MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
Long before Marines braved the Mojave Desert’s harsh environs to train for combat, the area was home to giants locked in an epic struggle to survive.
Mastodons, giant tortoise and sloths, horses and other prehistoric animals that roamed the peaks and valleys of the Marine Corps Air Combat Center ultimately lost their battle, leaving behind fossilized remains that were discovered in the Gypsum Ridge Training Area in the late 1990s.
Since 2006, the 2.75-million-year-old fossils have been housed at the Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Division’s Archaeology and Paleontology Curation Center along with thousands of other artifacts collected from sites throughout the installation’s 1,100 square miles. The curation center — believed to be the only facility of its kind in the Marine Corps — also stores artifacts from the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Marine Corps Air Station Yuma and Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow in its temperature- and humidity-controlled collections room.
Now, NREA wants to share MCAGCC’s ancient history with Marines, sailors and family members via a newly opened display room at the curation center, Bldg. 1091 on Del Valle Road.
“There’s so much local history here on the base, and the Marines and their families should have an opportunity to view this special place,” said D’Anne Albers, a cultural resource specialist who has worked at the curation center since 2010.
The 14- by 36-foot display room, which opened July 18, showcases five areas aboard the installation where artifacts have been collected. They are:
• Gypsum Ridge Training Area, the final resting place of prehistoric desert dwellers such as Hesperotestudo, a giant tortoise that has been extinct for about 10,000 years. The heavily armored, 400-pound behemoth is not an ancestor of the much-smaller desert tortoise, which experts say has existed on earth for 15 to 20 million years.
• Foxtrot Petroglyphs, where some 10,000 years ago, the first humans to inhabit the area etched and painted images onto rock faces. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
• Deadman Lake, where archaeologists have discovered objects left behind by people who lived in the area between 2,000 and 10,000 years ago.• Surprise Spring, a perennial spring fed by underground fossil water used by humans as far back as 6,500 years ago. It remains the Combat Center’s sole source of water to this day.
• Sunshine Peak Training Area, which contains the largest concentration of abandoned mines aboard the installation. Most were constructed between the 1880s and early 1900s, when mining was prevalent in the area.
Visitors who enter the display room will find themselves drawn to displays that are as colorful and creative as they are informative.
Just inside the doorway are replicas of rock art found at Foxtrot, along with photographs of the site and signs detailing its importance and what the Marine Corps has done to preserve the area.
Next to that display is a matted and framed mining claim location notice. The weathered document, dated 1928 and folded into a tobacco tin, lay hidden in a cluster of stacked rocks near Sunshine Peak for decades, until its discovery in 2009.
A few inches away, a display case housing old spectacles, a watch, soda can, lighter and other items left behind by homesteaders who gave up their desert retreat to the Marine Corps in 1952 rests under a sign and photographs detailing the history of Surprise Spring.
Across the room, arrowheads dating back 100 to 10,000 years rest next to old beads, pendants, and a milling slab and hand stone discovered in the Deadman Lake area. Nearby is a display featuring a 1,000-year-old ceramic bowl reconstructed by archaeologist Kasey O’Horo after its discovery in 2011. Flanking the bowl is a large pottery shard with colorful markings, discovered in the Lavic Lake Training Area, and fragments of a small ceramic figurine.
The back portion, and centerpiece, of the display room is dedicated to MCAGCC’s oldest known inhabitants.
Four separate display cases house the mandible of the Harlan’s ground sloth, a creature that weighed 3,500 pounds and was the size of a pick-up truck; the vertebrae, teeth and long bone of a prehistoric horse, a breed that was much smaller and more zebra-like than modern-day horses; the hind foot and portion of the shell of the giant tortoise; and the small foot bone of the American mastodon, a creature that was the size of modern-day elephants. Believed to be highly social animals, mastodons roamed North America from Alaska to Central Mexico in herds, feeding on the trees and shrubs that flourished on the Combat Center before the region became a desert.
On the back wall of the room, a large, computer-generated art piece created by wildlife and natural history artist Karen Carr of New Mexico shows each animal as it would have appeared in life, along with other plants and animals that thrived in the lush wetlands dotting the otherwise arid landscape of that long-ago era.
Rounding out the display room offerings is a kiosk with interactive presentations and videos created by former curation center manager Nick Chamberlain, an archaeologist who recently left the Combat Center for a job in Okinawa, Japan.
Using a touchscreen, visitors can play virtual archaeologist, unearthing artifacts and keeping an archaeology journal. They also can watch videos about the desert tortoise and explore the installation’s modern history from Condor Field to present.
NREA also pays homage to the installation’s military history with a hallway display featuring Condor Field, the Army Air Corps glider base that operated here during World War II. The Navy also had a presence here before the Marine Corps came aboard in 1952.
The military display includes old photographs and such artifacts as a rusty 1940s-era .50-caliber machine gun discovered several years ago during housing construction. Coming soon will be a display of smaller items discovered on Mainside, including an old galley tray and Old Spice bottles left behind by Marines and sailors stationed here decades ago.
It’s all fascinating to Albers, who said she hopes that those who live and work aboard the Combat Center drop by to check out the displays.
“It gives people a chance to see base history and the amazing things that have gone on here,” she said. “We want the Marines to see that it is very much like what they do — survive in extreme circumstances.”