UC Berkeley Report Claims No Burial Ground at Grove Site

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday January 15, 2009 - 06:48:00 PM

“No prehistoric cultural deposits or materials” were found during an archaeological survey of the site once occupied by an oak grove west of Memorial Stadium. 

The report, released by UC Berkeley, was prepared by private archaeological consultants in anticipation of construction of a new high-tech gym and office complex at the site. 

But the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, as the report makes clear, declaring that “the entire project site should be considered an archaeologically sensitive area based on its proximity to Strawberry Creek and the fact that prehistoric archaeological deposits and features have been found along the creek within the vicinity of the project area.”  

Core samples were taken from 31 bore holes drilled into the soil at the site to depths ranging from 15 to 50 feet. While none of the samples revealed evidence of prehistoric habitation, historic-era materials were found in two cores, including coal, charcoal and ceramic fragments. 

Most of the samples revealed only fill materials dumped at the site during and after construction of the stadium, according to the 146-page report prepared by William Self Associates of Orinda under contract with the university.  

In a letter to the company included in the report, Debbie Pilas-Treadaway, environmental specialist with the California Native American Heritage Commission, said “a record check of the sacred land file has failed to indicate the presence of Native American cultural resources in the immediate project area.” 

She included a list of Ohlone and Miwok representatives whom consultants could contact, and one of them, Ohlone Ramona Garibay of Lathrop, served as Native American monitor during the core collection. 

In a statement released by the university, contract archaeological consultant James Allan states, “While our initial, in-depth archival research found little evidence to support the idea that this site contained Native American cultural material or human remains, we can now say with confidence that there is not an ancient burial ground beneath the site of the Student Athlete High Performance Center.” 

Local historian Richard Schwartz disagrees, noting that the report specifically acknowledges that burials were found in the area, including at least one found during the excavation for the stadium. 

Schwartz, a nonacademic historian who has written several books on Berkeley history, said that, while he is glad the report acknowledges the fact that burials have been found in the site area, he is critical of the method chosen by the consultant to search for remains. 

Nothing about the way the university conducted their tests gives him confidence in the conclusions, he said. 

“Taking 31 three-and-three-quarter-inch cores from a site that big and saying you didn’t find anything is like poking your finger 31 times into a football field and saying there’s nothing there,” Schwartz said. 

“I would have preferred that they had conducted a grid search, using cores taken three feet apart,” he said. “They could also use techniques like ground-penetrating radar, which would be more likely to pick something up,” he said. 

But UC Berkeley public affairs director Dan Mogulof said the site survey was sufficient to rule out the site as a burial ground. “They would have seen something if it had been a burial ground,” he said. 

Schwartz termed that argument a matter of semantics, given that many California peoples often have not had burial grounds as such but buried their dead near their living sites. 

And while he’s glad the report recommends monitoring throughout the excavation process, he said the large bucket of excavation equipment “could scoop up three burials in one bite and no one would know.”  

During the long tree-sit at the site, several Ohlones described the site as sacred, and Zachary Runningwolf, a Blackfoot, repeatedly called it a burial site. 

But even burial sites can be developed, though state law makes it much more difficult to develop on sites that contain what the law terms unique resources. 

So with the dust yet to rise, much less settle, the controversy about the site of UC Berkeley’s Student Athlete High Performance Center is certain to remain a venue for controversy.