Second West Berkeley human remains discovery prompts call to re-examine shellmound boundaries

Even though Berkeley officials thought Spenger's Restaurant sat outside the boundaries of the West Berkeley Shellmound, two sets of ancient remains have been found during reconstruction of the site. The first partial skeleton was discovered at the base of the temporary light pole. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Even though Berkeley officials thought Spenger’s Restaurant sat outside the boundaries of the West Berkeley Shellmound, two sets of ancient remains have been found during reconstruction of the site. The first partial skeleton was discovered at the base of the temporary light pole. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Workers building new stores and a beer garden at 1919 Fourth St. on April 27 found a second set of ancient human remains, leading the Peace and Justice Commission to call for a stop on construction. The discovery followed closely on the unearthing of what appeared to be “pre-contact” Indian remains in the same area on March 29 while working on the redevelopment of Spenger’s Fish Grotto and adjoining parcels.

The discovery of the remains across the street from the boundary of the West Berkeley Shellmound has also prompted Councilwoman Linda Maio to suggest that Berkeley take another look at the shellmound boundaries, which were established in 2000. Maio intends to ask the city manager to take up the matter.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that the city also apparently broke its own standards for construction work in this culturally sensitive area. Berkeley passed three resolutions in January that recognized Ohlones as the original inhabitants of West Berkeley and pledged to consult with a representative of the Ohlone tribe during all construction work around the Shellmound area.

In January, Berkeley issued a permit to the East Bay Municipal Utility District to dig trenches on Fifth Street to install a new water main for the project at 1919 Fourth St. Work began in February. On March 29, the first set of human remains was found on the 1919 Fourth St. project site (next to Spenger’s Restaurant), but the city did not inform EBMUD of that fact, nor warn the agency it was digging in a culturally sensitive area. Nor did it alert any Ohlones that the permit had been issued. It wasn’t until almost a month later, on April 25, that Berkeley informed EBMUD, according to Nelsy Rodriguez, a public information officer for EBMUD.


Five days later, EBMUD uncovered some “midden” or remains of a shellmound created by the Ohlone Indians when they lived in West Berkeley starting around 3,700 B.C.. EBMUD immediately stopped all trenching work and brought in an archeologist from Garcia and Associates in Oakland. The archeologist determined that artifacts were not culturally sensitive since they had been disturbed previously, said Rodriguez. Work resumed on the trenching and it was completed May 4.

The city of Berkeley is examining why it did not alert EBMUD earlier of the cultural sensitivity of the area.

“The EBMUD work did not uncover any remains, but we would have liked to notify them sooner and we are looking into the issue to see what more we could have done or could do if any similar instances were to occur in the future,” Timothy Burroughs, the assistant to the city manager, wrote in an email.

The fact that two sets of ancient human remains were found in an area outside of the landmarked West Berkeley Shellmound — and that numerous core samples taken in a lot at 1900 Fourth St., inside the boundary, did not turn up any evidence of native inhabitants — shatters widely held assumptions about where the shellmounds were actually located. Maio and others are now questioning whether Berkeley staff really knows where the shellmound boundaries are.

Berkeley did not require Jamestown, the developer of 1919 Fourth St., to drill core samples to see if there was evidence of native inhabitation, nor did it require that an archeologist or Ohlone representative be onsite because the parcel sits outside the official boundaries. The city said the project was exempt from CEQA requirements.

“It’s the city as the permit granting agency that needs to clean up its act,” said Andrew Galvan, who the state appointed as “the most likely descendant,” and the person who should determine what should happen with the human remains found at 1919 Fourth St. “Is somebody asleep at the wheel at the planning department?”

Historians have known for decades that the Ohlones created about 425 shellmounds around the Bay before contact with the Spanish in the latter part of the 18th century. They often buried their dead inside the shellmounds. There were two major shellmounds in Berkeley, one right near where Truitt and White is situated, around Hearst Avenue and Second Street, and one near Fourth Street and University Avenue. In 2000, the city landmarked the West Berkeley Shellmound and set its boundaries around a three-block area from University Avenue to Hearst Street, and Interstate 80 over to Fourth Street.

However, the landmarking was somewhat accidental.

The Landmark Preservation Commission landmarked the area, prompting two businesses to file an appeal of the designation. They said there was no evidence of a shellmound under their properties.

City staff put the appeal on the City Council agenda but miscalculated the date. Staff set the hearing after the 30-day window for appealing the decision had passed. The landmark became law.

Since much of the remaining shell midden lies underground, the Landmark Preservation Commission relied on maps and testimony about where the shellmounds once existed. For decades, many residents believed the heart of the shellmound was under the Spenger’s parking lot at 1900 Fourth St.

The developer who wants to construct a mixed-use project on the site has done extensive drilling on the land and has not turned up any signs of the shellmound. Regardless, the recent discoveries has prompted councilwoman Maio to want to recheck the work.

“We want to make sure they did a very thorough job,” said Maio.

After the first human remains were discovered in late March, Mark Rhoades, whose firm is assisting the developer of the 1900 Fourth St. project, also suggested that the city re-examine the boundaries.

“Might the ancient burial area West Berkeley Shellmound cover a bigger area than previously thought?” Rhoades said in a statement when the first remains were found in March. “Should we expand the current landmark boundary of the West Berkeley Shellmound?”

Andrew Galvan, a Cocheyno Ohlone, points to a mural on Fourth street of pre-contact natives in ceremonial dress for dances. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Andrew Galvan, a Cocheyno Ohlone, points to a mural on Fourth street of pre-contact natives in ceremonial dress for dances. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Jamestown has acted responsibly ever since the March 29 discovery of the first human remains, said Galvan. It stopped construction until an archeologist could be brought onsite and then started to dig only two inches of dirt at a time in the area where the remains were found, he said. That slow, considered work enabled the archeologist to spot the second set of remains, said Galvan.

The first remains were found in a well that had been backfilled with midden, said Galvan. There was no skull found, but only the bones from the pelvis down. The second set of remains had also been disturbed and were only partial.

Galvan has recommended that the two set of remains be removed and buried somewhere else on the site after the bulk of construction has been complete. If there is no good place for the bones, he will suggest they be buried in the Ohlone cemetery in Fremont. Galvan also asked Jamestown to pay for radiocarbon dating and DNA testing of the remains . The company has agreed, he said.

Galvan said if Jamestown follows through on its promises, he will feel his ancestors have been treated respectfully.

“I am not against the reuse of the same property my ancestors used,” said Galvan. “I am pro respectful and appropriate reuse of the land.”

But the Peace and Justice Commission has called for a stop on all work at 1919 Fourth St. and anywhere else around the West Berkeley Shellmound. The members have criticized the lack of input by key community stakeholders, a position the City Council pledged to follow when it enacted the new laws in January, according to the letter the commission sent to the city manager. The commission wants the city to “establish clear lines of responsibility for enforcement of the city policy enacted in January.”

May 12, 2016: This article was updated to clarify how issuing a permit to EBMUD violated the spirit of the resolutions Berkeley adopted in January.

Related:
Ohlone human remains found in a trench in West Berkeley (04.08.26)
Critics question impact of 1900 Fourth St. project on Ohlone heritage (03.14.16)
Housing, restaurants, garage planned at Spenger’s parking lot (05.11.15)
New beer garden, retail planned on Spenger’s block (09.25.14)
Development may come to Spenger’s lot in Berkeley (07.28.14)
A dig in a Berkeley parking lot seeks shellmound answers (02.03.14)

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