Archaeological Field School at Camp San Luis Obispo

By Ethan Bertrando

Camp San Luis Obispo played host this summer to its first archaeological field school. The class of twenty students, under the direction of Professor Dustin McKenzie, worked at three archaeological sites on post. Cabrillo College of Aptos offers a course as part of their Archaeological Technician Certificate program that develops skills to allow students to seek employment as archaeological field excavators. This year the students descended on Camp San Luis Obispo to develop these skills while providing a valuable service to the California National Guard by helping us meet our legal requirements under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).

Over 100 cultural resources have been identified at CSLO, including 85 archaeological sites where artifacts from the California’s early history and Native American occupation can be found. The field school focused their attention on two locations where military training activities commonly occur, to assess the significance of these archaeological sites and to better understand how to manage these resources in a manner that supports the military mission.

Figure 1: The Cabrillo College Field School after their first week of excavations.

The first week was spent at a location where an early lumber mill was in operation during the 19th century. The mill took advantage of the pine and cypress woodlands along the upper ridges of Cuesta Grade and provided much of the lumber used in early construction of San Luis Obispo. Along with the expected metal tools and construction materials (like square nails), bottles, plates and other household artifacts were found. This suggests that the people at the mill spent a lot of time up there and used the location as much as a residence as a place of employment, Earlier occupation of this area was also found in the form of prehistoric stone tools and bedrock mortars(or grinding stones), associated with the Chumash Indians.

The second week was spent working between two neighboring prehistoric sites. A wide variety of artifacts were found, such as stone scrapers, awls, knives and projectile points. These sites were also found to contain a large number of bedrock mortars and dozens of tools related to grinding and processing food, such as acorns. When the Chumash lived at this location, about 1000 years ago, it overlooked one of the largest lakes in the Chorro Valley. The reason for their interest in this particular location is becoming clearer as we uncover more evidence that the Chumash occupied these sites during some of the worst droughts identified in California prehistory. Other interesting information recovered included some of the earliest evidence of bow and arrow use in the area and examples of long distance trade extending as far away as the California/Nevada border.

Figure 2: The field school working at one of the prehistoric sites at CSLO.

Overall, the field school partnership was a success. The students left with a better understanding of archaeological fieldwork techniques and an appreciation of the landscape of CSLO (as well as a healthy respect for the hard clays on post!), while the CNG benefitted from two weeks of archaeological fieldwork at no cost.

If you are interested in more information about the field school or the cultural resources and requirements of Camp San Luis Obispo, then please contact one of our Training Site archaeologists; Ethan Bertando (, 238-8013), Sarah Mellinger (, 238-8434) or Blaize Uva (, 238-8436).

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