Archaeological work in the Eastern Sierra began in the late 19th century, when some impressive rock art panels were first described, but serious scientific investigations did not start until much later. The famous anthropologist Julian Steward carried out limited excavations in the 1920s, while he was interviewing Native American peoples in the Owens Valley and adjacent areas. More important early excavations did not happen until the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Four sites are of particular interest, though many others were examined in less detail (Early Research) the Stahl site at Little Lake, the Cottonwood Creek site, the Rose Spring site near present day Haiwee Reservoir, and the shorelines of China Lake. Largely exploratory in nature, with no earlier work to build on, these initial studies mostly just attempted to describe what they found.


The goals of archaeology had changed a lot by the 1970s. It was realized that you cannot understand the prehistory of hunting and gathering cultures – people who rely entirely on wild plant and animal foods that occur in different amounts at different times in different locations – by looking at just a few major sites. Such societies move around the wider landscape over the course of a year. They might hunt animals in some places, collect grass seeds in other areas, and gather pine nuts or roots in yet other locations. Certain foods are always available, while others may be present during just one short season. To piece together such a puzzle required that archaeologists study a full range of sites in different environments.

Robert Bettinger’s research during the 1970s and 1980s began to fill in the picture. He surveyed a portion of the Owens Valley and excavated at several key locations. Bettinger found that his oldest settlements were positioned along the Owens River corridor, people later moving away from steamside locations into nearby desert scrub habitats. Such locations allowed easier access to more distant upland (mountain) environments, which became increasingly important as people began to rely more and more on pine nuts in the later prehistoric era.

By the mid-1970s we had a more complete view of Eastern Sierra archaeology and the timing of important changes in cultural patterns. But there was much more to do. And this is where a long series of projects sponsored by Caltrans began to fill in many of the gaps. These were performed in conjunction with highway improvements and were done to comply with environmental protection legislation. Cultural resources that might be threatened by a project needed to be first identified and then evaluated for their importance. Where impacts to could not be avoided to significant sites, valuable information needed to be collected before those impacts occurred.

The scale of Caltrans-sponsored archaeology in the Eastern Sierra has been enormous. This brief overview cannot examine all of these studies in detail. Nor can it do justice to
contributions of the many archaeologists who have worked in the area over sometimes long careers. This summary instead highlights a few key projects from various eras. Some of these served to influence the course of later research, others were the first to examine particular parts of the region. Caltrans projects span large swaths of Inyo and Mono counties, but most work has been associated with the Highway 395 corridor.



Perhaps the first truly important Caltrans project in the Eastern Sierra was the Lubkin Creek (INY-30) excavation. Discussed further in other sections of this webpage, this multi-component site was
occupied from the early Holocene until historic times. Work at Lubkin Creek provided new kinds of information and pioneered new approaches to archaeological research that are still in use today. The obsidian studies were especially influential. Radiocarbon dates from buried houses were used to build the first reliable obsidian hydration rate for volcanic glass from the Coso quarry. Obsidian sourcing results were employed to reconstruct the settlement patterns and travel ranges of people living at the site. These varied a lot over the thousands of years the site was occupied. Other analyses examined changes in flaked and ground stone technologies evolved and explored implications of the rich animal bone and carbonized plant materials recovered. Major shifts in subsistence patterns indicated later peoples were using more costly foods than earlier groups. They were also going further afield to obtain these resources. Of particular interest were the many house structures uncovered at Lubkin Creek. Among the first buried houses ever found, Middle Prehistoric domiciles were very different than those of the Late Prehistoric era. Changes in size, construction, artifact composition, and other furnishings were linked to shifts in the scale and frequency of residential moves. We now believe this has to do with adjustments in social organization from earlier composite to later household groups.


The later Alabama Gates project provided a better record of early and middle Holocene archaeology, what we’ve collapsed here as Early Prehistoric Times. These old artifacts were found in a number of sites and provided clues as to how use of the Owens River channel changed over the last ten millennia or so. Early occupations were focused narrowly around the exploitation of seasonal fish runs. Later ones relied on an increasingly broad range of foods including seeds, small fish, and freshwater mussels during the last few hundred years. Alabama Gates also led to new ideas about why Early Prehistoric flaked stone artifacts were made as they were. Information gained from the project led to the idea that long-term shifts in settlement organization had been far more complicated than previously thought.


Although not an excavation effort, the TEA survey provided the first intensive look at many areas outside the Highway 395 corridor. All rural highways in Inyo and Mono counties were surveyed as part of this effort. Previously known sites were relocated and many new sites were identified. Obsidian samples from selected sites found on the project provided some of the first sourcing information for large tracts of the Eastern Sierra.


Blackrock was one of the largest archaeological projects conducted for Caltrans. Including some 26 separate sites, this was among the first studies to look at sections of Owens Valley between Big Pine and Independence. This strip of land contains a tremendous amount of environmental variation and showed a long history of occupation from the early Holocene to historic period. Some of the most recent sites were among the more important. These included locations that could be traced to specific Paiute individuals, as well as places that may have been used as refuges from Euroamerican attacks. Which brings us to the two recent Caltrans projects that together prompted creation of this webpage – Manzanar-Independence and Ed Powers.


The combined Manzanar and Independence projects involved test excavations at 15 sites and more extensive, data recovery work at six of those locations. A few deposits had older deposits dating to the Early and Middle Prehistoric periods, but almost all of the occupation was during the Late Prehistoric
and Historic eras. This was important in providing a detailed look at Eastern Sierra lifeways just before and after the arrival of Euroamericans. The sites were also of different kinds. Some were small temporary camps, others were specialized seed processing areas, and a few were larger winter settlements where people stayed longer, built houses, and participated in a wide range of activities.

Several important issues were clarified by this work. It confirmed suspicions that the pattern of large villages described by Julian Steward developed in historic times. Prior to that people lived in small, family-based units that rarely included more than one or a couple houses. Groups consolidated around ranches and towns to take advantage of paid work after traditional opportunities collapsed. The project also documented many changes to Late Prehistoric economic patterns. People were using an increasingly wide variety of plant and animal resources. Many of these had probably been avoided in earlier times because they were difficult and costly to acquire and prepare. Their later use reflects a growing need to do so. It was also shown that recent Owens Valley people had strong geographic connections with folks to the east. Pottery, obsidian, cherts, and possibly other goods were traced to areas around Death Valley and southern Nevada. Archaeologists had thought that groups interacted mainly with neighboring communities in the valley.

A large winter village at Shepherd Creek (CA-INY-5888) was the most important site investigated. This site contained several houses, features of other kinds, and yielded an extraordinarily rich collection of artifacts and food remains. Many of the tools were quite fancy and valuable. More than 300 beads were found at the site, the largest total from one location in the entire Eastern Sierra.


The Ed Powers project provided a great complement to Manzanar-Independence. Most of the sites investigated here dated to Middle Prehistoric times or before. Initial work was done at five locations, more extensive excavations at just four. The most impressive site was on the old channel of Birch Creek (CA-INY-1384/H). Although some later occupation was present, much of the site dated to a narrow interval between 2200-1300 BP. No fewer than 14 houses were found during the project, most of these in a narrow strip along the highway. Many more such structures must occur beyond this restricted area.

Houses at Birch Creek were exceptionally well preserved. Because most were entirely excavated, we learned a great deal about how they were occupied and what kinds of activities took place inside them. Some contained cooking areas, others had storage pits, and many had caches of whole tools that must have been intended for later use. The implications of these structures, very different than Late Prehistoric houses, are explored elsewhere. It was of particular interest that most were actually used at different times. Radiocarbon dates were obtained for all of the houses and no more than two or three were occupied at the same time. This was an important finding. It indicates that even major settlements were not large villages inhabited by numerous families.


There have, of course, been important archaeological projects in the Eastern Sierra unrelated to Caltrans activities. Some were conducted with grant funding from the National Science Foundation or other institutions, others as part of management efforts of federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Department of Defense. Three of these are discussed briefly here: high elevation excavations in the White Mountains, studies of the Coso obsidian quarry, and studies of rock art and occupation sites on the Volcanic Tablelands above Bishop (Other Non-Caltrans Studies).

Graduate student research has also been both important and extensive. Carried out in relation to both MA theses and PhD dissertations, students have been affiliated with CSU Sacramento, UC Davis, UC Riverside, the University of Nevada, Reno, and CSU Bakersfield (Graduate Student Projects).