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Clement W. Meighan

This article originally appeared in Symposium: A New Look at some Old Sites, Papers from the Symposium Organized by Francis A. Riddell, Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for California Archaeology, March 23-26, 1983, San Diego, California. Coyote Press Archives of California Prehistory 6:55-57, 1986.

The Borax Lake site (CA-LAK-36) is in the North Coast Ranges near Clear Lake, a couple of hours drive north of San Francisco. The site was originally excavated and published in the 1940s (Harrington 1948). At that time, there were no other excavation samples of any size in the North Coast Ranges, and comparisons relied almost exclusively on the better known archaeology of the Sacramento Valley and Delta regions: the flatlands to the south and east. It must also be remembered that there were neither C-14 dates nor obsidian dates available, and that this very large and deep site (over ten feet of cultural deposit) was substantially disturbed by an orchard so that the stratigraphy was by no means intact. It is not surprising that the importance of the site was not fully recognized, and that Harrington's conclusions were controversial. Understanding of the site is not complete yet, after 35 years of subsequent investigation in the general area of the Borax Lake site.

Harrington's most striking finds included a series of fluted points which he identified as Folsom. The typological distinction between Folsom and Clovis had not been made at that time; subsequent workers, particularly Haynes (Meighan and Haynes 1970) have identified the Borax Lake fluted points as typically Clovis in size, shape, and workmanship, although the majority of the Borax Lake points are obsidian and the great majority of Clovis points from other regions are of flint. The Harrington collection does include a few points made of flint, however, and C.C. Post, the discoverer of the site and the one who stimulated Harrington's field work, had in his own collection some flint Clovis points which were in every respect identical to the type Clovis specimens identified in the Southwest.

Because of the fluted points, Harrington identified his site as primarily "Folsom" and estimated the age at "10,000 or 15,000 years ago." This view was received with great skepticism by most of the northern California archaeologists, particularly Heizer and his students at Berkeley. Some of the skepticism was warranted in view of our limited knowledge of fluted points at that time, plus the fact that Borax Lake contains a lot of points which are concave-based but without fluting, types which are not uncommon in the central California cultures of much more recent date. Since Harrington did not recognize the site to contain a long time span of occupation, he lumped everything together and put it all into a "Folsom" period only a few hundred years in length, it was easy to discredit his interpretation. There was also some suspicion of the reliability of the evidence, since the fluted points were identified as coming from the surface, intermediate layers, and as deep as ten feet, and private collectors were much involved in the field work. I visited C.C. Post in the late 1940s and examined his private collection, including the flint Clovis points which he claimed to have obtained from the Borax Lake site. I must admit that I was very dubious at the time that these points had actually come from the claimed location, and I thought it likely that he had made a mistake in attributing them to Borax Lake. Today I am not so sure, but there is no way to know when dealing with an old collector who has lots of "relics" and no records. In any event, Harrington had good reasons for his interpretation of the site, and his critics also had good reasons for wanting additional evidence before accepting the site as ancient.

The North Coast Ranges have had little archaeological investigation compared with other parts of California. In 1955 I attempted to review what was known of the area (Meighan 1955) but there were very few controlled collections and I could only conclude that the Borax Lake site contained an assemblage that had to be earlier than other recorded archaeology in the area. Subsequent much fuller field investigations by Fredrickson, Dotta, Kaufman, and others have also concluded that the Borax Lake site does indeed include the basement complex for the area, and the early assemblage has been named the Post Pattern in honor of the discoverer of the site. All of these studies have also confirmed that the Borax Lake site contains a mixture of assemblages spanning a long period of time, and in other sites the evidence is accumulating that allows one to isolate and define the individual components of the Borax Lake site. These components could not be isolated at the Borax Lake site itself since the cultural stratigraphy was obscured by mixing. (It does appear that the cultural stratigraphy of the Borax Lake site could be worked out; Harrington got some glimmerings of it but it would require a much larger excavation sample to obtain a convincing stratigraphic sequence.)

The Borax Lake site itself was re-excavated in 1964 by Charles Rozaire and C. Vance Haynes. This work concentrated on digging some backhoe trenches to work out the stratigraphy and alluvial chronology of the site material. It discovered the fact that the site, in its initial occupation, was a lake-side campsite, later buried under substantial alluvium as the lake itself diminished to a trace of its former size. This is a kind of occupation site common in southern California, and hence quite familiar to Harrington from his earlier work, but it is less familiar and less easily recognized by workers in northern California. Harrington apparently analogized the site to the pattern he was familiar with in southern California (correctly, as it turns out); while the northern California archaeologists naturally tended to analogize Borax Lake to the sites they knew about, but this was less perceptive as the 1964 investigations demonstrated.

Based on this reexamination of the geology, a new study was conducted of the artifacts with the cooperation of the Southwest Museum, which owns the collection. This included a reexamination of the typology, particularly of the fluted points, and also an effort to do obsidian dating to sort out the sequence of artifact types at the site. The latter study was particularly relevant since the vast majority of artifacts from Borax Lake are made of obsidian, and since obsidian dates are independent of stratigraphic mixing and are direct dates on the artifact types being studied. Results are published in Meighan and Haynes (1970). A total of 80 hydration readings was obtained, all of them on artifacts which can be typologically identified including a series of fluted points (an earlier study by Donovan Clark was conducted on 27 specimens, but these were all chipping waste and hence did not give evidence on artifact types).

While translation of obsidian hydration readings into calendric dates is still somewhat uncertain, there can be no question about the sequence of artifacts and the identification of which are the oldest. At Borax Lake, the fluted points and crescents are the oldest and appear to represent the Post Pattern. Both the geology and the obsidian dating do not rule out an age of as much as 12,000 years ago for this pattern. This is vastly earlier than Early Central California, so in the essential matter of estimating the antiquity of the site, Harrington was correct and the "Berkeley School" including myself was way off the mark.

Other obsidian dates suggest the presence of something equivalent to the Early Milling Stone Horizon of southern California at about 6000 years ago, and subsequent developments which parallel the known central California sequence. These later cultures have, in recent years, been confirmed and identified by Dotta and Fredrickson; they are becoming increasingly well understood but are not further discussed here.

The Borax Lake site remains of great importance to California archaeology. It is nearly unique as a deep, culturally stratified site with a very long history and a reasonable excavation sample which is described in a published site report. The excavation could be better done if it were done today, but there is little likelihood of a large excavation sample being taken in California in the future, and we are dependent on the field work of an earlier generation of scholars to a considerable extent. Re-examination and re-analysis of the Borax Lake collection may provide additional findings of importance.


Harrington, M.R. 1948. An Ancient Site at Borax Lake, California. Southwest Museum Papers 16. Los Angeles.

Meighan, C.W. 1955. Archaeology of the North Coast Ranges. Reports of the University of California Archaeological Survey 1-30.

Meighan, C.W., and C.V. Haynes. 1970. The Borax Lake Site Revisited. Science 167(3922):1213-1221.

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