Located just a mile southeast of the Furnace Creek Inn, Travertine Springs is about as historical as a place can get in Death Valley. These springs were the location of the first 49ers camp in the valley, where they spent Christmas eve of 1849. In the years since, the springs were developed, today the warm water springs are fed to the resort for use in their swimming pools.
There is however evidence of an earlier occupation at Travertine Springs. Archaeologists have studied artifacts found near the springs, such as a long-bladed arrowpoint, a long narrow scraper made of igneous rock, and various lithic scatters. These artifacts have helped them date the occupation to the Death Valley III period, which began around AD 500, and lasted until around the 11th century AD.
I was recently fortunate to come across a series of Anthropological Papers from the 1960’s. In these papers there was a chapter on a rock alignment at Travertine Springs. I was naturally curious if there was any remaining evidence of the alignment, figuring that it may have been destroyed by flooding, or the development of the springs.
The diagram above shows the site as it was when the papers were published in the 1960’s. The rock alignment begins as two side by side lines, before merging into a single line. Nineteen rock circles accompanied the alignment, and two Indian trails crossed over it. The diagram also shows a fence that was erected across the site.
Having no idea where to begin my search, I started on the benches southeast of the springs, and made my way northeast. Meandering across these large benches, I found an occasional small stack of rocks, and cleared rock circles. After walking the length of several of the benches, I again encountered a cluster of cleared rock circles. Looking closely I noticed a single line of stones leading down the middle of the bench, and a fallen barbed-wire fence. BINGO! I had found the alignment!
Having been well over 50 years since the archaeological record was recorded, there have been some noticeable changes. Because of the erosion of the bench, rock circles 15-19 in the diagram above no longer exist, and the single line portion of the alignment has been reduced by a significant portion. The single line now extends only approximately 20-30 feet, ending just a short distance past rock circle #14. Rock circles 1-14, and the double lined portion of the alignment have fared much better, being located higher on the bench.
The “old” and “new” Indian trails are very much in tact, and highly visible in the desert pavement. I followed the new trail for roughly a mile north. My understanding is that these trails begin in the vicinity of Furnace Creek, and travel through Travertine Springs, Navel Spring, and up over the Funeral Mountains to Greenwater Valley. The idea that they would travel from spring to spring makes a lot of sense, and allowed them to travel with less water.
Along my travels in the area, I was fortunate to find a stone tool laying on top of the desert pavement – either a knife or scrapper, that measured around 3 inches long, and 1 1/2 inches wide. I recorded the coordinates, and reluctantly reported it to Park Service later that afternoon.
The meaning behind rock alignments, and why they were created is still very much a mystery to the world of archaeology. There are many theories, including astronomical, religious, sacred, healing, mnemonic devices, and teaching purposes. But none of these are proven, and each site would very considerably. Stone circles like the ones seen at Traverine Springs are thought to have been used as temporary sleeping places while traveling. Artifacts, and signs of fire are rarely found in or around them.
This is a very interesting site with a lot going on if you take the time to really go over it. If you decide to venture out looking for it, please be very watchful of your step, it would be a tragedy to accidentally cause damage by kicking stones out of the alignment or circles.