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ATTITUDES / AURORA MACKEY : Landscaper's Foot Unearths Feeling of Awe

April 01, 1993|AURORA MACKEY | Aurora Mackey is a Times staff writer.

The kind of event or experience that etches itself indelibly into your brain cells--the kind that stays with you as long as you live--only happens a few times to a person.

It can be the moment your newborn child is placed in your arms for the first time.

Or saying goodby for the last time to a friend who is dying.

Or, in my own case, witnessing firsthand the discovery at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley a few days ago.

It was the feeling of being there when history was made. Of being surrounded by mystery, of culture, of lives long gone that now were calling out from the past.

In short, a feeling of awe.

But by now, of course, most of you already know what I'm talking about. It's not every day that a discovery of this magnitude is made. It started with a landscaper's foot going through a hole in the lawn and ended up with the unearthing of underground caves filled with Chumash Indian artifacts that already have startled the archeological world.

The Ventura County Historical Artifacts Commission has had representatives at the site round the clock. And just recently, an archeologist with the Smithsonian said he was gathering up a team to coordinate further excavations.

But even if they find nothing more, it wouldn't matter. Because I can tell you this from having seen it with my own eyes:

What they have found already is enough to make anyone wonder.

At the beauty of the artwork.

At the grace of a culture we completely misjudged.

At the international attention this is sure to bring to the city of Simi Valley.

*

I walked toward the Reagan library, not really expecting I would be permitted past the security guards that now form a circle around the dig site. Since the artifacts were found directly under the library itself, the tunnel begins next to the library wall and slopes at a 60-degree angle.

Hundreds of journalists, obviously with the same idea as I, stood on the lawn, speaking into microphones or swinging cameras in the hope of a closer look.

It was then that I saw Mario, the gardener who once worked for my parents years ago. I never knew he worked at the library--or dreamed that it was his foot that was responsible for the discovery.

"I was just walking and my foot went 'Ump!' through the ground," he said to me after we greeted each other warmly. "I thought it was a gopher hole."

When Mario learned I was there in a professional capacity, he did what every journalist looking for a scoop dreams of: He ushered me past the other reporters. The guards just waved him past.

"This was the first piece I saw," he said, picking up a gold-encrusted urn that was inlaid with sapphires, rubies and emeralds. He then picked up another piece: apparently a mixing bowl, also covered with gold and precious stones.

So far, 32 similar pieces have been unearthed.

"When this is broadcast on CNN, the world will forget about the Rodney King trial," said one Simi Valley official. "It's about time something like this happened."

The mystery, of course, is how historians could have incorrectly pegged the Chumash Indians as a simple people--basket weavers, mostly--for so long.

"There are a lot of mysteries, certainly not just one," said Ivan Dirtovich, an archeologist with the Smithsonian Institute. "Where did they get the gold, unless it came from Ventura County? Where did the precious stones come from?

"And what other treasures might be buried under other buildings in Simi Valley?"

*

That last question is certainly one about which many people have mixed emotions.

A spokesman with the Ventura County Historical Artifacts Commission, who asked not to be identified, said that under a federal law--signed, ironically, by then President Reagan--any building impeding a historical dig can be torn down or moved.

And local American Indians apparently have no problem with either of those scenarios taking place.

"We want that library out of there," said Helena Handbasket, whose grandfather was a Chumash Indian. "There's nothing to read there anyway." Already, the commission spokesman said, county officials have chosen a vacant lot in Somis as the future home of the library. Reagan, he added, has been contacted about the impending relocation and the former President sent him a faxed response the next morning.

"I notice that all of the people in favor of abortion have already been born," the fax said, according to the spokesman.

The move was to have taken place today, with the library hoisted onto a caravan of moving trucks. Unfortunately for the city--which will just have to wait a little longer for positive notoriety--no movers could be found.

Obviously, they were taking the day off.

It is, after all, the day for April Fools.

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