History of the Emeryville Shellmound


The Emeryville Shellmound was a highly remarkable historic, cultural, and sacred site established by Ohlone Indians over centuries of use from 500 B.C. to approximately 1700 A.D. These people were among the earliest inhabitants of the region now known as the San Francisco Bay Area. They built their villages on the mound and buried their dead, creating, over the centuries, a sixty foot high mound with a diameter of about 350 feet. This significant site functioned holistically in both the secular and sacred realms, and as such, should not have been disturbed, but honored as a place set apart from the mundane world.

This shellmound had remained intact, without tampering, until the Spanish arrival in the 1700s, bringing with them the Western concept of land as a commodity. This approach to land led to a series of incursions that used and abused the site until the present day. Now, the City of Emeryville and a Southern California developer, Madison Marquette, have plans, which, if allowed, will destroy most of the remaining portion of the site. This would be a great loss to Ohlone descendents, to the residents of the Bay Area, and to scholars who could learn more about the early people of the region. The mixed-use retail village, as the developer calls it, will include stores, housing, movie theaters, and hotels.

The Site

Imagine what we now call the San Francisco Bay Area in an earlier time, some 2500 years ago, when it was a more natural landscape, a large estuary where creeks, streams, and rivers drained into a bay filled with abundant marshlands. Punctuating this watery landscape were a series of nearly 400 mounds ringing the bay which had been built by the Ohlone. It was on these mounds that they established their villages, lived, and buried their dead for centuries.

These mounds, referred to as shell mounds or shell middens, were comprised of abalone, mussels, and clam shells, a staple of Ohone diet, along with sediment, ash, and rocks. Over time the mounds grew larger and taller from successive use with an accumulation of shells, animal and human remains, ceremonial burial objects, artifacts with everyday use, and architectural remains.

Imagine one mound that towered above all others, dominating the landscape. This mound had one distinctive cone and several smaller cones. It has been described by Mutsum Ohlone descendent, Jakki Kehl, as a place that must have dominated the marshy shore much like the Great Pyramids do in Egypt.

This mound defined the place that became known as Emeryville. It was the largest of a series of five mounds along Temescal Creek, which continues to empty into the bay. It was the largest, not only of the Temescal Creek mounds but probably of all the shell mounds in the bay region.

The Site’s Significance

The Emeryville Shellmound, like others in the Bay region, was a significant cultural site infused with sacred as well as secular meaning. The mound functioned as a mortuary for long-term burials. Excavations by archaeologists in 1924 reported over 700 burials, which were subsequently removed from the site. Most of these remains have been housed at the University of California at Berkeley. These burials were often accompanied by ceremonial items. In addition, “…physical remains (houses, artifacts and other materials) of past people who were probably revered as ancestors by the living [were found]. The repeated construction and use of the mounds forged a direct link between the living and the dead. Bay Area peoples dwelled on top of mounds whose cores encapsulated the sacred remains of their ancestors going back many generations…” (Lightfoot: 1997)

The cultural significance of the shell mound was also very important. Burials functioned in a cultural way to establish genealogies and therefore territorial rights. Another cultural function of the mounds was as cultural markers. Villages situated on top of the mounds were highly visible and therefore marked the different Ohlone communities throughout the bay.

Shell mounds also had several practical purposes which included keeping villages above the bay’s high tide waters. They were also ideal places from which to hunt and harvest the bay’s abundant resources of water fowl and shellfish.

The mound’s significance to Ohlone descendents remains of central importance, even if the site has been altered over time. Very few sacred and cultural sites remain, especially one as great as the Emeryville Shellmound.

A Brief Post-Contact History

The Emeryville Shellmound was occupied for several thousand years. It was, however, already abandoned before the arrival of the Spanish in the 1700s and the subsequent establishment of the mission system. Mission Delores was founded in 1776 and Mission San Jose in 1797. The missions reduced the native population ten times until the statewide population was only 30,000. With the decimation of California Indians came the European value of land as a commodity. Thus began the destruction of sacred land upon which the native population had dwelled harmoniously for thousands of years.

It was during the Spanish period that the Emeryville Shellmound fell under the jurisdiction of Luis Maria Peralta who received the mound as part of a Spanish land grant. He used the land primarily for grazing cattle and built corrals and a slaughter house around the base of the mound. (Sher: 1999)

After the 1848 Gold Rush, the land was sold, subdivided, and resold. The shell mound eventually became private property and the owner built his home on one of the smaller mounds near the large cone. Visitors, intrigued by the mounds, would often dig in them to recover artifacts.

A subsequent sale was made to a developer who built an amusement park known as Shellmound Park. The park was primarily used as a rifle range during its early years with one of the smaller mounds being destroyed to construct the California Jockey Club Racetrack. The Emeryville Shellmound was partially leveled in order to build a dance pavilion on top of the main cone. What was once a sacred burial site had become a place for entertainment.

At the turn of the century, archaeologists took an interest in the Bay Area’s shell mounds and another Western value came into conflict with a native value of leaving these sacred, cultural sites intact as their ancestors had when they abandoned them. Europeans believed these were sites that should be studied. Various archaeologists began systematically excavating the mounds and, unfortunately, while much can be learned from archaeology, it is essentially a destructive process. In 1902 Max Uhle dug a trench in the Emeryville Shellmound and Nels Nelson explored the mound in 1906.

By 1908, it was noted that no sizeable shell mounds were left in a pristine state. Bay area mounds were routinely being leveled for use as fertilizer for gardens and agricultural land, as fill for land extensions into the bay, for construction of roads. It is likely that the Emeryville street named Shellmound is not only built adjacent to the shell mound, but also built from the shellmound matter itself. Many shell mounds were used as industrial sites. The shell mound area became home to a variety of factories as Emeryville established itself as a commercial center.

It was industry that eventually led to the final leveling of the Emeryville Shellmound in 1924 when amusement grounds at Shellmound Park were closed. Prohibition had taken its toll on leisurely activities available in the park. A steam shovel began razing the mound as soon as the park was closed. University of California archaeologist, W. Egbert Schenck, followed the steam shovel and removed burials and large artifacts which were then taken to the University where they remain. Subsequent limited archaeology was not done until 1963 under Robert F. Heizer from the anthropology department at the University of California at Berkeley. Although they found a number of fine artifacts, the entire area under excavation had been disturbed and much of the material that was found was probably redeposited after the 1924 leveling of the mound. For many Ohlone descendents, the artifacts found over the years by the University of California archaeologists are the only material culture that they have from their ancestors.

The 1924 destruction of the shell mound cleared the way for the City of Emeryville’s industrial use of the land. Steel mills, paint factories, canneries, and insecticide plants occupied the site for about seventy years defining Emeryville as a center of commerce always with a very small population base. The industrial use was deemed so important that the Emeryville Historic Industrial District was eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. The Emeryville Shellmound had been listed as a California State Historic Landmark number 335 in 1939, always remaining unmarked of this honor.

During the last twenty years, Emeryville has been shifting from an industrial to a retail based economy with large-scale shopping centers dominating the landscape. Old factories were torn down and the toxic contamination of the area became a focus as much of Emeryville became known as Brownfields’ properties. One such property came under consideration for development as the South Bayfront Project, a mixed use, retail, entertainment, housing, and hotel, project. An Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was prepared for the development project noting that five archaeological sites, once part of the Emeryville Shellmound, could possibly fall within the project site. Preliminary, limited archaeology was conducted on sites adjacent to the proposed project, but none were done on the project site itself. The Environmental Impact Report was approved by the City of Emeryville despite this fact.

The property was sitting vacant waiting for further City Council and Planning Commission approval when the unusually heavy winter rain began carrying toxic run-off from the land into the San Francisco Bay. The City of Emeryville was ordered to stop the toxic flow and they did so by digging a large pit on the property. The crew operating the backhoe uncovered a pile of shells, human bones, and artifacts in the large pile of toxic soil which they had dug up. Alan Pastron, a well-known urban archaeologist, was called in to look at the findings. He felt the site must be treated as a highly significant archaeological site and recommended a $3 million dollar, full-scale archaeological excavation. He felt that some sort of excavation should have been done as part of the EIR process, and without this, Emeryville had violated the California Environmental Quality Act. The City responded by abruptly firing Pastron.

Meanwhile Emeryville notified the coroner, the State Historic Preservation Office, and the state’s Native American Heritage Commission who appointed an Ohlone Descendent as the Most Likely Descendent (MLD). The MLD’s job is deciding how to appropriately treat the human remains with a reburial plan.

Preservation, Study, or Memorialization

At this point, there were a number of people who had concerns about the future of the Emeryville Shellmound site. Archaeologists wanted to study what they regarded as one of the most important archaeological sites in the state. Never before had the opportunity existed to study the lowest and oldest level of the mound.

Ohone descendents wanted the site disturbed as little as possible with the disturbed burials reburied in a place on the site where they would be undisturbed. Some Ohlones wanted the site capped off with concrete so that the disturbed souls of their ancestors would not wander. This approach included allowing the development to be built as long as the burials were treated respectfully. Others wished the site to be left as open space without development. A few Ohlones wanted archaeology done on the site to learn as much as possible about their ancestors. Some wanted the non-burial artifacts to be recovered while others felt they could be recovered for limited study but eventually reburied at the site, latex casts having been made of the objects for educational purposes. Issues also included the scientific study of the ancestral bones. Most Ohlones did not want testing done on the bones with the exception of one who is an archaeologist who felt a lot could be learned by testing the bones for DNA.

Preservation groups like Sacred Sites International and the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association along with Native Americans wanted the site preserved without commercial development. Despite the site’s toxic state, it could be cleaned up and then turned into some sort of a memorial to the Shellmound with accompanying educational displays, a small museum, and educational programs being offered on site.

The City of Emeryville took the position that preservation was not possible because the site was so toxic, had to be cleaned up, and then capped off with concrete and asphalt. Much of the upper levels of what remains of the shell mound will need to be carted away because of the toxicity of the soil. One portion of the site, a place containing human burials, is so toxic that it will be shipped to a waste facility in Texas where it will be burned. Consulting archaeologists from the firm of Woodward Clyde, while acknowledging this fact, also reported that significant portions of the mound would still remain after the clean-up.

Sacred Sites International Foundation convened several round-table meetings with concerned parties that resulted in a process of educating the City of Emeryville City Manager, City Planner, City Attorneys, and Members of the City Council, about the site’s importance. SSIF informed Ohlones about the meetings and encouraged their attendance and involvement in the process of deciding the fate of the site.

The City Council appointed an Ad Hoc Committee to study and recommend ideas for Memorializing the Site and Educating the Public about the site. Emeryville only allowed residents of the city, including several City Council members and Planning Commissioners, to be on the committee thereby effectively controlling the committee. Even so, SSIF, one Ohlone, and the archaeologist from Woodward Clyde attended the Committee sessions and made recommendations about the site’s treatment. Recommendations included an educational course for school children, a mural depicting the site to be painted on one of the store buildings public art to memorialize the site, and the establishment in some of the retail store space of an educational display space. There was also a recommendation that Ohlones be involved in the implementation of these recommendations.

Preliminary archaeological research and limited site excavation resulted in a Preliminary Archaeological report which stated that the site would effectively be destroyed by the South Bayfront Project. Sacred Sites International and BAHA began calling for at least part of the project site to be left undeveloped as sacred space. Despite this recommendation, the Planning Commission voted to approve the project saying it was impossible to leave anything undeveloped because of the toxicity of the land. Some archaeology is happening on the site with artifacts recorded, latex casts made, and a reburial plan is in place. The City of Emeryville has agreed to add topsoil to the site to minimize some of the disturbance to burials that would occur when foundations pilings were drilled into the site. They are leaving some of the site undisturbed after cleanup — it will lie beneath a street. They are unwilling to forgo the building of a hotel on top of the Emeryville Shellmound’s most sacred area that of the deepest cone. In the end, the Shellmound will be mostly destroyed, covered up by a large commercial development. The City of Emeryville along with Madison Marquette (who is in the business of “Creating Special Places”) will destroy the significant place which exists, is a California State Landmark, and an important cultural and sacred site for the Ohlones — the Emeryville Shellmound — in order to create another shopping center.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.