There's a rock in an East Bay city that few people want to talk about.
It's located in a park, near a stream. It's about eight feet long and four feet high and is soft in some places, hard in others, and pockmarked with cupules that give it the look of a giant sponge. Some of the cupules are as small as depressed thumb prints, and others as large as soup ladles. From just the right angles, and in just the right light, the rock slopes down the middle and converges in a feminine manner, as if Georgia O'Keeffe herself had shaped it.
For the past two months, student archaeologists from UC Berkeley have been studying the boulder, excited at first by the discovery of ancient Indian petroglyphs. And in the last few weeks, residents who live near the park learned that the archaeologists had unearthed yet another theory about their neighborhood mound-o-schist: That it's a so-called "fertility rock," or "baby rock."
According to native ethnographers, fertility rocks were used in ceremonies by native women to encourage healthy pregnancies. This particular East Bay rock has excited researchers owing to the high volume of cupules, a suggestion that the site was visited for thousands of years over several generations, perhaps predating even Stonehenge.
Now, some archaeologists and neighbors fear the site's newly enhanced reputation, if publicized, will lead to its demise. One common presumption is that New Agey types will flock to the rock in search of the Spirit, as they have to a similar stone in Marin County. Another is that local teens will christen it as a new makeout pad and drag their beer cans and sloppy intentions into the park after nightfall. And in another scenario envisioned by native officials, anti-Indian bigots will vandalize the site.
Still, other researchers and residents familiar with the rock's chronicles have spoken publicly about the thrilling discovery in such an unlikely setting. For decades, in fact, the rock has served as the lumpy centerpiece of a children's playground. But when the dusting brushes and sifting boxes showed up earlier this summer, the playground was torn down and the children were told to keep off. They'd been using something very, very important as a really cool jungle gym.
Last spring, Cal State Hayward adjunct professor Roger Kelly thought the rock would make a good practice site for his archaeology students. The boulder has long been noted in archaeology circles but mostly ignored. Aside from teaching, Kelly also works for the National Park Service, and considers sharing his knowledge of the boulder as an act of public education. Yet he also validates the concerns of his colleagues who want to keep the location secret.
"It's a fair position for them to take," he says. "They have a high stewardship value for it. I don't, personally, think it's going to draw any more people to it than when they had children playing on it, however."
In the late 1940s, Kelly says, the boulder was officially identified in UC Berkeley's archives as Native American site number 152. At the time, the terrain surrounding the object was a knot of rolling hills with breathtaking views. When a developer built up the neighborhood, one local archaeologist says, he made a deal with the city: He'd spare the rock from his homes if the city built a playground around it. The developer reasoned that the playground would serve as a quirky selling point to future homebuyers with children. City officials agreed to the deal.
When Kelly and his students arrived last year, the playground had seen better days. Parts of it now served as an outdoor toilet, trash bin, and even a residence for the occasional homeless person. But despite the mess, the students dusted off a cool find: ancient carvings. Even though the rock's schist surface had been sanded down by thousands of size-six shoes for decades, the petroglyphs were still visible. The rock also had endured some mild graffiti, Kelly says, but nothing that can't be removed.
As word of the petroglyphs' presence spread throughout the local archaeology community and then to Indian-art rock aficionados, the boulder took on a new significance, Kelly says. As more researchers trained their eyes upon the rock, more theories arose. "The information grew slowly," he says, "and the importance of this boulder grew with it."
With a new sense of mission, Kelly and his peers reviewed the rock's attributes. For one, he says, its placement is particularly noteworthy. Squeezed in a valley near a water source, the uneven topography suggests that natives did not linger here long but rather viewed the site as a special destination. "That means it was probably a ceremonial site," he says.
The variety and quantity of the cupules also intrigued the researchers. Ceremonial rocks usually contain a series of divots and small cupules, indicating that natives extracted powder from the stone by hand and tool. Since the rock in question is virtually covered in cupules, like few rocks the researchers have encountered before, Kelly estimates that natives returned to this stone time and again -- an exciting prospect to any historian of peoples.
Kelly's class completed a preliminary survey, but the archaeologist has stayed close to the events surrounding the rock.
Earlier this year, UC doctoral candidate Donna Gillette dedicated her dissertation to the site. Gillette, who declined to comment for this article, led other grad students on a more thorough dig, excavating several feet beneath the surface on a hunt for more artifacts. One of the primary goals of the dig, according to Kelly, was to determine how far beneath the surface the cupules appeared on the rock. The further the markings went, the greater indication the rock was revered over time.
"Lo and behold, we found markings more than four and a half feet below the surface!" Kelly says with a sense of excitement. "That tells me the original ground level was a lot lower at this site and the rock was revisited again and again over many generations for perhaps thousands of years."
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