Free the Bolsa Chica Mesa Now? Not likely, but there’s always ‘purposeful grading’

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

The upper Bolsa Chica mesa’s mile-long ridge demonstrates the mixed grandeur of the Surf City region with a wide view of the Santa Ana river basin below, where the largest wetlands restoration project in California is locked between urban sprawl and the Pacific Ocean.

The mesa has changed a lot since its first human settlers arrived over 9,000 years ago to create the Acjahemen Nation. Soon, it will change again by the hands of a more powerful, corporate, nation.

Parts of the mesa have revealed some of the most important archaeological discoveries made in America. More discoveries are sure to come, archeologists say, but their exact locations and how to best preserve them are in dispute. Buried somewhere on its northeast corner, in the area of two undeveloped side by side lots, are the only remaining accessible human records of its mysterious past.

To many Native Americans, the entire area is a holy site that should be left alone out of respect for their ancestors. “That whole area was a major village [with] a high concentration of everyday life activity,” Tongva tribal leader Anthony Morales told the Voice in 2008.

The Tongva are the descendants of the second wave of human inhabitants of the Bolsa Chica mesa. They started arriving between 2,000 and 3,500 years ago. The Ajachemen and Tongva consider the site to be very spiritual and sacred.

Native Americans protest Brightwater on the upper Bolsa Chica mesa. Photo: Surf City Voice

For California Coastal Communities, the bankrupt but legal owner of one of the lots and the representative for the owner of the other (both lots are located on the SE corner of Bosla Chica Rd. and Los Patos Ave.), development of the corner may provide some of the financial salvation, if not the spiritual or scientific enlightenment, that it needs.

The company is struggling to build and sell 356 homes on an adjacent 105.3 acre site on the mesa that it calls Brightwater. But economic depression and $183 million in unpaid dept ($204 million at the end of 2009) pushed it into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Only 63 of the homes were sold by December 2009 at prices ranging from $1.2-$1.4 million, or up to $3.2 million for units directly overlooking the wetlands and ocean, SEC records show.

So far, California Coastal has been blessed by city planners who want to increase tax revenue by covering the mesa with three-car-garage homes and beautifully paved streets.

The southern most of the two side by side parcels, known as the Goodell property, is currently on county land, but will be annexed into the city. Although it could be years before a project is proposed for the property, the city council recently zoned it for 22 homes to be built on 3.2 of its 6.2 acres. The other 3 acres were left to open space and conservation.

The northern parcel, known as the Ridge, is owned by Coastal Homes and contains five acres that were zoned for open space and parks decades ago. The developer wants to build 22 homes there too, covering most of the site. In order for that to happen, the city and California Coastal Commission must agree to convert it from open-space/parkland to residential. The city planning commission approved the change in April, but the decision has been appealed to the city council.

Saving the Mesa
Native Americans and local activists want the two parcels to remain open as a tribute to the mesa’s Native American history as well as to the natural splendor of the entire Bolsa Chica area. Whatever the outcome, anything having to do with Bolsa Chica will be an important campaign issue in the city council election next November.

“The bluffs, both the Ridge and Goodell, are sites that hold great significance as the only prehistoric coastal Native American sites south of Ventura,” says Joe Shaw, a former planning commissioner. Shaw is running for one of four available city council spots. “There are very few sites left like this in California. It is infinitely better to save this land for our children and grandchildren than to build a few more houses that we have no need for.”

Planning commissioners Fred Speaker and Barbara Delgleize, who are also city council candidates, voted for the zoning change. Commissioner/candidate Blair Farley voted no, along with Elizabeth Shier Burnett and Tom Livengood who are not candidates.

Given the prevailing pro-development bias of the current city council, efforts to save either property may be futile for now. But the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, a local preservation group, seeks to raise money to purchase the Goodell property.

Last October, Shaw promised that, if elected to the city council, he would ask city staff to find a way to purchase the two parcels as park space and “a perfect place to interpret what Bolsa Chica is all about.”

A state ballot measure would provide $20 million for Bolsa Chica, including land acquisition, if it passes in November, although there is no guarantee the money would be used to buy either of the two lots.

The Cogged Stone Site
Nancy Anastasia Wiley is the archeologist hired by California Coastal for the past 30 years to ensure that any artifacts or human remains found on mesa land that it is developing, including Brightwater, are properly excavated and handled in accordance to applicable laws.

Nancy Wiley shows a cogstone found at Bolsa Chica.
Archaeologist Nancy Wiley holds a cogstone her firm discovered on the upper Bolsa Chica mesa. Photo: Courtesy of Pacific Coast Archaeological Society

Wiley’s firm, Scientific Resource Surveys (SRS), collected over 100,000 artifacts from Brightwater, including over 5,700 that were found during grading of the land. Also included in the mix were over 87 sets of human burial remains in a prehistoric cemetery.

Wiley plans to release a full report on her findings within two years, but she presented a summary to a full house of members of the Pacific Coast Archaeological Society, in Irvine, during its April and May meetings. After giving a tribute to Hal Eberhart, who in 1964 became the first professional archaeologist to work on the the mesa, Wiley gave an inspiring overview of the mesa’s ancient history based on her own considerable discoveries there.

Perhaps the most exciting findings made by Wiley relate to the hundreds of small hockey-puck sized “cogstones,” resembling sea animals or stars, that were manufactured on the mesa by its original human inhabitants starting over 7,000 years ago. “We’re looking at the unknown [to the people who made the artifacts],” Wiley said. “Especially objects in the sky…things that the people can see but they don’t really know that much about.”

The cogstones were carved round or oval in shape, usually with pointed cogs around the edges—hence their name—and a hole drilled through the center. The specific location on Brightwater where they were found—CA ORA-83 in scientific parlance—became known as the Cogged Stone Site.

The largest known concentration of cogstones, over 400, was found on the upper Bolsa Chica mesa, although many cogstones have been discovered at other points in southern California—usually on higher ground—including Ventura, San Diego, Temecula, Cajon Pass, Riverside, inland along the Santa Ana River and on Santa Catalina Island. SRS excavated or recovered about 200 of the cogstones, according to the PCAS newsletter account of Wiley’s talk before the group in April.

The Bolsa Chica cogstones were made from a variety of locally found stone materials and come in different styles, including flared, concave, trapezoidal, jello bowl mold, thick and thin, and with anywhere between three and 22 cogs. There are even some “cogstones” without the cogs.

Groups of cogstones were deliberately placed in the ground in small caches. Archaeologists, including Wiley, believe they were used for religious rituals, but the details of those rituals are unknown.

Although 9,000-year-old beads have been found on the upper mesa, the cogstones have been dated to about 7,400 years ago. The human remains found there range from 5,000-7,000 years ago.

Chilean Influence?
Oddly, cogstones have even been found at various sites in Chile, thousands of miles to the south, but nowhere else outside of southern California, including Mexico, Central America or other parts of South America. Chile is the only known manufacturing site for cogstones besides the Cogged Stone Site. Also, the Chilean cogstones date back farther, to 9,500 years ago. These curious facts have lead to speculation that there might be a connection between cogstone makers of both places.

Artifact scanning technology
Rezenet Moges of SRS demonstrates scanning technology used to replicate artifacts, in this case cogstones, for future study. Photo: Courtesy of Pacific Coast Archaeological Society

Tentatively, Wiley takes that theory seriously. Pointing out that ancient obsidian blades were discovered at a Newport Beach archeological site that are thought to have been manufactured in Oregon, she sees no reason why Bolsa Chica residents and people in Chile couldn’t have communicated together thousands of years ago.

“I will work on making a pitch for that,” Wiley promised her audience, adding that ocean currents and other factors would have to be examined to test the theory. “At the very least, there’s a fusion of ideas that occurred,” she said. “People could have gone overland and known about it as well.”

But the lack of cogstone findings anywhere between the US/Mexico border and Chile leads Wiley to believe that it’s likely that the intercontinental connection, if it existed, was made by boat with the Chilean people making first contact. “I just think that people got in a boat and went north and ended up here.”

In contrast to Wiley’s inspirational Irvine lecture depicting the upper Bolsa Chica mesa as a virtual archaeological treasure chest, in 1983 she spoke before the State Historical Resources Commission and urged it to deny an application to recommend ORA-83 for placement on the National Register of Historical Places. Her argument: the site was an ancient trash dump that no longer contained significant artifacts.

The commission voted 5-1 to recommend the designation, but in 2009 ORA-83 was determined eligible for the listing by National Park Service, The listing is voluntary for private landowners and, so far, Hearthside has declined to accept.

“The more you work, the more you learn,” Wiley told the Voice, explaining her change of mind after decades of underestimating the site. “[W]hen I said I opposed that…I was backed by William J. Wallace, who was a major professor at USC.” Wallace was her peer reviewer and one of her heroes, she said. “And he said the site was very lean shell midden.”

Even Eberhart didn’t find burial sites present anywhere on the mesa, Wiley added. “He excavated where I excavated, but he didn’t excavate deep enough.” Eberhart hit a hard-panned layer and stopped digging, thus missing the human burial remains that Wiley found many years later.

Throughout the nineties and until 2008, the developer repeatedly informed the California Coastal Commission that virtually all of the remains and artifacts on Brightwater had been fully excavated and that mitigation was enacted to prevent adverse effects from continued grading.

Failure to Report
But Flossie Horgan, executive director of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, wrote a letter to the city last April claiming that “SRS has consistently tried to diminish the significance of archaeological sites at Bolsa Chica” since the early 1980s. In the past, Horgan has also accused Wiley’s employer, then using the name Hearthside, of conducting a “conspiracy of silence” for allegedly failing to report the discovery of human burial remains, a violation of state law.

“Not true,” Wiley told the Voice at the Irvine meeting. “You can contact Theresa Henry at the Coastal Commission…There’s been full disclosure on everything we’ve done.”

Ed Mountford. Photo: Surf City Voice

But in spring of 2008 Horgan released a leaked Nov. 2007 e-mail memo from Wiley addressed to Hearthside CEO Ed Mountford, other company officials and some company-hired Native American monitors, revealing that 87 separate human burial remains had been uncovered along with thousands of artifacts in 2006 during grading on the property. Horgan asserted that the memo and coroner’s records proved that Hearthside had not properly disclosed the burial remains.

Mountford hotly denied the accusation, telling the Voice at the time that “It was all reported on time, according to regulations.”

At a November 2008 Coastal Commission hearing, called to consider revocation of building permits for the Brightwater project, Mountford claimed that Hearthside had treated the sacred site with the “dignity and respect it deserves,” removing all human remains and other artifacts in “strict compliance” with the law. Any failure to report, he said, was unintentional and due to line-of-sight obstructions that hid human remains from workers and excavators.

The Coastal Commission denied the revocation requested by project opponents for lack of proof that Hearthside intentionally concealed the burials. But the commission instructed the company to commence with reburial of the human remains it excavated.

The Coastal Commission staff continued to investigate. A month later, Hearthside was cited for failure to report human remains found on the Brightwater site, failure to stop construction when the remains were found, and failure to carry out scientific testing—conditions of approval that Hearthside was obliged to carry out under the Coastal Act. Hearthside was ordered to comply.

In Sept. 2009 Hearthside was cited again and was ordered to finish documentation and analysis of ceremonial items, reburial, and to incorporate its data from ORA-85, another Brightwater site where burials were found, and ORA-83.

Hearthside (now California Coastal Homes) is currently compliant with the Coastal Act, except for the final archaeological report, according to Theresa Henry, district manager for the Coastal Commission.

But David Singleton of the Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC), a state trustee agency for Native American cultural resources, says that his agency still hasn’t received the chronology, site maps and field notes for the burials that it requested from Wiley in November of 2007.

Singleton says his agency found out about the burials inadvertently through Wiley’s leaked e-mail rather than in accordance with state law, which requires the developer to report human remains to the county coroner, who then has to inform the Native American Heritage Commission within the next 24 hours if those remains are of Native Americans.

Wiley told the Voice that she gave the chronology to the Coastal Commission by the time the revocation hearing had taken place. “They did not share it with him (Singleton) immediately. I don’t know why. They have their own politics, all of those agencies.”

But Henry said that the Coastal Commission received the information from Hearthside as part of its investigation process and otherwise had no reason to acquire it. If the NAHC would have asked for it, it would have been handed over, she said, and she didn’t know why it wasn’t given to the NAHC by the developer in 2006.

Singleton says that his agency was never informed that the Coastal Commission had the information.

Four years after SRS discovered the 87 sets of burial remains on the Brightwater property, Singleton says he still hasn’t seen the burial chronology, maps or field notes, although a lot of other requested information was belatedly received from Hearthside.

Singleton points out that the NAHC is not anti-development, but wants landowners and developers to be careful in “extremely sensitive” areas like Bolsa Chica. He called Hearthside’s “very insensitive and adversarial approach to development” at Bolsa Chica “very disturbing” and said it has damaged the company’s credibility. It could be done with sensitivity in a way to make the landowner proud, he noted. “Why not do it that way?”

Negative Declaration
So far, the city of Huntington Beach is, once again, putting its faith in Wiley and California Coastal Homes as its planners push the Ridge and Goodell projects past the city’s usual regulatory formalities.

But Wiley says that things will be different this time. The Goodell property owner, city planners and the Coastal Commission are all aware that there is “a 100 percent chance that he [the property owner] will find cogstones…and a large probability that he’ll actually find burials.”

Advanced testing that sends electrical and radar impulses into the soil is already underway on the property to try to detect the expected findings, Wiley said. “Nobody wants to go through excavating all these burials and all these cogstones again,” she stressed. “They want to try to preserve the property this time around.”

Goodell and Ridge properties
Standing on the Goodell property, looking north to the Ridge property on the other side of the fence. Photo: Surf City Voice

Less promising is Wiley’s assessment of the Ridge. Based on 33 past archaeological studies, including a 2001 SRS investigation, the most thorough of the bunch, Wiley concluded that, due to past soil disturbances, the discovery of significant archeological deposits on site is “not anticipated,” regardless of the fact that a semi-subterranean pit structure dating back 2,100 – 2,240 years was found on the SE corner of the property, and a cogstone and one set of human bone fragments indicating a burial site were found under Bolsa Chica Road right next to the property (all discoveries were made within the area known as  ORA – 86) .

The 2001 SRS investigation used a combination of surface surveying, hand excavations, a backhoe trench and a series of drill holes at various locations on the property.

Regardless of the odds, Wiley says, that doesn’t mean she didn’t miss something important. “You can’t find everything. I mean, I could go back up to the Ridge and dig up 50 2 x 2 meter units and still miss cogstone caches because it’s 5 acres.”

Based in part on Wiley’s conclusions, city planners accepted a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for the Ridge project, meaning that the developer doesn’t have to file a much more thorough and costly Environmental Impact Report. Archaeologists and Native Americans will be present to identify intact deposits in the “unlikely” event they are unearthed during grading, a less strict mitigation measure than previously required, if not followed, on the Brightwater property.

Over the objection of other archaeologists, the Native American Heritage Commission and residents, the MND was approved by the planning commission in April with a 5-2 vote. Commissioners Farley, and Shier Burnett were strongly opposed (opponents were concerned about other environmental issues as well).

Purposeful Grading
For whatever it’s worth to the mesa’s preservationists, Wiley points out that “purposeful grading” will be utilized on the Ridge, just like it was on Brigthwater.

When asked about it, Jennifer Villasenor, associate city planner for the Ridge project, had never heard of purposeful grading and the term (as well as any equivalent term) is absent from project documents. But Theresa Henry (from the Coastal Commission) and Singleton explained that purposeful grading is done before regular construction grading, using a more sensitive backhoe to plow the soil (in order to determine the best place for pads upon which homes are built) while minimizing damage to archaeological remains.

If there has to be development on an archaeological site, purposeful grading is better than “indiscriminate grading,” says Singleton.

As Wily explains purposeful grading, “The archaeologist is in charge. There’s no construction equipment, no landowner. There’s an archeologist with a road grader who moves the dirt in small increments, about 5 centimeters, and that’s how you find the cogstones.”

The semi-subterranean remains found on the Ridge in 2001 were located under the only surface area on the site containing unbroken shell midden, indicating intact subsurface soil, Wiley notes, meaning that chances of finding anything else “nice” on the site are slim from the start.

“But that doesn’t mean that you can’t find something below that you can’t see,” Wiley cautions. “And that’s why purposeful grading is so important and why it’s backed by the Native American Heritage Commission.”

In fact, purposeful grading, also referred to as archeological grading, was one of the mitigation requirements for Hearthside on the Brightwater project. It was the developer’s failure to comply with that requirement that, in part, resulted in the Coastal Commission’s non-compliance citation of Dec. 15, 2008.

If opponents to the final corporate conquest of the upper Bolsa Chica mesa don’t come up with the money to buy its remaining undeveloped space and barring a counter invasion by the American Indian Movement, purposeful grading may be the best that they can get for giving up 9,000 years of history.

Editor’s note: To see the larger version of photos, left click the selected photo. After the photo shows up on a separate page, click it again.

Corrections: The following corrections were made in this article and posted on 07/12/2010: 1) The Ridge and Goodell properties are located on the SE corner of Los Patos and Bolsa Chica Road, and; 2) Burial remains and one cogstone were found on ORA – 86, which also includes the Ridge property, but not on the actual property. Instead, they were found under Bolsa Chica Road, directly bordering the Ridge property.

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2 thoughts on “Free the Bolsa Chica Mesa Now? Not likely, but there’s always ‘purposeful grading’”

  1. Great article by John Earl on Bolsa Chica archaeological history.
    I paypaled you my $2. Keep up the good reporting.

  2. Wonderfully written, very informative BRAVO!!!! Coming from an anthropologist, thank you for bringing the situation to light and reporting form an objective point of view. Hopefully HB can fight to save this site from being destroyed, it appears that there is some signifigant information to be found here due to the rare nature of the cogg stones, and lack thereof in other areas. Thank you.

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