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Unearthing a Hidden Past : Archeology: After years of controversy, Native American artifacts excavated from the Lost Village of Encino will be on display.

January 03, 1994|TIMOTHY WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For most of the past decade, thousands of Native American artifacts recovered from the Lost Village of Encino, one of the costliest archeological excavations in state history, have been sitting in an Orange County warehouse, freed from the earth after centuries, but collecting dust in obscurity.

Soon, however, the public will get its first chance to see the most significant pieces--stone tools, shell beadwork and arrowheads--when they are donated by an archeologist to two San Fernando Valley museums. Nancy Whitney-Desautels is celebrating the resolution of a series of controversies that have embroiled Native Americans, archeologists and the corporate developers of the site since the 3,000-year-old village was accidentally unearthed in 1984.

The debates that have swirled around the finds have overshadowed their archeological importance, some scientists say.

"This was clearly a very important discovery for both the diversity and quantity of artifacts and also that so much of it was found intact," said Mark Raab, director of the Center for Public Archeology at Cal State Northridge. "But there hasn't been an extensive publication on it" in peer-reviewed archeological journals, he said, the key step in establishing scientific worth.

"Neither the scientific community nor the public really know what's there, so displaying some of them should help."

Whitney-Desautels said she hopes to deliver the first of the artifacts this month but arrangements with the museums have not been finalized.

The gift of about 10 pieces to the San Fernando Mission and San Gabriel Mission museums and the placement of other, larger artifacts--probably at a state museum on Ventura Boulevard near the site of the find--comes after Whitney-Desautels had refused for years to hand over the pieces until she was paid for her work by the company that constructed an office building on the site.

But with the settlement of a $1-million lawsuit against the developers in 1989 and the completion of the cataloguing of most of the pieces, Whitney-Desautels said this month that she is ready to part with the collection.

"I never intended to keep the artifacts, but a lot happened along the way," she said. "It's not really anybody's fault. The village was a surprise and there wasn't a lot of time to prepare for everything that was coming."

Indeed, the recent history of the prehistoric village is a thoroughly modern story of cultural clashes, cost overruns, bankruptcy and even slow-growth politics.

At first, discovery of the village was simply the solution to a decades-old archeological mystery. For years, archeologists had attempted to find the ruins of the large settlement described in a 1769 diary kept by a member of the Spaniard Gaspar de Portola's expedition, the first Europeans known to have reached the San Fernando Valley.

It was clear that the village must have been somewhere in the vicinity of Los Encinos State Historical Park on Ventura Boulevard, where a spring that continues to flow today would have provided water.

But despite the efforts of several researchers, no sign of the settlement was found, earning it the nickname the Lost Village of Encino. Many archeologists who had searched for it unsuccessfully, hampered by inexact Spanish maps, feared that recent urbanization might have irretrievably buried the site.

But in July, 1984, a construction crew accidentally solved the mystery. While demolishing a defunct restaurant on the southeast corner of Balboa and Ventura boulevards in preparation for construction of an office complex, the workers came across a few artifacts, leading eventually to the discovery of increasing numbers of them and then the skeletons of about 20 Native Americans.

Although more than 2 million tiny artifacts and fragments of human and animal bone were found in the village, only a few thousand of the larger items are of real significance, Whitney-Desautels said.

Among those are mortars and pestles, milling stones, stone bowls and arrowheads and other projectile points. The presence of both Native American shell beads and Spanish glass beads suggests that the two groups engaged in trading before the village was abandoned for unknown reasons some time in the 19th Century.

During the dig, scientists also found the areas where villagers cooked, processed hides and made beads.

The village had a large burial site, where researchers dug up the bones or cremated remains of about 20 humans, 20 dogs and at least one bird. Whitney-Desautels believes the animals were used in sacrifices.

Complying with state law that requires that such finds be examined and safeguarded by an archeologist, First Financial Group Inc., which was building the office complex, hired Whitney-Desautels.

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