Archaeology Lesson – Lake Cahuilla

You can’t tell the story if you don’t know it. Today we had a bit of staff training to see the things we often talk about at the museum.

The people in this area used to live on the banks of a great lake, sustained by the Colorado River periodically overrunning its banks and gushing into the below sea-level valley.

Today, all that is left of the lake is the Salton Sea, a salt-concentrated shadow of it’s former glory. Originally about 2-3 times larger, the lake provided food and shelter for the Valley’s earliest inhabitants. The current “sea” was actually formed by a dam break in 1905 that allowed the Colorado River to re-flooded the lake bed.

The evidence of people’s lives around Lake Cahuilla is evident almost every where you look. From Ocotillo, we drove old route 80, following the route of the 1926 concrete highway, till we turned up Huff Road, passing rich irrigation-fed farmland. Our guide pointed out known sites: the 1820 Mexican Fort near New River, which would have been a reliable water source and has pot sherds near it, the 1940 L electric Line which has several well marked sites up and down it’s length, and the hundreds of house rings just outside the marked Navy Impact Area, and across from a 50m stone ring whose purpose evades living memory. Site after site was pointed out as we approached our ultimate goal at the circa 1690 shore line of Lake Cahuilla.

The Lake evaporated almost 5 feet every year and was irregularly filled by the river waters. You can see the settlements follow the shoreline up and down the bank. Fish traps, which were built in the shallows, are clearly built at 5 feet intervals as the water receded.

House ring at Lake Cahuilla from circa 1690 (top of image). Notice how sandstones are propped to support the walls, marking it as a man-made feature. The white fishbones at the forefront mark the house entrance.

While monitoring these sites, we recorded two new key artifacts (which of course we noted and returned to their proper place):

This beauty had been missed on other walk-throughs. It is possibly a fish weight (which I know has to do with fishing, but I can’t help you beyond that).

and a sandstone bead which had surfaced in the rains and looks exactly like the size and shape of a cheerio. Which was funny, and cool.

We also saw the water line of the ancient lake, nestled up against the Fish Creek Mountains. That Lake hasn’t existed for a loOOooooong time, but it still leaves it’s mark.



Other great finds of the day:

Desert horned lizard.

Iguana taking shelter under a creosote bush, one of the oldest plants on earth..

and (no pictures)
a loggerhead shrike,
2 night hawks,
and 2 low fly-bys by F-18’s.

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