After a year and a half of secret, limited excavations by archaeologists, developers in Marin County are paving over an extraordinary 4,500-year-old American Indian site said to hold an unexamined treasure trove of more than a million artifacts.
Archaeologists are not happy they didn't have more time to study the grounds, considered the last unmolested Native American site of its kind in the Bay Area. But the city, developers and tribal representatives say that California law governing the handling of these kinds of sites was strictly followed.
The importance of the burial ground and village site in the city of Larkspur was discovered in 2010 when developers began their work on a $55-million luxury home project, although the shell heap marking the site as an ancient location of Coast Miwok tribal remains has been well known since at least 1910. There used to be 500 or more sites like it a century ago.
When initial grading began turning up artifacts, developers called in archaeologists and other specialists to study the site, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Holman & Associates Archaeological Consultants worked with the 1,300-member Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, considered the likeliest descendants of the Coast Miwok, to quietly probe the site. Secrecy was part of the deal, and the broader scientific community did not become aware of the dig until last month.
Archaeologists reportedly found 600 human burials, musical instruments, stone tools, idols, a ceremonial condor burial, a huge collection of bear bones and other artifacts at the 300-foot-long site.
As per agreement with the tribe, which by law pretty much has the last say on how the remains are examined and disposed of, there was no DNA testing and objects were reburied at an undisclosed place onsite. Most of the materials were left in the ground unexamined. Any carbon-dated record of the soil was lost.
“We are not interested in digging up or studying these things,” tribe chairman Greg Sarris said. “No one has a right to do that any more than if we wanted to go to an old Jewish or Christian cemetery and dig people up because we want to study DNA or something like that.”
California law governing Native American site excavations was a response to decades of unrestrained savaging of sites—by amateurs and professionals—considered sacred by tribes. While some archaeologists complain that the law is an overreaction to that disrespectful past, some think that the haste and secrecy could legally have been avoided.
It did not go unnoticed that the city received a 2.43-acre piece of land for a community center as part of the deal that allows for construction of 29 single-family homes, likely to be priced from about $1.9 million to $2.5 million. The development will also include 42 senior housing units, eight senior cottage homes and six affordable-housing town houses.
“It should have been protected,” UC Davis archaeology Professor Jelmer Eerkens, who visited the site as a guest scholar, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The developers have the right to develop their land, but at least the information contained in the site should have been protected and samples should have been saved so that they could be studied in the future.”
Some critics wondered if the city couldn't have negotiated with the developer to redesign the project in a way that would allow excavation of the site to continue in some fashion.
Nick Tipon, a member of the tribe's Sacred Sites Protection Committee, took a different view. “The philosophy of the tribe in general is that we would like to protect our cultural resources and leave them as is,” he told the Chronicle. “The notion that these cultural artifacts belong to the public is a colonial view.”