FULLERTON — The construction workers didn't think much of the small fragments of splintered bone buried a yard under the sidewalk near Fullerton Municipal Airport. After all, animal bones are common finds during excavations.
But nonchalance quickly turned to concern when a dark brown human skull popped unexpectedly out of the side of the 7-foot hole on Commonwealth Avenue.
"It just rolled out of nowhere," said Bob Emch, supervisor of the Fricke Construction Co. crew assigned to dig a trench Wednesday for the telephone company. "It was very eerie."
The discovery of an almost-complete skeleton buried underneath the sidewalk turned out to be that of a woman, most likely a Gabrieleno Indian, a tribe that wandered for centuries between the San Gabriel Mountains and what is now Newport Beach, a Cal State Fullerton anthropologist said.
The skeleton, now being stored at the Orange County coroner's office, eventually will be turned over to an American Indian group for reburial or preservation, authorities said.
Emch said that at about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, he and his crew were tearing up a portion of the sidewalk and digging a trench along Commonwealth to lay underground telephone conduit for Pacific Telesis.
At one point, the workers had dug about 3 feet when they began unearthing shards of bone.
"We thought they were from an animal or something," he said.
The crewmen continued digging, and by 11:45 a.m. the shallow hole caved in, he said.
Jumping into the hole, shovels in hand, the crewmen started clearing the fallen dirt. More bones, some of which resembled rib and leg bones, were unearthed. A few seconds later, however, the skull, which had been lodged in the side of the trench, tumbled free and landed at the feet of the workmen.
Emch said he immediately called the police, unsure if the skeleton was a homicide victim. Detectives also were concerned.
"We didn't know what or who it was," Emch said.
Police then called the coroner's office, which in turn called Cal State Fullerton's forensic anthropologist, Judy Suchey, who has long aided police authorities in identifying mysterious bones and determining if a crime has been committed.
"We were kind of on hold on waiting for some good expert opinion," Fullerton Police Lt. Ken Kepner said. "Our curiosity factor was way up."
Suchey quickly surmised that the skeleton was that of an adult Gabrieleno woman, who stood about 4-foot-10, and lived between 500 and 1,000 years ago. A closer estimate of the age of the skeleton was not possible without carbon dating.
Most of the bones were collected and sent to the coroner's office on Wednesday evening. The remainder were found Thursday morning after Suchey and a deputy coroner sifted through piles of dirt.
Suchey said the work yielded about 95% of the skeleton.
"The bone is in very good shape," Suchey said. "It's been fairly well preserved."
She said that it may never be known why the woman died. There appeared to be no obvious signs of trauma, such as a crack in the skull. Scientists also did not know if the find was evidence that an ancient burying ground was lurking beneath Commonwealth. That may never be known.
"I mean, we are not going to dig up the sidewalk," Suchey said, adding that it is not rare to find an Indian skeleton in Southern California. Anthropologists said thousands of similar skeletons are housed in various museums around the Southland.
Larry Myers, executive secretary for the Native American Heritage Commission in Sacramento, said that he was called by the Orange County coroner's office Thursday morning about the find.
He said the commission will contact a representative of the Gabrieleno tribe to seek "the most likely descendant," who will take possession of the skeleton. That descendant, he said, will make the final decision if the skeleton will be reburied or put in a museum.
He stressed that he hoped that authorities stick to their decision not to tear up the sidewalk looking for more remains. He said it is common policy among American Indians to press for the grounds to remain untouched.
"We would make that recommendation," he said, "because you are talking about disturbing someone's ancestors."