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Chumash Storage Basket
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Archaeological California basketry that survives today — woven baskets, trays and water bottles made prior to European contact in the latter half of the 18th Century — tends to be "cave finds." It was protected from the elements by, and found in, caves or rock shelters. Else the vegetal material would have disintegrated long ago.

The largest Chumash basket ever found was discovered in February 2015 by archaeologist Stephen Bryne in a cave in the Los Padres National Forest. It was a remarkable find inasmuch as the Santa Barbara "back country" had been picked over by archaeologists, and pot hunters before them, for more than a century. How this one got missed until now is a wonder. A team that included John R. Johnson, curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, recorded and recovered the find in October 2015.

The primary basket is a coiled storage basket. Its diagnostic markers suggest an evolution in weaving methods over time.

The weaving material is sumac (Rhus trilobata) for the background and mud-dyed juncus for the design, which materials are typical of Chumash basketry even in modern times. The foundation is a grass bundle, which is customary for baskets from the so-called "Mission Indian" area — Santa Clarita Valley (Tataviam) and southwestern Antelope Valley (Kitanemuk) on the north to northern Baja (Kumeyaay/Kumiai) on the south — but not for the Chumash region, where a 3-rod juncus foundation is the norm in post-contact times.

The weaving direction is to the right, which is consistent with post-contact Chumash (and "Mission Indian") weaving. Some of the fag ends (the starting end of the weft stitch) are clipped and others are bound under. Post-contact Chumash fag ends are clipped, while post-contact "Mission Indian" baskets are always bound under. Jan Timbrook, curator of ethnography at the Santa Barbara Museum, told this writer (March 2018) of other ancient cave-find Chumash baskets in the museum collection that have a grass bundle foundation and bound-under fag ends.

The primary design element is a "butterfly," which is encountered in central and desert regions of California (Yokuts, Kawaiisu) but is not common to post-contact Chumash basketry. Johnson noted the basket was found in the northern part of the Los Padres National Forest not far from Yokuts territory, and the design might have been "borrowed." While most weavers use traditional designs they learned from their grandmothers, and their grandmothers before them (it's always Grandma or a great-aunt, because "mom" is busy preparing meals and raising the kids), it is not unknown for weavers to mimic a design they see and like. Consider the post-contact Chumash baskets that incorporate Spanish motifs. Timbrook said another ancient cave-find Chumash basket in the museum collection uses a nearly identical "butterfly" design. She noted that coiling migrated westward from the Great Basin only a few hundred years ago in the first place; twining was the original technique.

When found, the primary storage basket was home to a woodrat nest. When the nest was removed, a mended basketry tray was found beneath it, resting inside the primary basket. This tray — sumac on a 3-rod juncus foundation with a grass-bundle start, pictured in the report below — was probably used as a base for the primary basket when its original base wore out.

In the cave, the primary basket was resting atop a partially rat-eaten basketry parching tray, also pictured in the report below.

Johnson said (March 2018) the primary basket was carbon-dated to 350-450 years ago (mid-1500s to mid-1600s A.D.) and was last used in the late 1790s, considering that was the carbon-date of material tested from the parching tray. For approximately 220 years the large storage basket sat in the same position, roughly on its side, surrounded by small rocks.

The primary basket was lightly cleaned, boxed up and placed in a walk-in freezer at the museum for nearly a year, Timbrook said, to kill any infestation. She said the cleaning was done with a vacuum that did not come into physical contact with the basket; the vacuumed material was saved and catalogued.

A plastiform base was constructed for the basket, replicating the surface on which it was found. The base was covered with an inert material for visual appeal. The basket was placed on this base on its side, in its as-found orientation. The rim of the basket is carefully monitored for sagging and has shown no sign of it since being placed on display in late 2016. It didn't sag in 200-plus years; it is not expected to start sagging now.

The basket can be viewed in the Chumash Life Hall at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

— Leon Worden 11-5-2016 (photos) and 2018 (story)



Largest Chumash Basket Ever Found Now on Display in Chumash Hall

SBMNH Member Newsletter, December 2016

In earlier times, Chumash Indian households stored supplies of acorns, other seed foods, and various implements in large baskets on platforms inside their home in the main village, or in back country rock shelters that they intended to return to in the future.

The huge storage basket (pictured) had rested in a rock shelter in the Santa Barbara back country for over 200 years until it was discovered in 2015. Stephen Bryne, the archaeologist who found it, took photos and wisely left the basket undisturbed until a multi-disciplinary team could return to thoroughly document it in its original setting.

In the process of carefully removing the large basket, the team was surprised to find, nestled inside, a heavily-repaired flat basketry plaque that may have been an attempt to patch over the missing bottom. A good basket was so valuable that rather than being thrown away after it showed signs of wear and tear, it was patched for further use. And these rested on yet a third basket — a wide, shallow bowl covered with what may be carbonized food residue, suggesting it could have been used to toast small edible seeds by tossing them with hot coals.

Once the three baskets had been documented as completely as possible in situ, they were gently packed in cartons and hand-carried over a long, rough trail to a waiting vehicle. Upon arrival at the Museum, they were cleaned of surface dirt and debris. Samples were saved for radiocarbon dating, pollen analysis, and other studies.

After spending several months in our walk-in freezer as a precaution against insect pests, the baskets were assessed by a conservator. Vulnerable edges on the big basket were secured to reduce chance of breakage, and a custom mount was created to support it for exhibition. The huge storage basket and the repaired plaque are the newest exhibit in the Chumash Indian Hall. The Museum serves as caretaker for these remarkable baskets under a curation agreement with Los Padres National Forest. Come and enjoy seeing this marvelous and historic basket.


LW3257: Download individual images here and pdf here.
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