Saturday, December 13, 2008

Irvine Ranch Conservancy: Altar Rock and Herman Strandt

Altar Rock, 2008 (Photo by author)
(Continued from 12-1-08)
The last stop on our Irvine Ranch Conservancy tour was at Orange County’s most mysterious archaeological site: Altar Rock. Historian Jim Sleeper describes it as "a peculiarly carved one-ton sandstone rock... [once at] the center of an Indian camp. Numerous 'pot hole' rocks surround the stone, which resembles an elfin throne." (Rancho San Joaquin Gazette, Vol. III, No. 1) . Anthropologist Steve O’Neil of the Pacific Coast Archaeological Society told me that the rock’s placement has parallels to rock art sites in the south half of the Santa Ana Mountains. However, he said, “It’s strange. It doesn’t fit with anything else known in Native American or Hispanic design. It doesn’t compare to anything else.” . Historian Phil Brigandi told me that the “shallow grinding pits” he found near the rock are “similar to those used to grind pigments.” I’m told there are also some deeper grinding pits near the rock, like those used to grind meal, but we didn’t see them on our visit to the site.
Altar Rock as photographed by historian Jim Sleeper, date unknown.
The rock was a well-known landmark to Irvine Ranch cowboys. According to Sleeper, it “was finally excavated and examined in 1954 by Herman Strandt, and amateur archaeologist from Anaheim… He carefully measured the three-foot high stone, calculated its eleven different planes… and chalked on its sides a number of unnoticed ‘dipper-like’ petroglyphs which have since disappeared. …At the time of Strandt’s study, the [rock] also bore the initials ‘RF’ on its top and front.” (Both this quote and the black and white photo above come from Jim Sleeper’s 3rd Orange County Almanac.) . I've been asked to not give the location of this site, except to say that it's on Conservancy-owned land. (If you know where it is please DON'T post about it here.) Access to the site is controlled, which should hopefully prevent vandalism.
Herman Strandt points out features on his famous map.
Having shared what little is known about this curious site, I’m going to step back and discuss the aforementioned Mr. Strandt. . Herman Frederick Strandt was born in Germany in 1884. He grew up in Hamburg and was fascinated by tales of American cowboys and Indians. His interest in archaeology began while helping his father drill wells. He emigrated to the U.S. and lived in Milwaukee where he worked as a janitor at a manufacturing company and began to do archaeological work in his free time. 

But it was not until Strandt moved to Orange County, in 1921, that he fully immersed himself in the world of pre-history, working many archaeological sites throughout Southern California and Arizona. . Although the newspapers sometimes referred to him as “Dr. Strandt” or “Professor Strandt,” his day job was actually in the cement business. And as Sleeper points out, Strandt’s unprofessional habit of “’pot hunting’ earned him a poor reputation among Indian experts.” And yet, Strandt developed a well-known map of Indian village and burial sites in Orange County, documented sites for the WPA during the 1930s, and added considerably to our knowledge of pre-historic Southern California. 

When Strandt retired in 1947, his avocation became a nearly full-time job. He sold many of his better finds to major museums, but he also kept many relics. In fact, he had his own large museum, with about 10,000 displayed items, in the backyard of his home at 1025 S. Broadway, in Anaheim. He also owned many more artifacts which were not displayed. . Herman and his wife Minnie had at least three children: Esther, Ruth and Herbert. Herman Strandt died in 1963. His personal collection was purchased by Bowers Museum in 1953.
Altar Rock (with sunglasses for scale), 1979.
[Update: The aforementioned Stephen O'Neil writes: "I am quite sure that [the rock] is Native American in origin -- enough other singular looking large stone carvings have been found in the south coastal region, very different from one another and yet each of a unique design, that something the size and shape of [this one] is not surprising. More is known of the local and frontier Hispanic culture, and there is more documentation of the pioneer Spanish/Mexican families, that if they had made it we would have some clue."]


CoxPilot said...

Not to be picky, but Broadway in Anaheim runs East and West (not North and South). Did Mr. Strandt live in Anaheim or Santa Ana (SA's Broadway does run N. & S.) ?

On another note: Has anyone heard of an artist in Anaheim in the 60's named Armin Heying? He was retired and had a studio behind the garage at his home on South Claudina, in the 800 block. He worked in oils, and also taught for quite a few years. He passed away in the 70's. His main thing seemed to be desert landscapes & religious paintings, and donated a large "Jesus in the Garden" picture to a major church in Anahiem. (There was a article in the Bulletin.) I have a painting of his, and have never found in info since.

Chris Jepsen said...

Strandt lived in Anaheim. I got the address from a newspaper article that mentioned his museum.

Armin H. Heying was a self-taught landscape painter. He lived at 863 S. Claudina St. in Anaheim. In 1957 he donated two paintings, "Gethsemane" and "Ressurection," to the Presbyterian Church at 310 W. Broadway in Anaheim. Later, the paintings were loaned to the Martin Luther Hospital in Anaheim.

Heying was born Sept. 26, 1895 in Missouri and died in Oct. 13, 1972 in Orange County.

Send me an email at cjepsen at and I will send you some articles about him.

ItsNotAPlace said...

That is interesting! I have never heard of this rock before. A fascinating mystery!

Anonymous said...

My father, who worked on the Irvine Ranch in the 60's through the early 90's when it was still a working ranch, showed me this rock about 30 years ago. Mum is the word as to its location. The only hint is that the surrounding area is one of the most beautiful areas in Orange County.