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Shellmound lecture series elicits history

Matt Lorenz Special to the Daily Planet
Wednesday August 08, 2001

They call themselves “shellmounders.”  

The name exudes a kind of earthiness – and rightfully so – though a shellmound isn’t quite the pile of sharp, crackling shoreline one might imagine. 

“A shellmound is an accumulation, over thousands of years, of the debris and artifacts of a community,” said west Berkeley resident Stephanie Manning, one of the organizers and moderators of a series of lectures at UC Berkeley called “Ancient Native Sites of the East Bay.” The series began last week and will continue over the next two Thursdays at Kroeber Hall on the campus.  

While there are various shellmounds that have been unearthed in the East Bay, the Emeryville shellmound may be the largest in California, Manning said.  

At least, it may have been the largest, before Emeryville buried it beneath a strip mall, Manning said. 

The lecture series delves into the archeological, scientific and spiritual significance of formations such as shellmounds. The information will not only help participants take stock of what remains, but look at what can be done to preserve these remnants, Manning said. 

There are reasons why the Bay Area shellmounds accumulated where they did.  

Before concrete, the Bay shore was a lot marshier, Manning said. The local Native Americans lived on top of the shellmounds, and this solid surface raised them above the high-tide level.  

But there’s an even more important reason why the shellmounds grew: in winter the grounds of the Bay Area are resistant to digging and the shellmound was the most practical way for Native Americans to live near the dead they had buried, Manning said. They did this to maintain their ties – both spiritual and physical – to their ancestry. 

The Native Americans built their communities, quite literally, on top of the contributions of the past, Manning said. They did so out of respect and spiritual need and to maintain a concrete sense of where they came from. 

Being a shellmounder, then, doesn’t involve anything like a membership card or a secret handshake. It demonstrates a concern for recovering fragments of the North American past.  

Around here shellmounders are often natives of California, if not California Native Americans. They’re often archeologists and earth scientists, by profession or just by hobby. But none of these criteria are essential; the name really indicates something very simple.  

“They’re a group of people who are interested in trying to save what’s left of the shellmounds,” Manning said. “There’s very little left.” 

Sandra Sher – author of “The Native American Legacy of Emeryville” and one of the people who spoke Thursday – is one of them.  

“I’m still astounded,” Sher said, “that the city of Emeryville chose to neither preserve nor do a full-scale excavation of what remains of the Emeryville shellmound underground. Here was one of the most significant shellmounds in the Bay Area, and yet, when put up against the prospect of yet another retail center, the retail center won out.”  

Emeryville officials did allow archeologists to study the shellmound briefly before they covered it up. These archeologists arrived at some conclusions that will be discussed at the lecture Thursday evening, Manning said.  

But while Thursday’s lecture may offer a chance to preserve what is left, last week’s talk walked briefly through the ruins that will not be preserved.  

Sher related to the crowd a strange concession Emeryville made two years ago: a memorial to the shellmound before it had actually been covered. 

“I feel that planning a memorial just before killing off the patient is reprehensible,” Sher said.  

“To me this was one of those narrow windows of opportunity to learn more about the earliest people who lived here.”