California’s Bay Area real estate is considered exceptionally prime, so prime in fact, that what has been described by archaeologists as a 4,500-year-old “treasure trove” of Coast Miwok Indian artifacts has been paved over in the name of a multi-million dollar housing development in the town of Larkspur. What was a historically rich American Indian burial ground home to, by some estimates, the remains of at least 600 Coast Miwok Indians, has been legally decimated and the Indian remains have been reburied at another site at the request of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria (FIGR).
In accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act, archaeologists were brought in to consult on the $55 million Rose Lane Development and they are publicly lamenting the loss of the historical treasure. The common regret is that they were not provided the opportunity to catalog the find before the artifacts were relocated and buried at another site that was then graded and paved over. Any historical evidence in the Larkspur site soil will be effectively obliterated by the construction of the new development thus the context of the artifacts – an important element of the American Indian archaeological find – is also lost forever.
In addition to human remains, the abundance of artifacts at the site included weapons, tools, household implements, and over 7,200 animal bones from at least 50 different animal species. Included were the bones of black and grizzly bears and even the remains of a rare California condor, a bird which some have speculated may have actually been a ceremonial “pet” that was honored by the burial. In just the small area that archaeologists were allowed to excavate, they discovered the bones of sea otters, ducks, bat-rays and sturgeon. According to archaeologist Dwight Simons, because this was just a small sampling of the historical site, there were likely, “millions of bones and bone fragments” that could have been cataloged for study.
Consulting archaeologist Al Schwitalla believes that the Indians that called Larkspur, which is a small town in the Bay Area, their home, were “very wealthy.” This is based upon his analysis of a small portion of the artifacts, which included over 42,000 shell beads and the remnants of abalone shells. Prehistorically this indicates that these Coast Miwok Indians were well off, much like the majority of residents that live in the very affluent Bay Area now. The Larkspur housing development will be built on the unusual foundation of soil strata that for thousands of years held the history and the ancestors of the Coast Miwok Indians.
The FIGR, with a population that are the most likely descendants of the Coast Miwok Indians expressed that they wanted their ancestral remains relocated and that they did not want to become the subject of an archaeological study. The chairman of the FIGR is quoted as saying that no one has the right to dig up the skeletal remains of the Indian ancestors for examination and he wonders, “How would Jewish or Christian people feel?” if they were in the FIGR’s position.
Yet, senior archaeologist of the California State Parks, E. Breck Parkman says that in his four decades long career, he has never experienced an “archaeological site quite like this one” and his regret over the loss of the artifacts is apparent. Further, Jelmer Earkens who is a professor of archaeology at the University of California, Davis, states that while the developers “have a right to develop their land” they could have at the very least allowed the artifacts to have been protected so that they could have “been studied in the future.”
However, the developers did not make the decision to remove and rebury the artifacts found at the Bay Area site, the American Indian leaders ultimately made that choice. Nick Tipon of the FIGR stated that it is the philosophy of the tribe to protect their “cultural resources” and to “leave them as is.” He also stated that the notion that the artifacts belong to the public is a “colonial view.”
The archaeological and historically valuable American Indian remains and artifacts uncovered by the California Bay Area housing developers have been relocated. What many archaeologists called a “treasure trove” has been paved over and the artifacts are lost to any further study. However, Larkspur Land 8 Owner LLC’s construction on the site includes senior housing units, townhouses and single-family dwellings with real estate values between $1.9 and $2.5 million. While the archaeological wealth may be lost, the wealth of those invested in the housing development is going to grow exponentially.
By Alana Marie Burke
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