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Orange County

To Protect and Preserve?

Culture: As ancient carvings found in Irvine show, the county is still not sure what relics to save or how.


You can see the past etched into the face of a boulder in the Bowers Museum courtyard, a maze of thin lines created by Native Americans thousands of years before Orange County's landscape succumbed to cul-de-sacs and freeways, industrial parks and glass cathedrals.

This ancient maze, hauled in from the nearby Santa Ana Mountains, is one of the few samples of tribal rock art on exhibit locally. The rarity of such carvings has added weight to demands that rock carvings recently discovered in two Irvine caves be preserved.

But preserving such artifacts does not necessarily mean making them available for public viewing. Although laws require that newly recorded historical items--ranging from rock art to cooking pits to human remains--be identified and recorded, few regulations deal with what happens to them afterward.

That has led to such oddities as an Orange County warehouse filled with the bric-a-brac of the past, a 15,000-cubic-foot collection so disorganized that even those charged with watching over it don't fully know what they have.

Although the current debate centers on faded images carved in stone, the disclosure of the Irvine rock art underscores the ongoing debates among preservationists, developers, government officials and Native Americans over what items ought to be preserved. Complicating preservation efforts, archeologists and others say, are laws that are simply insufficient to protect irreplaceable relics of times gone by.

Particularly challenging is the preservation of rock art, which by its nature often is immovable--and prey to the elements, vandals and illicit collectors.

In the current debate, one of the Irvine caves containing a small carving--described as a 4-inch squiggle with a circle at one end--could be demolished as part of a 2,500-home development at the edge of the San Joaquin Hills.

The other cave, containing a large carving of a rattlesnake, will be ceded to the city of Irvine as part of 1,000 acres of open space adjoining the Irvine Co.'s Shady Canyon development between Turtle Rock and Sand Canyon Avenue, south of the San Diego Freeway.

That cave, and six others nearby, will become part of wilderness area open to the public, but the caves will remain off-limits, said Sharon Heider, Irvine open space administrator.

Keeping the caves secure, though, is not easy, she said.

"Typically, they're not mapped, we don't have trails to them and, if there are ways that we can do it, we'll plant cactus and those kinds of things that would keep people from wanting to go in those areas," Heider said. "The last ditch scenario is if the sites are highly attractive, we'd patrol them."

The biggest risk, said Heider and others, is damage from vandals or collectors chipping the art from the cave walls.

"They are a very important cultural resource that provide a lot of information about our connection with this land," Heider said. "They need to be protected. There is a bigger basis for public good than just letting people tour them."

Countless sites in the deserts have been damaged or destroyed over the years by vandals, and sometimes by well-meaning aficionados making rubbings of primitive carvings. Though Orange County has more than 1,600 registered archeological sites, most are abandoned cook sites or similar leavings of daily life. And while there are some 6,000 rock art sites across California--mainly in the southern deserts--such discoveries are rare in Orange County.

It's not that ancients passed the region by. Rather, experts say, the sandstone that predominates in Orange County--canvases for the rock artists--erodes more quickly than rock in the deserts. And, they believe, an unknowable number of artifacts were destroyed by developers' plows before laws required them to catalog their findings and alert authorities.

"I would assume, given the fact that the surrounding counties have rock art, it must have been made in Orange County as well," said Phyllisa Eisentraut, an archeologist and assistant professor of anthropology at Cal State Fullerton. "Most likely it was done in rock shelters and caves."

Some sites were identified during a 1930s Works Progress Administration program, she said, but "those sites have since been subject to development."

Rob Selway, director of the Orange County Historical Commission, which oversees the county's collection of historical relics, said he knew of no other rock art sites in Orange County. Local archeology enthusiasts were similarly hard-pressed to identify locations.

However, Damien Shilo, chairman of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, said the tribe's archeological committee has recorded an unspecified number of sites, and he has visited at least seven--including those announced recently in Irvine.

Shilo declined to identify the other sites, most of which he said are unknown to mainstream archeologists and hard to get to. One in Laguna Hills, he said, requires rappelling gear.

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