Cultural gold underneath the Jewel


The Jewel was a popular and well populated place in pre-history much like it is today and for many of the same reasons, including it’s coastal beauty and easy access to food.

“Many members of the public view archaeology as an Easter egg hunt in which the object is to find the best goodies from the past,” archaeologist Timothy Gross told La Jolla Historical Society members at their annual meeting at La Jolla Library April 30. “But though archaeologiests enjoy finding spectacular objects, that is not the goal of their research. The archaeologist seeks information about human life in the past, sometimes the relatively recent past, but also the more distant centuries and millenia.”

Gross during his speech joked he was shamelessly self-promoting the new archaeological textbook he co-authored, “Seeking Our Past: An Introduction to North American Archeology.”

John Bolthouse, full-time executive director of La Jolla Historical Society, introduced Gross calling him “a regular Indiana Jones.”

Gross noted La Jolla is a prime spot to find prehistoric Native American hunting and other artifacts, largely because of the sandy nature of its soil, which helps preserve the remnants of the past and its stratified cliff sites which, in layer cake fashion, reveal a cultural cross-section of time.

“Underfoot in La Jolla are (evidence of) maybe 9,000 years of habitation,” Gross said. “I’ve had units in yards in parts of La Jolla where (archaeological) deposits were a good 10-feet deep. It’s one of the few places where you have potentially a nice layer-cake stratigraphy in San Diego.”

Native American prehistorical culture thrived along the coast throughout Southern California between about 8,500 and 1,000 years ago. Gross referred to finds in and around the Jewel as the La Jolla Complex. That culture, he pointed out, was largely food-driven.

“It was a natural supermarket,” he said, “a wonderful place to get food relatively easy. You could walk down to the tidepools and pick up dinner, or to the seal rookery and knock out dinner, or pick up rabbits at the top of the cliffs. This did not require a huge amount of technology.”

Gross, employed by the El Cajon-based consulting firm Affinis since 1987, has taught archaeology and introductory anthropology classes at the University of San Diego, San Diego State University and Mesa College. He was introduced to the La Jolla Historical Society while conducting an excavation on the Wisteria Cottage property, the future home of the Society.

In his presentation to La Jolla Historical Society April 30, Gross discussed archaeological projects in the Torrey Pines, Scripps Estates and Spindrift areas of La Jolla and their influence on western Archeology. His lecture was titled, “Seeking Our Past: Or How an Archeologist Who Started in Archeology as a Volunteer on Excavations in La Jolla came to Co-author a Textbook on North American Archeology.”

Gross showed slides of a cobbled scraper with flakes broken off, a common tool used by prehistoric people to kill and prepare food they hunted and consumed. He noted man needed to develop his brain because his physical skills as a carnivore are sorely lacking. “We are terribly bad as carnivores,” he said. “Our claws are not good enough to get into that meat package. Our canines ... my cat laughs at me.”

Cobbled choppers were used by prehistoric men to skin animals and grind acorns and seeds. Afterwards, they were often recycled as cooking stones reflected in their burned surfaces.

There is ample evidence in La Jolla’s stratified soil layers of late prehistoric Indian villages and their ancestral burial grounds. There have been so many Native American artificacts uncovered by grading as a precursor to development, that the city of San Diego now requires developers to have Native Americans monitor construction where archaeological finds have been made.

Where Indian artifacts are concerned, La Jolla has also proven to be a rich site for the discovery of shell beads, which were widely traded among Native American coastal people throughout Southern California. Such beads, said Gross, can be identified and tracked by their unique and divergent chemical compositions.

Said Gross: “Shell beads, like those found in the rocks by La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club, are some of the earliest trade artifacts we have in the continental U.S. Those shells were traded along the Pacific Coast.”

Gross explained that the chemical compostion of shells fashioned into beads by Native Americans can be revealed by their oxygen isotopes which reflect the water temperatures in which they lived, which varies as you go up and down the Southern California coast.

Gross talked about the process by which archaeological deposits are deposited and transported in soil over time. “If you put a golf ball today in cliffs where sand accumulates rapidly, in a decade, that ball would sit down in the middle of that deposit, where it might be sitting next to a 10,000-year-old Native American scraper or a 5,000-year-old grinding stone. Stratified things underneath parts of houses here in La Jolla are critical for helping us to understand the past.”

Another part of archaeologist’s mission, Gross told La Jolla the Historical Society members, is not only to find, but to preserve the region’s historical past. “Our ethics state, ‘We dig it up, we ought to be responsible for the fact that it gets taken care of,’ he said, “which is why we’re providing space for exhibits, which is what the public is most interested in. That’s part of our educational mission.”

For more information call the La Jolla Historical Society at (858) 459-5335.