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.”
Only a few hundred “fertility rocks” are known to exist in California, says Dr. Paul Freeman, cochair of the Bay Area Rock Art Research Association. Freeman has studied the East Bay rock, and even though he acknowledges the pervasive cupules strongly suggest it was used for fecundity ceremonies, he stops short of branding it a fertility rock. Academic debates about what distinguishes a fertility rock from, say, a rain rock, are long and meandering, he says, and will be open to interpretation and change as long as archaeologists walk the earth.
Typically, however, acknowledged fertility rocks have grooves, cupules, and curvilinear carvings that appear beneath the surface. The East Bay rock has all of these qualities, Freeman says, and is also located near a water source, another tell-tale sign. “This rock really is something,” he says.
Most of the acknowledged fertility rocks are spread across the northern and central parts of the state. They’ve been found as far north as Port Ford, Oregon, and to the southern end of the Central Valley. By and large, Freeman says, they are found in what was Pomo Indian country, which makes the East Bay rock all the more unusual, since it’s in Ohlone territory.
Historians such as Freeman are careful to speak in general terms when describing the objects, lest they attribute to them a virtue that does not exist. Even when describing what might have happened during a fertility ceremony, Freeman uses broad terms, aware that the details are lost in history, and since he can’t be sure, he’d rather be unspecific. “The ceremony usually involved taking powder from the rock and inserting it in the body,” he allows, “and conception would surely follow.”
But with conception, alas, comes fertility-based overuse. Take the example of Ring Mountain, located above the city of Tiburon in Marin County. Once the Ring Mountain boulder was dubbed a fertility rock in the late 1970s by native officials, people who sought out its mystic powers nearly loved it to death, according to Freeman. Another archaeologist recalls New Agers using hammers to bleed it for talc powder, explaining to the stunned archaeologists who arrived on the scene, “The rock offers itself to all. It’s part of the universe.”
After a rash of publicity, Freeman says the Ring Mountain rock was targeted by vandals, presumably provoked only by the high regard others invested in the object. After four years of meetings with residents, native officials, and Freeman’s rock art association, the county finally built a knee-high wooden barrier around the stone to keep visitors beyond an arm’s length. A small sign written in eloquent language acknowledged the sanctity native peoples placed upon the stone, and made a simple plea to let it be.
Even so, groups still visit the site. Last Mother’s Day, for instance, a group called Mothers on the Mountain visited the rock to celebrate the divine feminine spirit and those women “who bring future to fruition,” as their Web site reads. The women encircled the rock, held hands, and meditated.
Freeman says other potential fertility stones can be found in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. One is in El Cerrito’s Alvarado Park, but has only small, indistinct cupules on the top, making its case unconvincing. Another could-be is located in Kensington on private land and another sits in an El Cerrito resident’s backyard, but the owner won’t allow experts to take a peek, Freeman says.
“My attitude is the rock was meant to be touched,” Freeman says of the East Bay rock. “I understand what will happen when word gets around and what people are capable of doing. It’s sad. But being allowed to touch it is an attitude that appeals to me, though, as long as we respect it.”
In late April, the city council of the rock’s home city approved a plan to protect it by installing either a wooden barrier or an information kiosk at the site. Or both. Or maybe nothing at all. The goal of the plan is to return the rock to its “correct cultural context” after subjecting it to decades of playground service.
Jim McKissock has been visiting the site for the past four years. As a biologist, he’s been noodling in the nearby creek, planting native grasses and monitoring a thriving chorus-frog population. It’s been a labor of love for him, and the recent archaeological dig, which he called “a circus entertainment environment,” has brought his patch of serenity a celebrity status he could live without. “If there’s less notoriety, it will fade back into the landscape here,” he said one day before heading out to the site. “What we don’t want to come from all of this is to have our solitude disturbed.”
McKissock, along with other neighbors, says he’d rather see people stumble upon the site than seek it out. He suggests the city install minimal signage, if any at all.
Yet even without signs, people have already come, in search of the rock’s alleged divinity. After word of the rock’s history first began to circulate, two names were carved into it and the park’s entrance was tagged with spray paint.
One story that McKissock and other residents have heard suggests that a pregnant woman who feared a cesarean birth came to the rock to meditate. Later, her waters broke, and she delivered by natural childbirth.
McKissock has spent many hours alone at the site, and says he can sometimes feel the presence of the natives. It’s a calming, grounding experience, he says. “The thing is, you could come here and get in touch with yourself like that,” he says, mindful of the pregnant woman’s experience. “It could happen. But still, we want to keep the quality of life over here.”