Friday 24th November 2017.
A large group of protesters gather outside a shopping mall carrying banners with messages that push against the prevailing capitalist mood of the day.
Words that are designed to shock.
For one day, shoppers at the Bay Street Mall, Emeryville, California, are asked not to spend any money in the mall, not to shop.
This is what happens when urban prehistory gets serious.
This is what happens when it really matters to people on an emotional and personal level.
This is what happens when colonisation, urbanisation and planning decisions are the cause of historic and long-lasting hurt.
Over two blog posts, I want to relate the remarkable and troubling story of the Emeryville shellmound, a sacred Native American Ohlone settlement, ceremonial and burial site that now lies beneath the aforementioned shopping mall.
It is a story that involves poor decision-making, a failure to listen, misunderstanding, racism, secrecy, prehistoric and historic archaeology, urbanisation, and a cast of archaeologists, planners, shoppers and a disenfranchised tribal community, all wrapped up in fumbling attempts at reparation.
The reason I want to write about this site is because its very existence was unknown to me (and probably most of you who are reading this) until I was asked a tough question by Colleen Morgan at the end of a talk about urban prehistory in York in October 2017. After my rambling lecture, Colleen asked me a very interesting and provocative question. It was about the potential problems that could be caused by the incorporation (or otherwise) of prehistoric sites into urban developments in places where there were indigenous communities who may contest the process. She cited the example of ‘Shellmound Mall’, Emeryville.
This was timely, coming a month before the annual Black Friday protest in Emeryville to demonstrate anger and frustration at the way that the indigenous shellmound and burial site had been dealt with in the local planning system that led to the construction of the the Bay Street Mall from 1999 onwards. My account of this sad story is necessarily written from a detached perspective, for which you will have to forgive me, as I am not likely to be able to visit anytime soon on my feeble research budget. This means there is more reliance than usual on online sources of information, images and academic publications (all sources are either noted in, or at the end of, the post).
This is an important story because there can be no better illustration of the fact that around the world today, urban prehistory can have a much deeper resonance that we could ever imagine in a European context. But this does not mean we cannot learn lessons about the place of people and heritage in the planning process, and the complete inadequacy – in some cases – of measures such as excavation and memorialisation to compensate for loss. I’ll reflect more on lessons learned at the end of post 2, but here I want to introduce the site and take the story up until the 1920s.
Shellmounds are midden sites that existed in huge numbers in North America once, focal points for deposition for centuries or more, stretching back thousands of years into prehistory. A recent review of such ‘midden’ mounds in the American Southeast suggests that there has been a shift in the perception of these sites amongst archaeologists over the past two decades. There is now a:
recognition that…..some, if not most, of these shell structures were specifically created ritual landscapes rather than the daily discard of victuals. A subsidiary tenet of this focus is that shell is and of itself was (and is) ‘symbolically potent (Saunders 2015, 2).
The precise nature of the social roles these structures played is unclear, but they were not rubbish dumps. Luby and Gruber (1999, 100) have argued for instance that shellmounds were places of ‘mortuary feasting….sites of frequent festivity, dance, costume and music…essential to the symbolic and mythological life of pre-contact peoples of the San Francisco Bay area’. When recently discussing shellmounds in Maine, Dr Donald Soctomah, historic preservation officer with the Passamaquoddy tribes, told the New York Times that the ‘shell middens are a link to the past’ that tell stories.
Despite the sacred significance of these sites, they have all too often simply been regarded by archaeologists and developers as rubbish heaps which makes little sense if, for no other reason, than some have been shown to be burial sites. All too often they have been denuded by the actions of coastal erosion, colonists and, more recently, developers. Centuries ago the shell-rich material forming the bulk of these mounds was quarried by Europeans for lime, fertilizers and animal feed (NY Times). Urban development continues to threaten mounds, with Emeryville an especially troubling example of this process.
The dates of use of what is now known as the Emeryville shellmound (also known – only to archaeologists – as mound No. 309) stretch back anything from 800BC to 3000BC, depending on the source (the earlier figure appearing more likely). It continued in use until the start of the eighteenth-century AD. This enormous expanse of time in use explains why the mound got so massive by the colonially enforced end of its use-life, growing incrementally into a circular artificial hill, some 110m in diameter and 18m high, with smaller ‘cones’ atop and nearby. The monument was essentially a combination of a huge pile of domestic debris and a sacred burial site, used by a Native American group called the Ohlone Indians who lived, and still live, around San Francisco Bay. It was one of hundreds of such mounds that once existed here.
Excavations in the 1900s, 1924 and 1999 showed, as we shall see, that the mound consisted of masses of shells (such as clam, mussel, oyster, cockle), stone and bone tools and objects, jewellery, pottery, carbonised material – and huge quantities of human remains.
In the nineteenth century (AD) the monument was swept up by urbanisation and soon became subject to associated demands for space and leisure activities. From the 1870s onwards, the shellmound became incorporated into an amusement park called, unsurprisingly, Shellmound Park. As well as the usual rides and attractions one would expect with such a facility, a dance pavilion was built on top of the mound.
The Park was owned by Joseph S Emery and included a ‘rifle range, trotting park, beer garden, band shell [band stand?], and a shady thicket of trees that drew picnickers, all resided beside what remained of the towering Emeryville shellmound’ (source). The same source suggests that the ‘notion of dancing on an Indian burial ground was considered as a thrill that would attract visitors’.
Excavations and the paint factory
The shellmound was subsequently excavated by a team from the University of California lead by John Merriam and Max Uhle in 1902.
An extensive excavation report was published by Uhle on the dig in the journal American Archaeology and Ethnology (volume 7, 1907) and had throughout an unfortunate tone that could be described, charitably, as patronising. (Page 19 announces ‘No traces of cannibalism have been detected’. Not bad for a ‘tribe of low grade civilisation’. Bloody hell.) Settlement evidence, bones, shells and so were found in large quantity, as were a ‘huge range of ‘primitive’ objects’. It was also discovered that the site had also been used for the burial of human remains with 10 bodies found. However, the whole tone of the paper was orientated towards this basically being a huge rubbish heap that people lived on in unsavoury conditions.
Two other excavations followed before 1910, and the Park limped on until the early 1920s when it went bust and the land was sold, to soon be replaced by factories and industrial plants which stood here until the 1990s. The dramatic and brutal remodelling and leveling of this landscape in 1924 is captured in a series of dramatic photographs taken at the time. The mound material was literally bulldozed and extracted as if this was a quarry.
The desolation of the shellmound (1924)
Excavations carried out as this devastation was wrought uncomfortably found significant evidence of the sacred nature of the shellmound. The remains of over 700 burials were found during these ‘salvage’ excavation (or recovery operation as seems more likely to have been the case). A report on this work, by W Egbert Schenk, was published in 1926 by the University of California, his team having taken advantage of the ‘destruction’ to ‘collect fresh data’. Indeed, the opportunity afforded by the dismantlement of this amount was received with a degree of relish.
The steam and tools for this heavy work came from a neighbouring Sulphur plant, giving a sense of the heavy and horrid industry emerging in this area at the time.
As with the earlier investigations, there seems to have been no attempt to ask people of Ohlone heritage anything about the site, but the archaeologists did get some information in the form of memories from local ‘old timers’ who they spoke to.
Aside from more of the same kind of stuff that had been found by Uhle et al., the 1924 excavations were notable for the huge quantity of human remains and burials found. At lower levels of the mound, inhumation and cremation rites were identified for over 40 individuals. But, remarkably, the report also notes, with amazing understatement: ‘In the cone 651 bodies were noted’, many crouched pit burials. Also, despite having a quite rigorous watching brief strategy (two observers at all times), Schenk admitted that they probably missed a lot of babies ‘on account of their small size’. (Excavations in other parts of the mound found between 30% and 38% of burials to be those of infants and almost none were found in the main cone.) Many of these burials were found in association with grave goods.
The details are contained in the report on this work, and need not be rehearsed much further here, suffice to say that much of the recording was done visually and at times from a distance due to the industrial nature of the destruction of the mound. Scientific analysis of the few recovered skulls included a cranial study indicating the dead were of a ‘typical Californian type’; this kind of phrenological study would rightly never be allowed to happen today. These human remains are still in a museum store, and have not, as far as I can tell, been repatriated to the Ohlone.
This almost total destruction of this ancient mound was the culmination of decades of urbanisation, the needs of an urban population, and industrialisation nibbling away at its edges, from levelling works, to railroad and road developments. From the mid-1920s onwards the site was occupied by industrial units such as a steel works, cannery, paint factories and insecticide manufacturers, combining to eradicate most of the shellmound and poison the land.
Worse was to follow though in the 1990s – the mall.
To be continued.
Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank Colleen Morgan for prompting me to think about all of this.
Unlike many of my blog posts, this one has been underpinned by ‘actual academic research’. Here are my sources in chronological order of publication (link where open access):
Uhle, M 1907 The Emeryville shellmound, University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 7(4), 309-56.
Schenk, R 1926 The Emeryville shellmound: the final report, University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 23(3), 147-282.
Luby, EM & Gruber, MF 1999 The dead must be fed: symbolic meanings of the shellmounds of the San Francisco Bay area. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 9.1, 95-108.
Rogers, A & Broughton, J 2001 Selective Transport of Animal Parts by Ancient Hunters: A New Statistical Method and an Application to the Emeryville Shellmound Fauna. Journal of Archaeological Science, 28(7), 763-773
Saunders, R 2015 Archaic shellmounds in the American Southeast, Oxford Handbooks Online.
Image sources (where not given in the caption). If anyone wants to correct a source, or ask me to remove a photo, please do let me know via the comments button at the end of the post.
The photo of the Shell Mound sign and the factory behind it came from an excellent source of information about Emeryville in general, a website called The E’ville Eye. This page contains more on the story of the shellmound and info about a documentary that has been made on the subject.
Both images of the mound being dismantled are widely available online, I am not sure what the original source is for either.