Mankind’s curiosity had lead to the first moon landing a few days earlier. Closer to home archeologists were exploring the past. This was an unusual dig, it was not spurred by construction pressure and was a largely volunteer effort. Archeology is often funded by a wealthy patron or if the work has enough general interest, a foundation grant.
An archeological effort funded by PG&E had been started a year earlier at Diablo Canyon in advance of their nuclear power plant construction.
Perceptions have changed since the 1960s. An uncounted number of Native American sites were bulldozed by the freeway and homes in the 1950s.
This was the era before native American site monitors for burial sites.
Paraphrasing the question a site monitor once asked me, ‘Would you like people to dig up your ancestor’s bones and put them on display?’
My answer would be no.
But still I am curious about what life was like here before the Europeans came.
Published July 23, 1969 with a redundant headline.
Archeologists probe Pismo site
Pictures and Text
By Mike Raphael
Man hopes to probe the secrets of the universe by digging into the surface of the moon.
But he has not forgotten that the answers to many of his questions about his own planet remain buried right here on earth.
So, he keeps digging for these, too.
One such archeological project is under way on a knoll about 50 yards from the edge of Highway 101 in Pismo Beach.
On April 26, brush was cleared and on May 4 the San Luis Obispo Archaeological Society began digging.
Through its effort, the archaeological society hopes to find out if Chumash Indians lived there throughout the year, or if they were just seasonal residents.
The site is unusual in one important respect, says Jay Von Werlhof, director of the society and a Cal Poly instructor in social sciences:
For the first time known to him archaeologists are not pressed for time to excavate and evaluate a site.
Usually such sites are turned up by construction and are destroyed relatively soon thereafter by grading, digging or paving. This site, on state highway right-of-way next to a fence, is relatively untouched.
“We know that there was a large Indian village once here,” Von Werlhof said. We’re trying to find out how the Chumash earned their living. It hasn’t been done before.
“We thought the hill would be all chewed up, but found it still intact,” he added.
The site was discovered by archaeological society member George Duclos, a draftsman with the State Division of Highways who knew that Indian burials had been uncovered in the vicinity of the knoll.
Soil analysis shows that there are burials on the mound and already a few bone fragments have been uncovered.
So far we’ve found some remarkable things,” Von Werlhof said. “We found an ash lens at the one foot layer…the Indians had open campfires then rather than houses, Von Werlhof said.
The deeper 20 or so members and students go, the further back in history they go. At about 1 1/2 feet deep now they are digging in the residue of the early 19th century.
All except Von Werlhof and Dr. Charles Dills, the society chairman and a Cal Poly chemistry professor, are summer quarter Cal Poly students. They dig and sift some eight hours each Saturday and during the week do laboratory work at Poly, in their homes and at adult evening classes at San Luis Obispo Senior High School.
A “sorely needed” archaeology class will start at Poly in the fall of 1970, Von Werlhof said. No school between San Jose and Santa Barbara has one now.
Findings are now stored in member’s garages. After Poly’s archaeology school begins the society will store materials at the school and will establish displays.
“There will be some kind of museum,” Von Werlhof said.
The society will work through Dec. 31, and, if not satisfied with the knoll study by then, will ask for an extension of the encroachment permit and will continue through 1970.
“It’s possible we’ll spend a full tow years,” Von Werlhof said. “The site is worth it. It’s one of the best training sites and best interpretive sites we could have picked out.”
It’s also the largest undertaking so far for the eight-year-old society which now has 35 active members and 50 associate members living as far away as New York.
“We have to dig deep enough to hit sterile material,” Von Werlhof said. Sterile ground is that layer untouched by human occupation.
“We don’t know how deep we’ll go…we’ll go deep enough, back to before the Spanish came,” he said.
Roughly, one foot of depth is equivalent to 100 years of time.
With whisk brooms and trowels workers carefully trim off less than a quarter inch of soil at a time.
Three feet down, should bring them to the beginning of the Spanish era.
There are four trial pits. Before they finish, there will be 15 pits. Several dump trucks of earth will be dug up, piled on the edge, then backfilled to leave the knoll as it was before the digging.
Werlhof expects to dig down about six feet in all, sifting 1,000′s of pounds of soil through screens, to retrieve the small bits that will tell the story of the Indians’ stay.
The screen are mesh, composed of 1/2-inch to 1/16th-inch squares.
The operation is divided into phases:
First, the site is divided into one-meter squares with one man in charge of each pit who keeps his own notes.
Next, material is screened and sorted, then cataloged, classified and entered into a log book.
The final phase is the storage of all artifacts for later study, analysis, and preparation of a report.
So far the site has shown that the Chumash in Pismo were fishermen and shell gatherers.
But shell fish are not in season throughout the year, and all peoples have to have varied diets.
So if the society finds evidence of structures such as hearth stones or post holes, this will indicate that the Chumash lived in Pismo the year round at some period of their history.
The Chumash, the most advanced of the California tribes, were highly developed artisans and artists.
They inhabited the coastline from Old Creek in Cayucos south to Topanga Canyon along the Malibu Coast and in San Luis Obispo County as far inland as the Carrisa Plains.
The archaeological society, responsible for Chumash discoveries in this county, is most interested in the North Coast Chumash who lived from Old Creek to Point Sal directly oceanward from Guadalupe.
Findings at the Pismo site will be compared to those found at a Shell Beach site dug last winter. Here a considerable amount of fishing gear, shells and evidence of hunting was found in four-foot-deep excavations. Skeletons of a woman and a dog were found there also.
The Chumash prized abalone, traded often by coastal Indians for obsidian and other substances not available here. So abalone is seldom found at coastal sites.
Last Saturday an abalone hook, perhaps used for shore fishing, was found. Bone awls and needles have been found.
The site had already been linked to northern villages because of materials turned up here that are not native to Pismo Beach. Chert, a dense, red rock, has been found. It is used for knives and scrapers and was quarried by Indians at Prefumo Canyon.
The site, one of 535 discovered in this county, was officially reported in 1955. Perhaps by 1971 the answer to the society’s question will be found.
One concern of the society is to convince the public not to vandalize or destroy such sites, and to build respect for such study.
“A site is like a page in a book..it’s irreplaceable,” Von Werlhof said.
If anyone knows the results of the study, or where the artifacts are please post a comment. For a look at how times have changed when Native American remains are uncovered there is an story published today in The Tribune by reporter Melanie Cleveland and photographer Jayson Mellom.