Dennis Cassinelli: Great Basin crescents

Great Basin crescent

Great Basin crescent

On a Father’s Day outing to Fort Churchill several years ago, I happened to discover one of the most interesting Indian artifacts I ever found in my many years of searching the farms, ranches and Nevada deserts. The finely chipped artifact was made of shiny black obsidian about 2 inches long. This material was commonly used to make arrowheads, projectile points, scrapers and other tools by the Great Basin Indians. The shape of the item completely baffled me. It was as if someone had fused together two large arrowheads at a 90-degree angle to each other. It also bore a striking resemblance to a butterfly or the tail of a fish, such as a trout.

Fort Churchill is situated along the Carson River about 30 miles east of Virginia City. The area where I found the artifact was on a privately owned ranch across the river from the ruins of the fort. It’s illegal to hunt for or pick up artifacts from state or federal lands such as a state park or BLM land.

Out of curiosity, I took the artifact to an archaeologist friend of mine at the Nevada Department of Transportation, Joe Moore. He was able to identify the curious piece as a “Great Basin crescent.” Joe told me they were extremely rare and are found only where the water level of ancient Lake Lahontan was between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago. He said they probably were used for something to do with the abundant marshes that existed around the lake at that time. They’re so old and so unusual no one today is sure exactly how they were used.

I studied a map of the Great Basin that showed where the shorelines of Ancient Lake Lahontan had been. Sure enough, the lakeshore touched the exact place where I had found the crescent. In fact, I was surprised to learn the lake extended as far west as Dayton, including all of Dayton Valley. I was able to confirm this recently when I discovered chunks of tufa in Dayton Valley. Tufa is the white “popcorn” rock like the ones you can see around Pyramid Lake. It’s always formed only when rocks are submerged underwater for a long period of time.

I contacted Donald Tuohy at the Nevada State Museum to see if he could tell me anything else about the crescents. I learned there were three basic shapes, including a crescent moon, a half moon and the butterfly shape, which is the type I had found. Don confirmed the crescents were old and archaeologists don’t know for sure how they were used. He said they may have been crafted as some type of projectile point or perhaps as a throwing stick. At that time, there were no crescents on display at the museum. I asked if a display could be created so the public could see these interesting artifacts and perhaps offer theories about how they were used. The museum has now constructed such a display in the “Under One Sky” exhibit.

Many crescents were found years ago at certain places around the perimeter of the Black Rock Desert. It’s illegal to look for artifacts there anymore due to the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. This is BLM land, and there’s probably nothing to be found there after so many years of being picked over. Books written several years ago glorified finding crescents with colorful photos of these artifacts. At the time the crescents were made, the Black Rock Desert was an extensive lake with marshes and abundant wildlife along the shore. The crescents were likely used for some hunting or gathering function in the marshlands. Crescents are an artifact confined mostly to the Great Basin and other places where early Holocne marshes once existed.

When I prepared the collection of Indian artifacts I donated to the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center in Gardnerville, I included this and some other crescents and some theories about how they may have been used. These and many other artifacts are shown and described in my book, “Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians.”

This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted at or on his blog at All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount to reduce inventory and Dennis will pay the postage.


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