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2 Topanga Archeologists Declare War on Bulldozers

June 15, 1989|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Chester King and Lynn Gamble hate the sound of bulldozers.

As archeologists, the Topanga Canyon couple know that where bulldozers go, Indian artifacts disappear.

"We're talking about something that can never be regrown, that can never be brought back once it's gone," King said. Like Gamble, King would like to save all of California's archeological sites. "We want that data to be preserved," Gamble said, "or at least excavated in such a way that archeologists can use the data in the future." But, for the present, the couple fight to save the 100 or so endangered archeological sites in their own back yard.

King, 46, said he became interested in archeology almost 30 years ago when he saw an exhibit at Santa Monica College of choppers, scrapers and other stone tools that had been found in Topanga. King began looking for similar reminders of the past whenever he visited his grandparents in the Topanga Canyon home that King and Gamble now share with their 6-year-old daughter, Naomi.

Chumash Experts

King and Gamble, who met on an archeological dig in San Jose, are experts on the Chumash Indians of the Southern California coast. King has a doctorate in anthropology from the UC Davis, and is especially interested in the beads made by the Indians, sometimes using sea lion whiskers to drill the holes.

Gamble, 40, has a special interest in stone tools. As a doctoral candidate at UC Santa Barbara, she excavated a large Chumash village at a site known as Mescalitan Island, in Goleta Slough near the campus, and is analyzing the material obtained in the dig.

Development is the major threat to local caches of Indian artifacts and remains, King said. In recent years, he and his wife have fought along with neighbors to prevent the bulldozing of Indian sites throughout the canyon, including those on two large tracts in the northern end of the canyon slated for development, known as Montevideo and Oakmont. Unlike archeology itself, archeological activism is frustrating work, King said. "You lose more battles than you win."

No Guarantees

Ironically, the couple say, state laws that require potential developers to have land holdings evaluated by an archeologist are no guarantee that sites will be preserved, or even recognized.

Several years ago, King, Gamble and fellow Topanga archeologist Dan Larson visited the Montevideo tract after an archeologist retained by the developer said there were no Indian sites on the property. "As soon as we opened the car doors, we began seeing artifacts," said Gamble, who added that grinding stones and scraping tools they found in the canyon may have been 8,000 years old.

Earlier this year, the three archeologists visited the Oakmont tract at the request of the Topanga Assn. for a Scenic Community, also known as TASC. Once again, they found archeological sites where an archeologist retained by the developer said there were none.

King, Gamble and Larson recorded their finds on both tracts with the state-funded California Archeological Inventory Information Center at UCLA, hoping to improve the sites' chances of surviving.

In part because of what the archeologists found, the Topanga association filed a suit against Groupe Corp., the Oakmont developer, arguing that the entire subdivision should not be developed in light of unresolved environmental issues. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled against the association in May, but work will not resume at Oakmont at least until the association is able to appeal.

Easier Regulations

Both King and Gamble, who also are involved in archeological projects at Vandenberg Air Force Base, believe that Los Angeles County is far less rigorous than Santa Barbara in protecting its archeological resources. As they point out, Santa Barbara County, which has its own archeologist, requires that developers hire experts chosen by the county to evaluate their projects.

In contrast, Los Angeles County has no archeologist and allows developers to hire their own consultants. In effect, King said, Los Angeles County tells developers: "You can do anything you want."

King said some archeological consultants hired to evaluate local sites do not recognize the importance of local finds. The Chumash and Gabrielino Indians of Southern California did not build pyramids or other imposing monuments. King said the attitude of some hired experts seems to be "Let's make our money in California and then do a real dig in Mexico."

With their trained eyes, King and Gamble look at Topanga and see an irreplaceable archive of information about the past. Chumash, Gabrielinos and their ancestors lived in the canyon for thousands of years until the Spanish removed the Indians from their traditional lands and brought them into the missions at the beginning of the 19th Century.

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