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Home / Articles / News / News /  Hush-hush archaeology
. . . .
Tuesday, Mar 17, 2009

Hush-hush archaeology

How scientists and Native Americans pulled off a major dig before the feds triple border fence destroyed everything    

By Gayle Early

During the past year, archaeologists have been digging like mad to preserve one of the last remaining ancient Indian village sites in coastal Southern California, racing against the claw of the bulldozers and massive grind of the steam rollers to get the work done before the federal government erases in one year what had managed to survive for millennia.

And they did it in almost complete secrecy.

By April 2008, then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff had waived 36 environmental and cultural laws that could otherwise block completion of a triple border fence. Congress granted him this authority in 2005, with the passage of the so-called REAL ID Act.

That amounted to an end run around the National Environmental Policy Act, Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, Indian Religious Freedom Act, National Historic Preservation Act, Archaeological Resources Protection Act and so on, down to the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act—laws protecting communities, farms, forests, watersheds, wildlife, antiquities, habitats, migration corridors and cultural resources.

In the interest of national security, the feds claimed eminent domain over state, county, and private lands along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. That also nullified California’s laws, like the landmark California Environmental Quality Act, which makes disrupting ancient burials or antiquities a criminal act.

Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Save Our Heritage Organization, and other groups sued the federal government, arguing that the move was unconstitutional—and lost, meaning that the Army Corps of Engineers, which managed fence construction for Customs and Border Protection (CBP), could have obliterated at least two archaeological sites eligible for the U.S. National Register of Historic Places lying among three mesas around Border Field State Park.But they didn’t, and no one knows about this act of grace—not to mention a nail-biting archaeological coup—because of the politicized nature and urgency of the fence project.

So, how did archaeologists snag a $3-million contract with an otherwise implacable post-9-11 defense machine?Quietly. Behind the scenes. In secret. With the helpful hand of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other key players, none of whom was required to care.

Chertoff did say he wanted to honor the spirit of the laws he waived. And that’s the chink in the wall where Therese Muranaka, associate archaeologist for California State Parks’ San Diego Coast District, struck her wedge. She couldn’t bear to see bulldozers wipe out prehistory.

Carmen Lucas, a tribal elder and one of the last surviving members of the Laguna band of Indians, who strongly feels that these villages represent her ancestors, asked Muranaka for help. Lucas wrote a detailed letter in December 2005 to the archaeologist who conducted initial studies at Border Field, copying Muranaka and the Native American Heritage Commission. In it, she urged protection of the sites in and around Border Field and requested that Native Americans and State Parks “monitor all earth-moving activity if and when construction of the border fence begins.” Lucas also filed a legal protest with Homeland Security over the waivers.

“Number one, it’s a spiritual violation to destroy those sites. And if we waive all of our environmental laws we are setting a precedent for other projects,” Lucas, a 20-year Marine Corps Veteran, told CityBeat. “You can see the systematic destruction of America’s history and prehistory all across this country.”

A coalition of environmentalists, Native Americans and government agencies huddled together—it’s unclear exactly when, perhaps around March 2006—knowing they could not stop the fence.

“It is what it is,” Muranaka had said. “So, what are we going to do?”

Clint Linton, of the Santa Ysabel Band of Diegueño Indians and owner of Red Tail Monitoring and Research Inc., was at the early meetings. “Therese rallied the troops,” he said. “She made it happen.” Linton’s company provides Native American archaeological monitors for construction sites subject to city and county environmental review.

At first, Linton said, the archaeological reviewer with the Army Corps “shut the door on us, wouldn’t talk, just said, ‘It’s waived—you guys can’t do anything about it. Just go home.’”

Linton said the reviewer “made the mistake of telling Therese Muranaka that they’re going to destroy her park and there’s nothing she can do about it. Therese is extremely smart, very savvy, very tough, and got everyone together, got tribal involvement and kept pushing it and fighting it.”

About a year ago, Muranaka gave a talk to the San Diego County Archaeology Society at Rancho Penasquitos Community Park, prompted, she said, by the Indian community.

Unaware that a reporter was in the room, Muranaka and State Parks’ Historian Victor Walsh spoke—not of ancient ollas and grinding stones, but of the proposed triple-layer border fence, with its 150-foot-wide all-terrain road, automatic gates, vehicle and pedestrian barriers, a fourth virtual fence armed with spy drones, Klieg lights and electronic surveillance. And of their efforts to build in-roads with the powers that be.

In her soft voice, Muranaka insisted her talk was not about politics. But, she said, the Border Patrol was concerned with someone coming into the U.S. and destroying “civilization” as it exists. “We archaeologists are concerned that they will destroy the record of all civilizations so there is no hope understanding its nature at all.”

Muranaka grew up in San Diego in a family of divers. When she was a kid, they would catch abalone and walk along the beach south of the border to find a kitchen to cook them. There was no fence.

Muranaka spoke of the thousands of years of footprints crisscrossing the region. The aboriginal territory of San Diego’s Native Americans, largely Kumeyaay, extends from the desert to the ocean, from Carlsbad to Ensenada.

Tracing her finger around a projected image of Monument Mesa, the heart of the village sites, Muranaka spoke of spear points and handstones, of shell middens eroding out of cliff faces and ancient villages buried underwater, out toward the Coronado Islands, when sea levels were much lower.

What laypeople see as a dark line in the soil is a outdoor kitchen to an archaeologist, where thousands of years ago

Indians prized shellfish and relished all-you-can-eat clambakes on the sea cliff (judging by the piles), leaving behind their beveled stone clam-openers for others to discover.

The estuary was a lagoon chock full of fish and mollusks. Generations upon generations tossed their shells and bones into the same piles, and the earth slowly swallowed them.

The site on Monument Mesa extends clear under the Tijuana bull ring, but heavy development in Mexico right up to the fence crunched potsherds to splinters long ago, leaving San Diego with the only real access to the region’s prehistory.

The mesa top itself took a big hit in World Wars I and II, with gun emplacements, encampments and war games, and later a park, but it still yields its earlier story.

Two bluffs beyond, ancient sand dunes remained relatively untouched, archaeologically pristine—no small feat in real-estate happy Southern California.

Mark Becker, of ASM Affiliates, conducted the preliminary tests at these sites four years ago, in State Parks’ anticipation of CEQA and NEPA environmental-impact reviews, just before Congress enacted the 2005 Real ID Act, which contained the environmental waivers.

“From my perspective,” he said, “there are sites all over the place, when you get a rich environment like the estuary.”

One bluff yielded occupation dates around 7,600 years ago, another 5,000 years ago.

“Any driving will destroy it,” said Walsh, at the Archaeology Society meeting in Rancho Penasquitos. “The archaeology is ephemeral, close to the surface.”

The Border Patrol, in pursuit of crossers day and night, unwittingly damages sites along the fence, making sharp turns in the soil that leave artifacts broken in the dirt and carbon-filled hearths exposed to the elements.It’s still a felony, of course, to desecrate ancient sites. It’s a felony to make off with so much as an arrowhead on protected lands. It’s a felony to disturb Native American human remains and burial objects under any circumstances.

Muranaka nearly gushed about negotiations and cooperation among federal and state agencies, as well as Native Americans, to protect three major sites the fence would hit. No archaeological contracts were signed yet, but it looked promising.

Walsh was less sanguine. “Congress gave Homeland Security arbitrary, unprecedented, discretionary power to waive every hard-fought law. We’re living in a closed society here,” he said. “Questions need to be asked, and they’re not being asked. We’re trying to protect land you own. All people’s histories matter and should be protected.”

Asked for an interview after her presentation in Rancho Penasquitos, Muranaka blanched. “No! Oh no! No. We’re not allowed to talk. You can’t interview me. I have a family, children, a job to protect!” She wanted to take back her entire presentation. She offered a local archaeology book. “Here, write about this!”

Throughout the year, Muranaka refused every e-mail and phone request for an interview. “Please be assured we’re doing everything we can to protect vital cultural resources,” she said.Hailing from the Laguna Mountains, Carmen Lucas lives in her father’s old cabin 5,500 feet above sea level. She monitors archaeological excavations across the county. “If you’re digging in the ground, our number one concern and priority is the discovery of human remains,” she said.

Lucas, 74, stands taller than 6 feet, has striking white hair and penetrating blue eyes. When she caught wind of a project brewing at Border Field, she insisted she be allowed in as Native American monitor.

“As monitors, we do our best to represent the ancestors who cannot speak for themselves,” she said. “I will go to my grave believing I have a right to look after my ancestors, to respect them and make sure that they’ve been respected.”Lucas has been criticized by fellow elders for being involved with excavations. “Indians will say ‘leave that stuff alone, it belongs to the dead,’” she said. “I agree with them and I respect that.

“I hate to say this,” she added, “but it’s unrealistic for us to believe people will respect our things and leave them alone. So, if a site is going to be destroyed and we have to dig, we must do the best job possible.”Lucas emphasized that she doesn’t speak for the tribes, “just what is in my heart.”

In any construction project, if human bones turn up, it becomes a forensic case; when the medical examiner or coroner determines bones are prehistoric, all work stops and the Native American Heritage Commission is notified. The project’s design can be altered; the site is explored wide and deep for any further remains.

But with the feds’ waivers and eminent domain, the Heritage Commission wondered what would happen if, besides irreplaceable antiquities, Homeland Security’s bulldozers churned up ancient bones. Would the feds violate state law? Could they be prosecuted?

Lucas’ plea to Becker and State Parks enabled Muranaka to call the Heritage Commission, State Parks’ sister agency.

The Santa Ysabel band also submitted a resolution to the commission, which in turn wrote a strong letter to the Army Corps in September 2007. That letter exhorted the Corps to allow full recovery of artifacts, have Native American monitors onsite, and adhere to state law if remains were found.

By October 2007, Nancy Parrish stepped in as archaeological reviewer at the Army Corps headquarters in Texas. She notified the Heritage Commission that she was now assigned to the project and apologized to the tribes. By May 2008, she awarded an archaeological contract for excavation of 174 archaeological test units, a massive dig by usual standards. Muranaka was ready with State Parks’ permits.

Asked about the project and how it came to fruition in spite of the waivers, Parrish e-mailed back, “I need to get clearance from [Customs and Border Protection] before I can speak with you.” That never happened.

Sandy Schneeberger, owner of Golden State Environmental of Orange County, won the archaeological bid. She was in charge of the nuts and bolts of the excavation and subcontracted pieces of the puzzle. She wouldn’t discuss the project.

Since when did digging in the dirt with public funds become such a dirty secret?

“When we were out there, they locked us down. They kind of said, ‘Don’t talk to anyone about it,’” said Linton, whose company, along with Carmen Lucas, monitored the digs. Linton said State Parks’ archaeologists “were afraid they were going to pull the plug at any time.”

Linton hypothesized that they were under some sort of gag order because “they didn’t want us on the news. Filming and protests. They don’t want a thousand Indians out there screaming and yelling. They want to sell it as Homeland Security, and you’ve got to do it.”

Specific archaeological sites aren’t typically disclosed to the public, Lucas said, because of pothunters, “people just human-natured curious, wanting to pilfer what they can—they have no idea how offensive that might be to an Indian who understands [those things] belonged to the ancestors.” Still, she found it puzzling that agencies and the firm wouldn’t even speak in generalities.

By summer, contract archaeologists had dug more than 100 so-called test units on the three bluffs leading to the beach, each a meter square going down 10 centimeters at a time.

They were under the gun to work quickly. Extra hands had to be hired. Kiewit Corp., fence builders for the San Diego sector, told them which hill they needed their trucks on and by what day. Kiewit would start on county lands and work west toward Border Field, giving the archaeologists just enough time to get things done.

In haste or oversight, the Native monitors claim, two critically important artifacts were discarded in the dirt backfill after screening. One was a tiny, elegantly worked iridescent disc, the other a 5,000-year-old bead manufactured off an island in central California, the only one ever seen in San Diego County. The pace and circumstances of the work left them uncomfortable and with a lot of questions. “Still,” said Lucas, “I got to see things I’ve never seen before. I’m delighted that I, as an Indian, was able to be there.”

Jackson Underwood, of RECON Environmental, is one of the principal investigators Golden State contracted to manage the report after the lab analyses: all the nitty-gritties like radiocarbon dates, carbon-14 dates, pollen samples, trace protein analyses, relationships among artifacts in the deposits—things that tell us who was doing what, when and where. He designed the research plan after Becker’s earlier findings.

The shroud of secrecy continued with Underwood. He said he would like to talk about “this very important site that will help our understanding of San Diego Holocene [the last 10,000 years] occupation,” but he would need permission from Golden State, State Parks, Army Corps, and clear on up the chain into Homeland Security.

“There’s a lot of political controversy surrounding that project,” he acknowledged. “It’s sensitive, and we have to be careful. A little bit later, I think, all this stuff will be relaxed, after they get the darn fence built.

“All the citizens of the U.S. are funding this,” he conceded, “and yet they’re not allowed to know about it. But we’re winding down now, and everybody’s relieved there weren’t any big problems.”

Linton asked Nancy Parrish, to go-to person with the Army Corps, what would happen if they found human remains.

He said she told him: “It stops everything”—meaning the fence.

Lucas said she requested that Golden State and the Corps hire forensic dogs that could sniff through rubble for human bones like after 9/11, like the ones that, in 2007, sniffed out a 2,500-year-old inhumation in Prague.

“We knew from the beginning there was a high probability of human remains there,” she said. Her request was denied.Bone experts Rose Tyson, of the San Diego Museum of Man, and Arion Mayes, from San Diego State University, visited the field and lab to examine any questionable bones.

The Heritage Commission got a letter in November from the San Diego Medical Examiner’s office. A fragmented skull bone from Lichty Mesa turned up in the lab. The rest of that skeleton is now buried deep under the fence, and there is no retrieving it, or any others. It’s too late.

The Army Corps of Engineers has committed to return the remains to the Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee for burial on a reservation, honoring the spirit of the waived law. The Kumeyaay have no tradition or ceremony for repatriation—digging up and reburying their ancestors’ bones is something they, as a people, never had to do before.

“Disturbing a burial is a violation of the highest order,” Linton said.

A federal spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said Homeland Security spent $40 million on “under the radar” environmental mitigation, including, she noted, a complete archaeological survey of the border.

She also said, “I didn’t give any clearance for anyone to write an article.”

Homeland Security / Customs and Border Protection also granted the Department of the Interior an additional $50 million to mitigate “adverse effects on natural and cultural resources.” *Muranaka said the San Diego Natural History Museum got some work done at the border, too.

Standing on Monument Mesa, Linton looked out over the Pacific. “I feel totally connected to the past,” he said. “To come down here and think, Ten thousand years ago Indians were here doing their thing, and I might be related to them.”

Told by higher-ups in Sacramento to speak to a reporter, Muranaka finally picked up the phone, a different person from a year ago.

“This is a win,” she exulted. “Because—prior to the elections, you know—how are we going to do this? All the players came together and they were all committed to saving something.”

Who was responsible?

“I don’t think it was me,” she said. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know how all this happened. I still need to be negotiating with [Army Corps] on last-minute things,” she said, “so it makes me shy about speaking publicly too much.

“So to stick to those bullet points: It was a lucky break. It was a cooperative venture. We did what we were supposed to do. We got, basically, 98 to 100 percent of all the sites—a definite win.”

Why did the Army Corps do what it didn’t have to do?

“That’s the question,” Muranaka said. “Isn’t that an interesting question?”