Development unearths remains at Berkeley shellmound

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Berkeley shellmound construction site
Construction on the Berkeley waterfront has unearthed human remains believed to be associate with a Native American shellmound in the area. Photo by Yael Chanoff.

By Yael Chanoff

Human remains, likely part of a 5700 year old Ohlone burial ground, have been found in a Berkeley construction site.

The remains were uncovered March 29 during construction on the Fourth Street Shops project in West Berkeley.

“So far we have had one human body identified,” said Andy Galvan, a curator at Mission Dolores who often acts as cultural consultant on archeological digs at sites important to Ohlone history.

“The soil surrounding the human remains has got a good amount of shell in it,” Galvan said. “So based on context and location, we can determine that these are are pre-contact period. Pre-1769.”

The site, at 1919 Fourth St next to historic Spenger's restaurant, is near another controversial development project in the Berkeley shellmound area.. This may put it within the bounds of the Berkeley Shellmound, a historical landmark designated on Fourth St. between University and Hearst.

Ohlone people created shellmounds, pyramid-like monuments of seashells that served as burial grounds among many other purposes.

The exact boundaries of the Berkeley Shellmound are unknown. Stephanie Manning, a founder of the Berkeley Historical Society who helped lead the effort to create the shellmound's historical landmark status, said that this discovery could mean that the shellmound extends further than previously thought, possibly to fifth street.

Either way, Manning said, the proximity of this construction to the shellmound should legally have required an archaeological study before construction began.

Yet 1919 Fourth St. seems to have slipped through the cracks.

When architecture firm Abrams Millikan received building permits for the project in November 2014, they were granted a environmental impact exemption under CEQA guidelines 15331 and 15332. Section 15331 deals with historical preservation projects, and Manning suspects that was why they were granted the exemption. Abrams Millikan declined to comment.

“They probably got it because they said they would preserve the landmark building, the Spenger's building. That part is good. But this was a new discovery on the site,” Manning said.

Now human remains have been found Galvan has been named as most likely descendant, meaning he will present recommendations to the developer concerning the remains. He said that his recommendations generally include that the developer take measures to leave the remains undisturbed, preferably where they were found, and if not that they be moved somewhere else on-site on nearby off-site where they will "not be subject to further disturbance."

His recommendations may also include radio-carbon dating of the remains as well as some type of cultural mitigation.

Manning said that in light of the discovery, construction should cease and corings and other archaeological techniques should be applied to understand the historical significance of the site.

“The least they can do is to have the archaeologist there during the construction, and have the Ohlone monitor there,” Manning said.

Meanwhile, she said, “We will keep making our case to save the shellmound.”

Indian People Organizing for Change will hold an open meeting to "pay honor and homage to the over 5700 year old ancestor that has been disturbed from their final resting place." The prayer gathering will take place April 10th at 3pm at 4th and Hearst in Berkeley.

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