Old Fairfax bones dug up (Point Reyes Light, 12.11.2008)

When a construction crew working on sewer lines in Fairfax dumped the dark soil out of the digging bucket of their backhoe onto Bolinas Road last Tuesday, they saw skeletal remains. They looked inside the trench they were digging and saw more bones about six feet underground. They stopped their work and called the Fairfax Police Department.

Sergeant Chris Morin arrived. The two skulls that were excavated from the hole—one was almost fully intact and the other was a partial—were lying in a pile of dirt on the street, along with a leg bone and a portion of a hip bone. “I could see other skeletal remnants in the trench, but they were shards and pieces—nothing I could identify,” Morin said. “I’d assume there were full skeletons of two people.”

“Initially the question was ‘Who did what to whom?’” said Michael Durphy, a resident on Bolinas Road.

The area was cordoned off while police waited for confirmation. “We’re always thinking, ‘Do we have a crime here?’” Morin said. “I’m not an expert in examining skeletons, but it appeared to me that they were probably ancient skeletal remains. They looked very old to me, but how long does it take to decompose in the ground? That’s not my realm of expertise.”

Fairfax police called the coroner’s office. “The skeletal remains looked prehistoric,” said Darrell Harris, the coroner’s investigator for Marin County. “They appeared to be weathered and very old, and the crushed seashells in the soil was consistent with a Native American
burial site.”

Harris was there for about 45 minutes. “It’s not exactly a whodunit kind of case,” Harris said. “We have lots of experience with Native American bones due to the geography and history.” But unable to make a final determination, Harris called Archaeological Resource Services (ARS).

In a white body bag brought by the coroner, police collected the bones that were visible and brought them to the evidence facility to house them until they received confirmation from ARS and the Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC). “Our case is closed,” Morin said. “There’s no crime that we’re investigating.”

North Bay Construction in Petaluma was contracted by the Ross Valley Sanitary District. They were digging a trench in the roadway to replace a sewer line. Three properties—which were sharing one line that met up with the main sewer line along the street—were getting their own sewer line from the house to the main. The laterals were only completed for two of the properties.

The trench was on private property off the roadway. At the time work was halted, the trench was about four feet long and two and a half feet wide. The crew finished up the street work, closed up the trench, and did not give that particular house its own main sewer line as they had planned.

Preserving remains

When human remains are found, the police and coroner are called to determination if it’s a crime scene. If the answer is negative, they then call an archaeologist to determine if the remains are Native American. The coroner calls the Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC), which is charged with looking into the files and calling the tribe that is the most likely descendent.

Last week, a physical anthropologist from ARS visually inspected the uncovered bones. “The situation of the remains and their condition and age clearly indicated that it was Native American,” said Bill Roop of ARS. “It was in a previously unknown Native American site. The area developed quite early.”

The California Native American Commission in Sacramento takes into account where the remains were found. If someone can trace themselves to the village site within 12 miles of the area, they are identified as the most likely descendent (MLD). Otherwise, the tribe culturally related to that area is designated the MLD.

“It’s possible that when we designate the tribe, a couple people can remember the old songs and rituals, and they’re the ones that take care of it,” said Katy Sanchez of the NAHC. The MLD takes care of the remains, making sure that they are reburied with the proper services
and rites.

Nute Engineering in San Rafael contacted Garcia and Associates (GANDA), natural and cultural resource consultants in San Anselmo. Barbra Siskin and Phil Reid went out to assess the situation after the remains were moved to the coroner’s office.

“It was a very residential area right along the creek—obviously an area of archaeological sensitivity,” said Siskin, senior archaeologist. “The soil was dark. It was really clear that this is right in the middle of a midden—a cultural deposit.” Where Native Americans disposed of their dietary refuse, the soil would change every year they lived there. It turns dark with organic matter, such as fauna and shellfish remains. “This becomes an obvious way, at least on the coast, to find habitation sites.”

Siskin followed up with NAHC to identify the MLD.

“In Marin County, that will be the Coast Miwok. Ethnographically, we knew it was us,” said Nick Tipon chairman of the Sacred Sites Protection Committee of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which includes the Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo people. This federally recognized tribe is a sovereign nation with 1,100 members that works with public agencies on the impact on cultural resources.
The next day, Siskin met with Tipon and tribal council elder Gene Buvelot. “The goal was to get the tribe’s recommendations on how to proceed with the situation,” Siskin said. “We helped the engineers for the sanitary district comply with the public resources code.”
The MLD made recommendations to the lead agency—Ross Valley Sanitary District, in this case—to determine how to treat the remains in accordance with tribal respect.

“We talked about screening the soil that had come out of the trench in order to gather the rest of the remains so they can all be buried together,” Siskin said.

Using one-quarter-inch mesh screens, Cassidy DeBaker and Amy McCarthy-Reid from GANDA sifted for fragments in the dirt that had been dug out of the trench. “We didn’t do any additional excavation,” Siskin said. “We just mitigated the disturbances that had already
been done.”

“We feel like our people were buried in a specific place with a prayer and they should be allowed to rest in peace,” Tipon said. “They shouldn’t have to be disturbed.” The extracted remains and associated artifacts were handed to Tipon.

The reburial took place about a week later. The skeletal remains were not tested for age.

“If your great great grandmother died and her remains were disturbed, it really doesn’t matter how old she was when she died,” Tipon said. “It’s not important how old they are. We know our ancestors have been around Marin County for 9,000 to 10,000 years. We’ve been around for a while.”

~ by Janet Fang on December 12, 2008.

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