West Side Burial Ground (Death Valley National Park)

I’m torn on writing this article. Due to the subject at hand it has potential to be one of the most controversial pieces that I’ve ever published. Native American burial grounds are often the subject of grave robbing. Ignorant and greedy people prey on them for artifacts that are often buried with the deceased. Because of this I have opted to not directly name the site, and I do hope that anyone that may figure out its location will be respectful.

Along the west side of Death Valley proper, William J. Wallace and Edith Taylor excavated one of twenty-six rock mounds on the gravel fan, above the salt pan. The mound of rocks was eleven feet three inches by nine feet eight inches, and two feet high. The two foot layer above ground was built of approximately two-hundred rocks. Below the surface, a pit with thirty inches of gravel inside.

 

Burial Mounds

Burial Mounds

 

During the excavation, at ten inches, a 3-4 year old child’s skeleton was discovered. At twenty-four inches, the skeleton of an adult male between the ages of 34-38, lying on his left side facing east, with his head pointed to the north. Along with the bodies there were eighteen flaked projectile points, sixteen of which were corner notched with long, thin, slender blades and straight-sided or slightly extended stems. One additional contained side notches. The other was oval, and unnotched, with chipping only on one side. At a depth of eleven inches, just below the child, a sickle made from the jawbone of an animal was found. Deeper in the pit,  three spatulas made of bone, a bone tube or bead, and a Olivella shell bead were removed.

The burials are believed to be from Death Valley III (AD 500 – AD 1000) and Death Valley IV (AD 1000 – AD 1900) eras.

In the same vicinity as the burial mounds, four sets of rock cairns were located on top of benches overlooking the burials. Rock cairns are piles or heaps of rocks stacked on top of one another.

Site 1) Composed of 47 cairns.

Site 2) Composed of 4 rock cairns, and a rock-rimmed circle.

Site 3) Composed of 20 rock cairns

Site 4) Composed of 10 rock cairns – mostly of stones rakes into piles.

Site 5) Composed of 20 cairns.

The same team excavated one of the cairns at site 4, and found no artifacts in or under the cairn.

 

Rock cairns placed on the bench above the burial site.

Rock cairns placed on the bench above the burial site.

 

Swept rock cairns

Swept rock cairns

 

Cairns are known to have several different meanings and uses across cultures.  Today they are most widely built as trail markers, and in some cases were utilized by Native people in the same manner. They were also built for spiritual purposes, sometimes with burials located beneath them. At this particular site, I believe that the cairns may have been a totem for those buried on the gravel fan below the benches.

Along with the cairns there are over 100 rock circles scattered across the fan and benches, some near burial mounds, while others are spread about. Archaeologists suggest that there were two types of rock circles in Death Valley.  One type was used as a sleeping circle, the other storage pits for mesquite beans. I believe it was likely that a majority of the rock circles in this vicinity were used for mesquite bean storage because of the close proximity of a spring with a healthy crop of mesquite trees still growing to this day. These storage pits were typically dug two to three feet below the surface, and lined with alkali sacaton grass or desert holly.

 

Rock circle

Rock circle

 

Rock alignment on upper bench.

Rock alignment on upper bench.

 

After all of these year, I was doubtful that this site remained in any sort of recognizable state. I managed to obtain a map from the 1950’s containing all the mounds, cairns, and rock circles plotted on it. Arriving at the location, only a few feet away from the road, I encountered my first rock circle.  I was in shock! But why should I have been? What made me think that seventy years would make a difference considering when they were mapped, they had already survived up to 1,500 years!

As I walked up the fan, I encountered rock circle after rock circle. Then I noticed the burial mounds, one after another, stacks of rocks piled up a few feet above the surface. The burials were not always obvious, flooding on the fan has reshaped it considerably. I carefully maneuvered through the site, avoiding stepping on or kicking over any mounds or rock circles. Then there were bones! Bleached, cracked, chipped and decayed bones! I’m no expert on bones, but they appeared to be spinal.  Laying beside them, a rusted old clip with a tiny anchor etched into it. Creepy, but ok…moving along.

 

Bones and an old clip.

Bones and an old clip.

 

Close-up of old clip.

Close-up of old clip.

 

I was really interested in the cairn sites that overlook the burials, so I made my way up to the benches. Like the rock circles and mounds, a significant portion of the cairns remained in tact. Now remove that image of single rocks balancing one on top of another. These cairns resemble something more like small stacks of rocks, no balancing required.  The westernmost cairns are significantly different from the others, they are swept piles of small rocks, as opposed to large rocks stacked on top of one another.

The map pointed out that in a wash below one of the benches, there would be three blinds and a boulder with a petroglyph on it. Unfortunately that wash has since seen significant flood erosion, the petroglyph boulder is no longer there, having likely tumbled washed down the fan. Of the three blinds, only one remains standing, but in impeccable condition, as if it had been built just yesterday.  Blinds were often used in hunting, and for wind shelter.

I spent half of my day walking along with the spirits of the ancients. I found it to be a very peaceful experience.

 

Remnants of an old Indian trail.

Remnants of an old Indian trail.

 

Remnants of a wind or hunting blind.

Remnants of a wind or hunting blind.

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

1 Comment

  • Fascinating. The rock mounds are so typical of Native burials. I saw them in small country cemeteries in Texas.

    And I saw one on a piece of property I appraised for the State, along with what appeared to be more typical settler graves.

    I notified the State of what I thought was the small burial site. They purchased the property, and it remains undisturbed.

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