remain ambiguous because they are rare, found in a variety of settings, and presumed to have limited value as temporal indicators. In sum, it has not been possible to tell whether they were used for pragmatic or ritual purposes, by whom, and in what specific places and times.

My analysis departed from past research by taking a different approach. I analyzed 68 charmstones found during complete exacavation of a prehistoric site CA-CCO-548 near Brentwood, California. The excavation was reported by Wiberg (2010). Bartelink and others (n.d.) kindly shared radiocarbon data for additional burials analyzed after the site. More than a third of the specimens (n=26) specimens were directly dated with radiocarbon assays from grave lots. That allowed precise temporal placement which, when combined with other data from CCO-548 and comparative data from other sites, allowed broader insights their age, manufacture, function, and cultural implications.

My analysis concluded that the types of charmstones at CCO-548 originated among the Windmiller people of the Delta region and appear to mark a pattern of warfare and competition for resources with Berkeley peoples from the Bay Area during the Early Period (3500-500 BC). I published my findings in 2011 in California Archaeology 3(2):199-248. However, the copyright will not allow direct distribution here. What follows is a summary of some of my key findings.

Types Present

In the classification scheme developed by Elsasser and Rhodes (1996), the charmstones from CCO-548 are dominated by symmetrical spindles (Type S), but also include phallic (Type PH), oval (Type O), and simple plummet (Type PT) varieties (Table 1). The assemblage also includes 14 specimens classified as unique/fragmentary. Examples of those types are illustrated below.


Figure 1. Types and Quantities of Charmstone Types at CCO-548.

Table 1. Distribution of Charmstones at CCO-548.
Location
Spindle
Phallic
Oval
Plummet
Indefinite
Totals
Burials
21
4
4
2
4
35 (51.5%)
Features
4
0
0
0
0
4 (5.9%)
Midden
6
1
0
1
3
11 (11.6%)
Uncertain
11
0
0
0
7
18 (26.5%)
Totals
42
5
4
3
14
68 (100.0%)

Distribution Pattern

Over 51% of the of charmstones found at site CCO-548 came from grave lots, and that proportion rises to 70% of all charmstones from locations with known provenience. That is because more than 26% of all charmstones from the site lacked provenience due to their retrieval during controlled grading operations. Less than 12% of the charmstones from the site came from contexts other than burials and features (i.e., midden). Those facts imply they had special significance. It is also significant that less than 3% (n=14) of the 480 burials in the CCO-548 cemetery contained charmstones. The concentration of these rare artifacts in features and burials is one of the most convincing reasons for concluding they were not used for purely pragmatic purposes. Unlike utilitarian objects which commonly occur in midden deposits, care was taken to place charmstones in meaningful contextsthat imply they had special symbolic value, as discussed in more detail below.

Table 2 reveals some other interesting aspects of the charmstone distribution pattern in graves at CCO-548. First, they are strongly correlated with extended burials, a marker of the inland Windmiller culture. Yet the people buried at the site over the course of a millenium reflect a persistent admixture of the distinctly different Bay Area (Berkeley Pattern) and Windmiller cultures. The only exception is a double burial (315/316) with one flexed female that may mark a transition linked to a change in political control of the site. Berkeley peoples from the Bay Area buried their dead in flexed positions and charmstones occur rarely in the Bay Areas sites that comprised their homeland. This pattern, when considered in conjunction with the acquisition of the raw materials used to make these artifacts, point to a Windmiller origin for the charmstone varieties found at CCO-548. It is also significant that these artifacts are predominantly found with men. They are often associated with materials that may have been associated with warfare, such as trophy skulls and projectiles.

Table 2. Charmstones from Graves at CCO-548
Sex Burial Assoc. Burial Burial Position
Charmstones
Totals
Cal 14C median probability Associated Diagnostic Artifacts
       
Spindle
Phallic
Oval
Simple Plummet
Indefinite
   
Male 107   Extended
1
1
1709 BC Pointed bone tool; modified trophy skull
Male 115 116 Extended
1
1
2
4
1604 BC 2 PP (Casa Diablo 5.1 )
Unknown 116 115 Extended
11
11
1593 BC Pointed bone tool
Unknown 247   Extended
1
1
  None
Unknown 248   Extended
1
1
  Killed pestle
Male 294   Unknown
3
3
1790 BC 1 Olivella bead
Female (Unknown) 315 316 Flexed (Unknown)
1
1
1488 BC None
Unknown 419   Extended
1
1
2
  None
Male 426   Semi-extended
1
1
  Biface, trophy skull
Unknown 429   Unknown
3
2
1
6
1661 BC 22 Olivella beads; PP (Bodie Hills 3.6/6.0 ) ; mortar
Unknown 440   Extended
1
1
  Pestle
Unknown 452   Extended
1
1
  None
Unknown 454   Unknown
1
1
  Quartz crystal
Unknown 464   Unknown
1
1
  Haliotis ornament
TOTALS
21
4
4
2
4
35
 

When the distribution of these charmstones types is examined on a regional scale using discoveries in well-dated site components, they are most common in Early Period graves where they occur with 16% of all burials. The highest incidence occurs at the Windmiller type site (CA-SAC-107), where they were found with 35% of all burials (Heizer 1949). Later, the number of graves with charmstones diminished in Central California sites. By the Middle Period only 1.3% of graves contained charmstones and by the Late Period that number declined further to just 0.5% of sampled populations. Warfare reached a crescendo in the Middle Period as the Berkeley Pattern spread and came to dominate much of the Central California region.

In Bay Area sites that comprised the core region for the Berkeley Pattern people, charmstones are more commonly found in midden soils than in graves--a pattern that implies they had a very different meaning there. The rising number of charmstones found in non-burial contexts later in time suggests that cultural devaluation was linked to the progressive spread of the Berkeley culture. A significant decline in the prevalence of charmstones is also indicated over time. This diminished interest, when combined with the increasing proportion of charmstones in non-burial contexts at Berkeley Pattern sites, reflects the demise of the belief systems associated with the florescence and spread of Windmiller charmstones from the Delta following their initial appearance around 3600 BC at SJO-68 (Ragir 1972).

Some suggest scavenging may account for later occurrences of the predominantly Early Period types. An alternative explanation that deserves careful consideration is the possibility that they were in fact passed down through many generations as valued heirlooms. There is strong support for this heirloom effect at sites like CA-ALA-413, where a cache of large obsidian spear points show marked differences in hydration that imply curation for over a millenium.

Dating

Over a third of the charmstones from CCO-548 were dated, providing the first significant suite of directly-dated examples from the central California region. The dated charmstones span a short three century period (1790 and 1488 BC) during the middle of the site's occupation. The total period of intensive site use falls between 2053 and 1043 BC excluding four statistical outliers (Figure 2). The tight clustering of charmstone dates suggests control of the site was temporarily seized by Windmiller people and later retaken by Bay Area populations. A transition in political control is consistent with abundant evidence of violent altercations at CCO-548. Evidence of violence includes eight human trophy skulls (two modified into bowl-like receptacles); seven burials missing heads; a group of four partially dismembered skeletons, and seven graves containing projectile points either embedded in the skeletons or exhibiting fractures consistent with impact damage.

Figure 2. Dated Burials from CCO-548.
(Red dots mark grave lots with charmstones)

Direct evidence of violence is present in two graves with both charmstones and human trophy skulls. The trophy human skull found with Burial 107 was modified into a receptacle that clearly implies it was used in a ritualistic manner. Others have been found in Windmiller sites from elsewhere in the Delta region. Despite evidence that control of CCO-548 shifted repeatedly, dated burials from the period when Windmiller control of the site is indicated show a mixture of burial positions. That implies the two populations mixed, but continued to observe their own burial traditions. The adverse relations between the two populations suggest that the comingling of the populations was forced through measures such as taking captives.

Manufacture

There is direct evidence that charmstones were manufactured at CCO-548, indicated by a drill and fragmentary examples broken during manufacture. Most commonly, charmstones were broken during drilling of the perforation. Many charmstones were made from stones that are available in relative close proximity to the site. However, some were made of stones such as granite and gneiss whose nearest source is the Sierran region near the Windmiller homeland. A few travertine specimens either came from Napa County sources 35 miles north across the Carquinez Straight, or caves east of the Windmiller core area in the Sierra Nevada foothills. This adds weight to the attribution of these artifacts to that culture.

When the adversarial relations among the competing Windmiller and Berkeley people are considered in conjunction with the broader pattern of resource acquisition at CCO-548, it appears the site residents were highly mobile and likely visited the coast and Sierran regions on a regular basis. Some materials may have been captured during skirmishes, but it appears unlikely peaceful exchange would have occurred. Most obsidian came from the Napa quarry (70%), but it is telling that two pieces in grave lots with charmstones came from eastern Sierra sources (Bodie, Casa Diablo). Botanical remains also reveal evidence of visits to the Sierran region for juniper berries. Faunal remains from the site reveal a paucity of marine species, yet the mobility of the site's residents is strongly suggested by the persistent intake of marine food. The marine diet can be deduced from the isotopic ratios of Carbon 13 and Carbon 12, as shown in Figure 3. The method used to calculate the proportion of marine diet is more thoroughly explained in my article.

Figure 3. Marine Diet of CCO-548 Population Indicated by C13/C12 ratio.

What Function Did Charmstones Serve?

Some have argued that charmstones of the kinds found at CCO-548 may have been used by ritual specialists. Others point to the recovery of charmstones in lake and marsh shore settings as evidence that they were used as slingstones. Both interpretations need careful reappraisal within the context of the use of charmstones by the warring populations of Central California who were taking each other captive and competing for resources and territory.

The hypothesized profane use of charmstones for utilitarian hunting and fishing activities can be rejected on various grounds at CCO-548. The evidence from CCO-548 indicates very little hunting of wild fowl. Profane use for utilitarian purposes would imply a higher incidence in midden soils and more evidence of use wear. Instead, charmstones were concentrated in graves and caches, a pattern of distribution that strongly implies they had special significance. Few specimens show wear such as end battering, and the fragmentary specimens are largely accounted for by manufacturing failures, ritually-killed specimens, and breakage resulting from mechanical grading of the site during excavation. The effort invested in their manufacture, from acquisition of distant materials to the shaping of tough stones, argue against their use as hunting tools. They were clearly treasured symbolic objects associated exclusively with Windmiller burials.

The term 'ritual specialist' is ambiguous at best. The charmstones at CCO-548 are not associated with the paraphernalia often linked to healers in the ethnographic literature, although some examples have been found at other sites in grave lots associated with possible shamans. I prefer to think of the charmstones found at CCO-548 as having special symbolic importance. Their symbolic value may have had more to do with warfare, fertility, and prestige than with healing practices. That symbolism is suggested by their association with men, trophy skulls, and implements that may have been used in warfare. The phallic forms have obvious associations with fertility that could be linked to taking captive women.

These inferences have broad value for reinterpreting the distribution of such objects in the Central California culture area. Charmstones found in Berkeley components are rarely found in graves and were, by inference, devalued. If they originated among the Windmiller culture, it is likely they were variously reviled, claimed as trophies, ritually killed or destroyed, and/or systematically repurposed by competing groups. The symbolic significance of charmstones also may have been appropriated, since warring cultures have sometimes been known to mirror each other. The phallic and simple plummet varieites persisted longer and were in fact more common in the Bay Area than in sites of the Delta region like CCO-548. Further research may reveal more about the importance of different types and their regional significance.

Competing groups, especially the Berkeley culture, may have reused charmstones as slingstones or discarded them in settings where they could cause no harm. That may in part explain their recovery in lake and marsh settings. However, a factor that must be considered in the discovery of charmstones in lake and marsh settings is the reported ethnographic practice of using them as hunting or fishing charms (Sharp 2000). A Pomo informant claimed "when it was used it was suspended by a cord from the end of a pole, one end of which was stuck in the bank of a creek in such a manner as to leave the charmstone suspended over the water where they intended to fish" (Yates 1890:25). That practice reflected the reuse of charmstones by later residents who admit the objects were found, not made.

In sum, it is likely that charmstones meant different things to the competing cultures of Central California. Those meanings had direct implications for their distribution that must be considered in future studies. It will be essential to date more examples of charmstones from grave lots throughout the region and evaluate how these significant objects served as signals of the interactions among groups vying for territory and hegemony in the Early and Middle Periods. Please refer to my article published in California Archaeology in 2011 for a much more complete analysis.

Key References

Bartelink E. J., Jelmer Eerkens, Melanie M. Beasley, Karen S. Gardner, Mark C. Griffin, Randy S. Wiberg, and Richard T. Fitzgerald
n.d. Dietary Reconstruction at CA-CCO-548: An Early Middle-to-Late Holocene Site from Central California. Unpublished manuscript.

Elsasser, Albert B.
1978 Development of Regional Prehistoric Cultures. In Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 8: California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, pp.626-641. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
1955 A Charmstone Site in Sonoma County, California. University of California Archaeological Survey Reports 28:29-34. Berkeley.

Elsasser, Albert B., and Peter T. Rhode
1996 Further Notes on California Charmstones. Coyote Press Archives of California Prehistory 38. Salinas

Gifford, Edward W., and W. Egbert Schenck
1926 Archaeology of the Southern San Joaquin Valley. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 23. Berkeley.

Heizer, Robert F.
1949 The Archaeology of Central California, I: The Early Horizon. University of California Anthropological Records 12(1). Berkeley.

Ragir, Sonia R.
1972 The Early Horizon in Central California Prehistory. University of California Archaeological Research Facility Contributions 15. Berkeley.

Sharp, John
2000 Charmstones: A Summary of the Ethnographic Record. Society for California Archaeology Proceedings 13:233-243.

Van Bueren, Thad M.
2011 Putting Central California Charmstones in Context: A View from CCO-548. California Archaeology 3(2):199-248.
2010 Charmstones and Stone Pendants. In Archaeological Investigations CA-CCO-18/548: Final Report for the Vineyards at Marsh Creek Project, Contra Costa County, California by Randy Wiberg, pp. 203-222. Report on file, Northwest Information Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, CA.

Wiberg, Randy S.
2010 Archaeological Investigations at CA-CCO-18/548: Final Report for the Vineyards at Marsh Creek Project, Contra Costa County, California. On file, Northwest Information Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, CA.

Yates, Lorenzo G.
1890 Charm Stones: Notes on the So-called "Plummets" or "Sinkers." Bulletin of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History 1(2):13-28. Santa Barbara, CA.
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Check back for more research projects I will post at a later date.