Fire on the Mountain: Roasting Pits in the Sheep Range on the Desert National Wildlife Refuge
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Roasting pits are earth oven facilities commonly found scattered throughout southern Nevada. The term earth oven refers to the process or event of baking foods, often plants, in a cooking pit with hot rocks which is covered by an earthen cap. While roasting pits were used to bake a variety of food stuffs, desert succulents such as agave and yuccas were likely the most commonly cooked. Within the Sheep Range in southern Nevada, more than 200 roasting pits were identified and 193 were subsequently documented in the field. Due to the accumulation of discarded materials surrounding the central cooking pit (e.g., spent rocks, organic material, and sediment), along with the color change that occurs in limestone and dolomite after they have been heated, most documented roasting pits were identified via Google Earth. Standard field methods were used to document roasting pits in the field. This included measuring the exterior and central depression dimensions, as well as the central cooking pit when visible. Photographs and descriptions were also taken, and small-scale surveys were conducted in the area surrounding each feature to identify associated artifacts. Key data was then entered into ArcMap 10.2 where additional analysis was conducted, including Nearest Neighbor and Hot-Spot analysis, as well as analysis with a vegetation coverage map for the Sheep Range. Nearest Neighbor analysis determined that all recorded roasting pits within the Sheep Range are spatially related to each other. Hot-Spot analysis identified that roasting pits with larger torus and exterior measurements were concentrated near the north-central portion of the Sheep Range. Torus size is interpreted as a general indicator of use, and this concentration is believed to represent the area of the Range that was most heavily used for plant baking. Statistical analysis, including regression and Mann-Whitney U tests were also conducted on roasting pit measurements. Regression for all three roasting pit measurements, exterior, torus, and central depression, identified that exterior and torus measurements were larger at higher elevations than at lower elevations. Mann-Whitney U tests identified that roasting pits built in Creosote Brush communities had smaller torus and exterior measurements than those built vegetative zones at higher elevations, including Black Brush, Mixed Shrub and Pinyon-Juniper communities. Experimental testing of rocks found in the Sheep Range determined that the local dolomite turns white when subjected to temperatures of 875° C and higher. Based on the experimental work I conducted, I reason that dolomite was used in earth oven baking as well as limestone in the Sheep Range. This thesis represents the first extensive documentation of roasting pits within the Sheep Range. Further archaeological investigations are necessary for a greater understanding regarding the purpose, period, and intensity of use of roasting pits in the Sheep Range.
CitationLodge, S. N. (2016). Fire on the mountain: Roasting pits in the sheep range on the desert national wildlife refuge (Unpublished thesis). Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas.