Dennis Cassinelli: Phallic pestle unearthed in Carson City
Between May 2008 and January 2009, I was working as an inspector on the section of the Carson City Freeway Bypass from U.S. Highway 50 to Fairview Drive. Before the project began, I attended a public open house of the project site to see the archaeological excavations being performed by the Louis Berger Group, Inc., consulting archaeologist hired by the Nevada Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. It appeared that the project route passed over a known prehistoric site that included a large Indian village that had been occupied for over 1.000 years between 425 AD and 1470 AD.
The Louis Berger archaeologists discovered over 150 prehistoric features such as houses supported by upright posts similar to more modern structures, storage pits, fire hearths, roasting pits and activity areas. The site represents one of the largest prehistoric villages ever discovered in Northern Nevada. Thousands of prehistoric artifacts were uncovered during the scientific excavations, indicating the various daily activities which the people living there performed. These artifacts included projectile points, scrapers, manos, metates, mortars and pestles. I submitted a resume of my qualifications to help identify the artifacts but my offer was not accepted.
Several months after the archaeological field work was completed, construction began on the project. I was contacted by PBS&J Consulting Engineers to be an inspector for several phases of the work. I was told that the Louis Berger Group archaeologists had completed their field work and even though there was a possibility some artifacts may still remain undiscovered, they had sufficient material to complete their report. One of my assigned duties was to inspect the installation of highway lighting components along the freeway ramps north of the Fairview interchange. This included grading, trenching and installing conduits and concrete lighting system footings.
Having developed an eye for spotting arrowheads and other traces of ancient habitation, I noticed some charcoal remnants of old fire pits along the west slope of the Fairview exit ramp. As work progressed on the lighting system, I picked up a few broken projectile points and a 4” piece of a stone pestle that appeared to have been recently broken by excavation equipment. It had both ends broken off and the breaks seemed to be recently done. I had discovered many fragments such as this in the past and did not consider it of much importance. I put the stone in my toolbox and forgot about it for several days.
A stone pestle is a long piece of stone intentionally shaped to be used in a bowl shaped piece of stone called a mortar. The Indians used these tools to grind up seeds, cattail roots and other food items the people had gathered. These have been found in several different sizes ranging from a few inches to a foot or more in length. After a few days I found another piece of the same pestle near where the first one was found. This one was about 7” in length and fit perfectly onto one end of the first piece.
The amazing thing I noticed about this second piece of the puzzle was the shape of the end, which resembled a male appendage. This surely perked up my interest so I made an all-out effort to find the last piece so I could reassemble the entire artifact. Sure enough, after a few more days of working along the slope, I found the third and final piece and was able to connect the three together with stone masons epoxy. The resulting completed artifact was a whopping fifteen and one half inches long and weighed seven pounds.
I looked online and found that such artifacts are very rare and are called “Phallic Pestles.” I found several photos of similar items, but without bragging, I can honestly say that none of those shown were as long as mine. Because I found the pestle on state property, I felt an obligation to take it to Eugene M. Hattori, curator of anthropology at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. Gene was the archaeologist who was called in to excavate the 500 Carson City coin dies I had found at the old mint building back in 1999. He confirmed that the item was a genuine phallic pestle and said that to his knowledge, it was the first one ever reported from Nevada.
I agreed to make a donation of the amazing artifact to the “Under One Sky” exhibit at the museum with the understanding that it would be placed on public display and not hidden away in some storage room where no one would ever see it again. I was told that when the Museum expands their Native American display area, the pestle would be displayed when the expansion is completed.
This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.