A 40-foot-wide fire line dug to protect San Bernardino Mountain communities from October's wildfires has opened a new window into Serrano Indian history.
The U.S. Forest Service dug the fire line Oct. 30 as part of the battle to save Big Bear City as the flames spread to the south. The bulldozers were supposed to uproot flammable rabbit brush, basin sage, young pine trees and about six inches of soil.
But a week later, officials sifting through the shallow trough and three-foot mounds of dirt discovered that they had unearthed what experts believe is a Serrano Indian encampment that dates back several centuries or more.
Scattered around the fire line just west of Baldwin Lake, Forest Service officials found nonnative stone materials such as jasper and obsidian that were often used by Native Americans to make cutting tools or arrowheads. They also found a layer of soil darkened by ash and charcoal.
The Forest Service called in archeologist Daniel McCarthy to take a closer look. McCarthy and his team uncovered grinding stones at least 250 years old, ceramic pieces about 300 years old, arrow points about 500 years old, and fire pits that could date as far back as 1,000 years. They are continuing to excavate this week with trowels, shovels and screening boxes.
McCarthy believes the artifacts can help historians understand how the Serrano Indians lived in their mountain campsites. The Serranos resided in the valleys below but camped in the San Bernardinos to hunt.
The Forest Service generally discourages archeological digs on forest land, so the unexpected find during the Old fire is providing a rare look into the Indian past in the area.
"Because of the ... dozers, we had an opportunity to come back to study it," McCarthy said.
The find also has generated interest among local tribes. James Ramos, cultural awareness coordinator for the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, a clan of the Serrano people, said he was initially alarmed that bulldozers had rooted through his ancestors' artifacts.
But the 37-year-old now says the find will increase understanding of his tribe. Stories told by his grandmothers and aunts and anthropologists' notes had described hot springs around the Baldwin Lake area as a bathing spot for Kurkitat, the creator of the Serrano people, according to Indian lore.
Kurkitat eventually died there and a coyote ran into the mountains with Kurkitat's heart, painting the mountains red, the story goes. When the people started crying, their tears became acorns and pine nuts.
After that, the Serrano people called themselves yuhaviatam, people of the pines, Ramos said.
The excavation seems to indicate that Serrano Indians have long used the Baldwin Lake area and continued to gather there after their creator's passing, Ramos said.
"The more information, the better," said Ramos, who visits the site several days a week.
Even before the discovery, the tribe was trying to learn more about the Serranos' early days in the mountains. Ramos conducted an annual trip to the Lake Baldwin area with tribal members, where they viewed petroglyphs and studied plants such as deer grass, traditionally used to weave baskets.
McCarthy said he knew that the land around Baldwin Lake held many Serrano relics. Forest Service officials said they had no time to consult archeologists before the bulldozing because the fire was just moving too fast.
"We try to work with archeologists during fire-suppression efforts, but sometimes we can't," said the forest's fire chief, Michael Dietrich.
"It's the time frame. It's an emergency," he added.
Bulldozers raked about 62 miles of fire lines at about 12 sites throughout the forest. Native American artifacts may have been disturbed at two other sites, said David Kelly, who leads the team rehabilitating the dozer lines.
Studies of those sites are still being planned, officials said. McCarthy said they probably were less important than the Serrano artifacts.
The Forest Service plans to spend $155,000 to excavate and analyze artifacts found near Baldwin Lake. The national forest has brought in Statistical Research Inc., a private archeological firm in Redlands, to do the work.
McCarthy said he hopes to curate the Serrano items for a local exhibit and create pamphlets or signs to explain their origin and discovery.
McCarthy and Ramos, however, expressed concern that the latest unearthing will lure treasure hunters.
Forest personnel have been patrolling the Baldwin Lake site, and officials have decided not to reveal the locations of the other two places.
Neighbors said they were not surprised that the Forest Service was finding Indian artifacts.
Gary Ronald, 48, who lives across the street from the site on Sequoia Drive, said he found inch-long arrowheads while raking his yard in Big Bear four years ago.