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Bedrock Mortar returned: Native artifact back in La Jolla’s Cuvier Park

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The bedrock mortar in Cuvier Park is an anthropogenic circular depression in a rock outcrop (or naturally occurring slab), used by Native people for grinding grain, acorns or other food products.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

In a quiet, respectful moment on a beautiful day in La Jolla, the two-year saga of the bedrock mortar (aka metate) that was taken from La Jolla ended: The Native American milling stone was returned to its home in Cuvier Park on Oct. 1.

Eventually, a historical marker may be placed at the site to explain its significance, at which point, a larger ceremony may take place.

In 2017, the 3.5-foot-by-two-foot bedrock mortar — sitting out in the open without any indicators to its significance in the park alongside Coast Boulevard — was removed to accommodate a sidewalk expansion. Now, because the sidewalk was installed where the rock once was, it sits about eight feet away from its original spot.

Of the Oct. 1 “return,” Courtney Coyle, San Diego Historical Resources Board’s chair of Archaeological & Tribal Cultural Resources, told the Light: “It was a private and solemn moment when we asked for forgiveness and offered thanks that the bedrock mortar could be reinstalled. It feels good to have it back where it should be.

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“It’s meant to be interacted with, out in the open, so now that is how it is. There were so many looky-loos the day it was reinstalled and people were interested in the fact there was a tribal resource right there on their walking path.”

Prior to its removal, the bedrock mortar was not inventoried as a formal historic artifact and local tribal councils were not consulted when it was moved. It was transported to the City’s Rose Canyon Operations Yard and stored in a fenced area. In February, the City acknowledged in a letter to tribal leaders that “there should have been more oversight” and “there wasn’t a clear line of communication.” However, the letter doesn’t say what future changes would be made and with whom communications should be clear.

This led to much discussion on where the bedrock mortar should ultimately end up. While some advocated for returning the rock to Cuvier Park, others supported repatriating it to a local tribe.

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Crews re-install the bedrock mortar in Cuvier Park.
(Courtesy)

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A decision was reached to return it to La Jolla, and Coyle gives some credit to the La Jolla Parks & Beaches committee, which in June, signed off on a letter to the tribal councils offering an apology for its removal and offering its support for the return or relocation of the bedrock mortar. La Jolla Parks & Beaches facilitated the sidewalk project that led to the its removal.

An excerpt from the letter reads: “La Jolla Parks & Beaches expresses regret for the discomfort your tribes and tribal members have felt regarding the removal and storage of this artifact. Until recent events, we were ignorant as to its cultural connections. Through this situation, we’ve learned that resources like this not only may have archaeological value, but especially that they have ongoing traditional and cultural value for local tribes. We will be more vigilant in future projects to identify and respect tribal values and artifacts.”

The letter goes on to offer “our complete support” for a “tribally driven solution for the relocation of this artifact along the coast, including a location close to from where the mortar was removed.” Or, the letter continues: “If your decision is to reinstall this artifact other than in Cuvier Park, we want to be sure that your tribe and tribal members know that they are welcome along La Jolla’s coastline.”

When the letter was approved, several La Jolla Parks & Beaches members expressed support for having the stone in the park, with a plaque or other marker, to explain its significance.

“That is under discussion,” Coyle noted. “We’re trying to work out the size, the location and the funding source. We would hope the City would pay for it, but funds need to be found in the amount that produces a historical marker that gives this bedrock mortar its proper dignity. At that time, there may be more of a ceremony for those in La Jolla and the wider community.”

City reps later confirmed to the Light that a plaque will be manufactured and placed at the site to “honor the Kumeyaay tribes and educate the public about this important piece of cultural history.”

The City has also agreed to record the bedrock mortar on the appropriate California Department of Parks & Recreation forms and submit them to the South Coastal Information Center at San Diego State University to be entered into the California Historical Resources Inventory System.

“These steps will ensure that staff and consultants working the area will be properly notified of the historical and cultural significance of the bedrock mortar in the event work needs to be done at Curvier Park in the future,” said City spokesperson Tim Graham.

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“Internally, the City will initiate sensitivity training classes to better inform and educate staff about how to identify potential historical or culturally important sites along coastal parks to ensure objects are not disturbed without consulting qualified City staff and the appropriate tribal communities for guidance or further direction.”

Coyle added she hopes the experience has been “educational for everyone,” and emphasized: “I’m glad that it’s back to how it should be. It feels good to have that circle completed.”


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