Late Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Ceramic Production and Distribution

Mine wash

Temporal and spatial patterns in the production and distribution of ceramics by hunter-gatherer societies of eastern San Diego County

The San Diego region of southern California was occupied at the time of European contact by several ethnolinguistic groups of hunter-gatherers associated with specific geographic territories. These people migrated seasonally and are known to have interacted with one another. Contact and co-operation between the bands and tribes of this area may have been essential in order to gain access to specific food and material resources, as well as to facilitate settlement shifts at times of environmental pressure. It is also believed that different social groups may have participated in common ritual activities connected with social maintenance and spiritual beliefs.

Despite a fairly extensive ethnohistoric record, reconstructing patterns of movement and interaction among the pre-contact hunter-gatherer populations of this multi-cultural region has so far been challenging. This is due to a variety of reasons, notably the homogeneous material culture assemblage that they left behind and problems in refining chronology. Late Prehistoric (ca. 1300–200 B.P.) villages and campsites in the area are typically characterised by bedrock grinding features, portable manos, metates, pestles and mortars, projectile points, shell beads and abundant plainware ceramic sherds. Attempts to subdivide the latter into typological categories that are indicative of specific geographic regions, chronological periods or cultural groups have been difficult to apply due to the paucity of visible diagnostic traits, as well as the small size of sherds, which may be related to the practise of breaking pots as a death ritual.

Recent compositional analyses of the clay paste from which the ceramics of the San Diego region were manufactured has revealed that important clues about their raw material sources (Quinn et al., 2013), craft technologies (Quinn and Burton, 2009) and origins exist at the microscopic and atomic level within these otherwise homogeneous sherds. Geographic patterning in clay type and paste preparation practises holds significant potential for the identification of non-local ceramics at pre-contact sites and the reconstruction of seasonal or more permanent movement of social groups between the desert, upland and coastal landscape zones that characterise the region. In addition, the co-occurrence of multiple ceramic compositions at single sites may provide evidence for inter-marriage across lineages/bands and/or for the gathering of neighbouring tribes or bands in one location for specific activities (Quinn et al., 2013), thus supporting ethnohistoric accounts of co-operation and interaction.

In this project, we are building upon the existing compositional database to further explore its potential for reconstructing migration, settlement strategies and interactions of pre-contact hunter-gatherer groups in the region by analysing in detail the ceramic assemblage of a single large Late Prehistoric site. Mine Wash (CA-SDI-813) is located in the Colorado Desert, at the foot of the Peninsular Ranges. It is ideally positioned to investigate likely seasonal movements between upland and desert lowland areas, as well as a possible settlement shift in latest prehistoric times that may have been triggered by the desiccation of ancient Lake Cahuilla to the east. We are applying a combination of thin section petrography and instrumental geochemistry to define compositional patterning within the ceramic assemblage of this site and identify its likely origins. Our interpretations of the movement of pottery and people to and from Mine Wash will be given cultural meaning by assessing the available archaeological and ethnohistoric evidence for traditional pottery manufacture, resource exploitation, migration, trade and exchange, and socio-political structure.


  • Quinn, P. S. and Burton, M. 2015. Ceramic Distribution, Migration and Cultural Interaction Among Late Prehistoric (ca. 1300–200 B.P.) Hunter-Gatherers in the San Diego Region, Southern California. Journal of Archaeological Science Reports, 5: 285-295.

Related outputs

  • Quinn, P. S., Burton, M., Broughton, D. and Van Heymbeeck, S. 2013. Deciphering Compositional Patterning in Plainware Ceramics from Late Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Sites in the Peninsular Ranges, San Diego County, California. American Antiquity. 78(4): 1-10
  • Quinn, P. S. and Burton, M. 2009. Ceramic Petrography and the Reconstruction of Hunter-Gatherer Craft Technology in Late Prehistoric Southern California. In: Quinn, P. S. (Ed.) Interpreting Silent Artefacts: Petrographic Approaches to Cultural Materials. Archaeopress: 267-295.


  • Begole Archaeological Research Grant, administered by Anza-Borrego Foundation

Project Leader:

Project Partners:

  • Margie Burton, San Diego Archaeological Center, California, USA.


Further information:

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