NEWPORT BEACH — Nothing prepared the diggers for the strange and beautiful artifacts--the beads, mysterious stone spheres and decorated clay cylinders--buried in the bluff top above Newport Bay.
Then they started unearthing bones. Hundreds of human bones. Arm bones. Leg bones. Teeth. Bone fragments. Parts of human skulls.
Still, the excavation crews pushed on, quietly dismantling--some say destroying--one of the oldest and most important archeological sites on the California coast. Week after week, during late 1995 and early 1996, archeological field workers for an Irvine Co. project dug up the bones, which were later reburied in trenches nearby, to make room for 149 luxury homes.
From accounts of the Irvine Co.'s archeologist and others who worked at the site just off Jamboree Road, the bluff top teemed with clues to life along the Pacific coast 4,000 to 9,500 years ago, at the close of the Ice Age.
"We kept walking around, saying, 'Where is the Smithsonian? Where is National Geographic?' " recalled one archeological worker who agreed to talk on condition that he not be named. "It was a fantastic, amazing story. Sad situation. Sad story. I guess money talks."
A pricey, gated community called Harbor Cove now sits atop the bluff that once cradled the remains of a village believed to be thousands of years older than the fabled Egyptian pyramids of Giza.
And virtually no one outside Irvine Co. officials and a small circle of archeologists, field workers and Native Americans knows what really emerged from this site, called ORA-64. Rumors spread among the local Native American community that hundreds of prehistoric human remains were unexpectedly unearthed. A forensic expert estimated that the site contained as many as 600 burials.
The age of the bones may never be known because they were reburied without radiocarbon dating at the request of two state-appointed Native Americans called "most likely descendants" overseeing the site, Irvine Co. officials say.
What is clear is this: An ancient site long considered by archeologists as highly significant was excavated, then developed with little public awareness, even after years of behind-the-scenes lobbying by some scientists to save it, according to an extensive Times review of dozens of state and local documents and more than 100 interviews.
The saga of ORA-64--so named because it was the 64th site in Orange County on a national list of archeological finds--offers a rare glimpse into a world where the interests of developers, archeologists and Native Americans clash over tangled questions of how to balance modern-day progress with cultural and scientific concerns. While the excavation of prehistoric sites is not unusual in Southern California, the ORA-64 story stands out because of the site's established scientific value and the debate that has ensued over how the burials were handled.
The Irvine Co. and the state Native American Heritage Commission, which oversees the handling of Indian remains, insist that ORA-64 was developed in strict accordance with state and local laws.
"This company has spent more than $2 million seeking to develop that site, but to do it in a way that is sensitive to whatever was there in terms of prehistory--in terms of removing it, cataloging it, analyzing it, sharing the results with the public," said Larry Thomas, the Irvine Co.'s senior vice president for communications. "That's hardly a destruction of a site."
Thomas added that the company tried to protect the site from "Indiana Jones" types hunting for buried treasure.
"You have an obligation not to identify specific places . . ." he said. "We have not sought to create any greater interest in this than already existed, but to try to explain what we were doing as we were going along."
Thousands of artifacts from the site remain in laboratories and in storage, and the Irvine Co. has promised a full public accounting of what was discovered. The report has been delayed for months because of the wealth of data.
Even so, some Native Americans and scientists argue that the site was so important that it should have been preserved. Some contend that state laws intended to protect sites from scavengers can instead unintentionally allow their destruction by development, by keeping locations secret. It was, according to one official attached to the state Office of Historic Preservation, "a failure of the system."
"They say that everything that was done was legal. Well, it may be legal, but it isn't right," said Lillian Robles, an elder with the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians and a critic of the digging at ORA-64. "If it's so legal, why was everyone so hush-hush?"
Michael E. Macko, the consulting archeologist for the Irvine Co. who oversaw the excavation of ORA-64, based his estimate that the site was occupied roughly 4,000 to 9,500 years ago on radiocarbon dating of shells that appear to have been the kitchen waste of the inhabitants who sought food from the coastline.