Archaeologists say they wish they'd had more time to study Coast Miwok remains and artifacts in Larkspur before the 4,470-year-old relics were relocated to make way for new multimillion-dollar homes at the Rose Lane development.
The $55 million development, which sits on a 16.8-acre site where the old Niven Nursery used to be, was approved by the City Council in 2010. While city officials have known about the site's American Indian midden, or shell heap, for decades, it wasn't until archaeologists spent 18 months sifting through more than 13,700 cubic meters of soil starting in 2012 that its importance came to light.
"For the Bay Area it's one of the most significant sites to ever have been excavated," said Al Schwitalla, an archaeologist hired to analyze the site's artifacts. "We found over 42,000 shell beads and abalone shell remnants. Based on my analysis of those artifacts, the people that lived there prehistorically were very wealthy."
The site housed more than 7,200 animal bones, bones from 50 different animal species, shell beads, more than 580 human bones, spears, throwing sticks and a California condor believed to have been buried during a special ceremony, according to project archeologists.
Dwight Simons, a consulting archaeologist who specializes in animal bones, said he found grizzly bear, black bear, bat-ray, sturgeon, sea otter and duck remains in the small area scientists were allowed to excavate.
"That by no means was a complete sampling of stuff from the site. I think it's arguable there were literally millions of bones and bone fragments in that site," Simons said.
Given the fact the site was so large and complex, Simons said he and other archaeologists would've liked more time to study its unique and rare artifacts. He said there used to be more than 500 sites like this in the Bay Area about 100 years ago, but not anymore.
"Today there are virtually none left because of development," Simons said. "All of us were very keenly aware of the fact that we were dealing with something that was the last of its type."
In a perfect world, the archaeologists said they would have preserved as many of the artifacts as possible. Instead the items were removed from the soil, reburied at an undisclosed location on the site and graded over per the wishes of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.
The graded property will soon be home to 42 senior housing units, eight senior cottage homes, six affordable-housing town houses and 29 single-family homes. The homes will likely be priced from about $1.9 million to $2.5 million, according to the developer.
When Larkspur Land 8 Owner, LLC purchased the property in 2011 for development by the Walnut Creek-based New Home Co., they hired the San Francisco-based Holman & Associates Archaeological Consultants to conduct an excavation as required by the California Environmental Quality Act. Their work was overseen by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, deemed the most likely descendants of the Coast Miwok people in Marin.
The tribe, which recently opened the Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park, chose not to remove any items and disallowed DNA testing and isotopic analysis, which would've allowed scientists to learn more about the indigenous people's diet.
Larkspur city officials, Miley Holman, owner of Holman & Associates Archaeological Consultants, and New Home Co. representatives said it was up to the tribe to oversee the excavation and make decisions about the relics.
"All the work has been completed to the satisfaction of the tribe," said New Home Co. spokesman Sam Singer. "Out of respect for the tribe, we're not at liberty to discuss the specifics surrounding the on-site cultural resource activities."
Greg Sarris, chairman for the 1,300-member tribe, said it's the tribe's policy to respectfully rebury items and not preserve them for study.
"We are not interested in digging up or studying these things. 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," Sarris said.
In Coast Miwok tradition, the dead and everything they owned was typically cremated, Sarris said. Any bones and items discovered signal an anomaly and that something was wrong. He said the tribe was known for its secret cults and subtle poisonings of rivals.
"If you found a skeleton, that either meant the person was murdered or the cult members took care of the body," Sarris said. "These charm stones used by cult members and medicine people -- we don't want to touch them. If they're not exposed, let them be paved over."
While the archaeologists understand the tribe's point of view, they also want to preserve cultural sites such as the one in Larkspur for science and history.
Schwitalla said it's a difficult situation with different competing interests.
"I see this as a backlash from years of archeologists going and digging some stuff up and not asking their opinion," Schwitalla said. "A lot of what went down on this project happens all the time."
The Larkspur midden issue first became public knowledge last month when some of the archaeologists gave a presentation about their work at a Society for California Archaeology conference in Visalia.
Schwitalla said his colleagues at the conference were stunned by the site.
"There were a lot of people shaking their heads that more time wasn't allowed," he said.
These archaeologists are also wondering why Larkspur planning officials didn't have the developer redesign the project to lessen its impact on the midden. Some said the fact the city is getting a 2.43-acre piece of land for a community center may have something to do with it.
Neal Toft, Larkspur planning and building director, said limited archaeological surveys were done as part of the site's environmental impact report, which indicated the site wasn't a highly significant one. A plan to deal with any artifacts, which included a nondisclosure clause, was reached with the tribe, developer and city before the project broke ground.
"There wasn't any knowing of exactly where these materials would be located and how much. It was unknown until they dug it," Toft said, adding the city didn't participate in the excavation after the "treatment plan" was put in place. "No one informed the city about what was discovered."
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