Kid's Question & Answers

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Introduction to the Emeryville Shellmound
What is a shellmound?
Where people have settled, all around the world, the things that they use up, lose, or throw away become mixed with the soil and rocks on the ground. Decomposing debris, including the remains of houses, shell and bone from meals, charcoal and ash from fires, rocks from hearths, tools and other things that have been broken or lost, create new soil, which archaeologists call midden.

Over time, this material builds up into a mound. A shellmound is a pile of midden built up at a place where people ate a lot of shellfish and discarded a lot of shell. These sites are usually located on the ocean coast or the shore of a bay.

Emeryville Shellmound digramWhat was the Emeryville Shellmound?
The Emeryville Shellmound was the archaeological remains of a large village site on the shore of the San Francisco Bay. Native American people lived at the site for over 2 thousand years. There were over 400 shellmounds on the shores of the bay. The Emeryville Shellmound was the largest shellmound in the Bay Area and possibly in all of California.

The mound was a steep-sided cone, with a buried base over 8 feet deep. Before it was leveled in 1924 the total height of the deposit was as much as 40 feet - as high as a 4 story building - and over 350 feet in diameter - as long as a football field.

How was the Emeryville Shellmound formed and why did it get so big?
view of the surrounding countrysideShellmounds and other archaeological sites are formed in layers (which archaeologists call strata) much like a layer cake. The bottom "layer" - or stratum - represents the earliest occupation of the site. Each stratum of the mound above the bottom represents a later and later period of occupation.

The Emeryville Shellmound and other similar mounds were built up over long periods of time as people discarded things at the places where they lived. Over time, the material discarded year after year formed a mound. Eventually, the mound was like a little hill on the bayshore, a landmark for the Emeryville village. This hill might have been a good place to get a view of the surrounding countryside. Maybe people could see other villages from the top of the mound.

It is possible that the way the Emeryville Shellmound was used changed over time. Perhaps as the pile of ordinary living debris made a higher and steeper mound, people began to think of it as a monument. Some shellmounds, like Emeryville, contain many human burials. For this reason, some archaeologists and Native Americans believe that this and other mounds were used mainly as cemeteries rather than living places. These people believe that the animal bones and shells that make up a large part of the soil are the remains of memorial feasts and offerings of food made to the dead.

Other archaeologists believe that people must have lived at the site, as well as burying their dead there, because it contains many discarded tools and other evidences of everyday life, and so much food waste and campfire debris. No one can really know for sure.

What happened to the Emeryville Shellmound?
Shellmound ParkArchaeologists believe that Native Americans stopped living in Emeryville about 350 years ago, even before Spanish explorers reached the area. Early explorers noted that they saw no village or campfires along the Emeryville and Berkeley shorelines. Probably no Native Americans lived at the Emeryville Shellmound site after about 1650.

In the 1850s newly arrived American settlers built a few houses and small businesses close to the mound. An amusement park, known as Shellmound Park was built directly on and around the Emeryville Shellmound.

The owner of the park leveled off the very top of the mound and built a large dance pavilion there. A stairway was built up the side of the mound. People used the park for almost 50 years.

Steam ShovelIn 1924, the park was closed. The new owners of the land wanted to build a paint factory and other industrial facilities on the site. They decided to level the Emeryville Shellmound to make space for the factory. Steam shovels excavated the mound down to the ground surface, and dump trucks hauled the soil from the mound away to fill up marshy areas on the site. Midden also was used to make new bay fill along the bay shore, so Shellmound Street could be built.

Old FactoryFor about 60 years, a paint factory, pesticide factory, machine shop and trucking facility operated on the site. However, by the 1980s the equipment, tanks and buildings in these old facilities started to wear out. Chemicals and pigments leaked into the soil and the bay. The paint company decided it would be too expensive to replace the old equipment, and the factory gradually stopped doing much work.

In 1998, the City of Emeryville Redevelopment Agency took over the factory property so the ground under it could be cleaned up. The city agency wanted to put the property to better use, and envisioned stores, theaters, hotels and homes on the site. However, while the factories were being demolished, the city discovered that the base of the shellmound was still there, buried underground. That is why archaeologists came back to the site in 1999. View a timeline of these events.

Why was the Emeryville Shellmound important?
Archaeologists considered the Emeryville Shellmound to be a very important archaeological site because of its large size and great age, and because it could provide so much information about the prehistory of the Bay Area.

Archaeology can tell us about the ways that people lived in the past, at a time when people did not keep written records. Most of what we know about the native people of California has been learned through archaeology. Because the Emeryville Shellmound was a very deep deposit that had been occupied for almost 2,500 years, it could provide information about how the lives of the native people changed and developed.

For archaeologists, it was a window to the past. The site is also very important to local Native Americans because their ancestors were buried in the mound. It is an important piece of their history and a special place for them.

Why couldn't the Emeryville Shellmound be saved?
Unfortunately, the part of the site that formed the huge mound above the ground was destroyed in 1924. At that time, there were few environmental laws to protect important parts of our history. If the mound had been preserved at that time, today it might be a cultural preserve or historic park.

For archaeologists and Native Americans, the remaining part of the site below the ground surface was important because of the burials it contained and because it could provide new information about the past. Although the construction and operation of the paint factory had done much damage to this part of the site, it was still a very valuable resource.

However, the operation of the paint plant and other industries on the site left another legacy. The factories on the site had left behind pigments and toxic substances like lead, arsenic, and hydrogen sulfide in the soil. These were poisoning the water underground, and leaking into the bay, where they were unhealthy for humans, plants and animals. To clean up this mess, a lot of the soil on the site had to be excavated and hauled away to a hazardous waste landfill. Crumbling buildings, tanks, foundations and buried pipelines had to be removed. Although this cleanup was essential, it would destroy much archaeological data and disturb human remains at the site. The cleanup, and the new construction that was planned, would involve more digging, and would destroy most of what was left of the site.

Many members of the public, including archaeologists, Native Americans and citizens of Emeryville were concerned about this difficult decision. Others agreed that although it would have been much better if the remains of the site could have been preserved, there were some ways to make up for the destruction.

First, the city paid for archaeological excavation, to save a sample of the archaeological materials from the site. Second, part of the new development was redesigned, so that 1 part of the site could be protected forever from development. Then, during clean up and development, as many of the burials from the site as possible were collected and saved to be reburied. Archaeologists and Native Americans observed many stages of the site cleanup and redevelopment. When a burial was uncovered, work stopped so that it could be removed respectfully for reburial in a safe place.

Finally, the City of Emeryville formed a Memorialization Committee. This committee would think about ways to make sure that people remembered the Emeryville Shellmound and the people who had lived there. The Memorialization Committee included a 4th grade girl, other Emeryville citizens, and a representative of the Native American community.

On the recommendation of the Memorialization Committee, the new development will commemorate the Emeryville Shellmound site in its street names, by including in the development sculptures and other artwork, and with a community room to display artifacts and other interpretive material. This webpage is also intended as a way telling people about the importance of the Emeryville Shellmound as a Native American spiritual place and as an archaeological resource.

Life & People of the Emeryville Mound
Who lived at the Emeryville Shellmound?
The 1st inhabitants of Emeryville may have come to the Bay Area from the interior of California. People had already been living in the Bay Area, but not many people lived right on the bay shore. There were other villages nearby in Berkeley and Richmond. No one knows for sure, but probably the people who settled Emeryville were ancestors of the Ohlone Indians, the people who were living in the Bay Area when Spanish explorers 1st arrived. If not, they were people who lived in similar ways, who later probably were joined by ancestors of the Ohlone.

When did people live at the Emeryville Shellmound?
When archaeologists started working at Emeryville in 1999, all the upper layers of the mound already had been destroyed. The site had been graded in 1924 to make room for a paint factory. The shellmound site no longer even looked like a mound: all that was left was the part underground. Although we know that people lived at the site for many hundreds of years after this time, the 1999 excavation could only tell us about the 1st 700 years during which people lived at Emeryville.

The layer where archaeologists started excavating - at the 1999 ground surface - was about 2,000 years old. When archaeologists excavated to the bottom of the buried mound, they were excavating back through time, to the stratum that represented the 1st time people lived in Emeryville, about 2,800 years ago.

During work at the site in 1999, the archaeologists discovered a 2nd smaller mound nearby. The smaller mound was the remains of a village that probably was settled after people stopped using the big mound. People began to live at the site of the small mound around 1400 AD. They lived there for about 200 to 300 years, but probably were not there when the Spanish arrived in 1769.

How has the Emeryville environment changed over time?
The soil, shells, bones and seeds from the Emeryville Shellmound tell a story about Emeryville's changing environment. Things changed very slowly for thousands of years, but very rapidly in modern times. We know that the 1st people in Emeryville settled on the very edge of the bay marshes at the mouth of Temescal Creek.

bay marshesAt that time the creek meandered back and forth across the flat, and probably changed its course with each winter season, and maybe even with the bay tides. The village was established at the edge of the marsh, which probably extended far out into the bay. That bay shore and marsh have been buried under bay fill and covered by a freeway.

Prehistorically the Emeryville area teemed with animal life. Marshes are particularly rich environments. Shore and water birds, fish, shellfish and large and small sea and land animals could be hunted there and on the bay and the hills nearby. Many of the animals used for food by the people of Emeryville have disappeared from the Bay Area, or even from California. While deer, rabbits, raccoons, and squirrels can be seen in the Bay Area today, the prehistoric Emeryville environment also included antelope, elk, and black and grizzly bears. Sea otters, which almost became extinct in modern times, were common near Emeryville in prehistoric times.

Shellfish shells in the Emeryville site tell us about what the shoreline was like near the site prehistorically.Shellfish Shells

Early in time the Emeryville people ate many mussels and oysters. Later, clams may have become a more important food for the Emeryville people. This tells us that the shoreline along Emeryville may have changed over time.

An earthquake could have caused this change, by changing the way that creeks flowed into the bay, and making them deposit more mud near the shore. If this happened, some of the rocks along the shore where mussels and oysters lived may have become buried under mud. As a result, this might not have been such a good place for oysters and mussels, which live in rocky habitats, but it might have been a better place for clams, which live in mud flats.

There probably also were changes in the climate of the area over time. Some scientists believe that there was a long drought - a period of very low rainfall - about 700 years ago, and that this caused people to move away from the Emeryville Shellmound and other sites along the bay shore. If there were a long period with little rainfall, creeks near the bay might have begun to dry up. In this case, people might have moved into the hills inland, to be closer to places where they could get fresh water.

The biggest changes in the Emeryville environment probably are those that have taken place in the last 150 years. During this time the population of the Bay Region has grown enormously, and there has been so much development that hardly any natural shoreline is left along the bay.

One big change that happened was caused by gold mining in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Hydraulic blasting caused a lot of silt to be dumped into the creeks and rivers in the mountains, in the 1850s-1870s. Eventually these creeks carried the water down to the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, which in turn carried the silt down to the San Francisco Bay. This silt filled up so much of the bay that it now averages only 16 to 30 feet deep, where it was once as much as 300 feet deep.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, nearly 1/3 of the area of the bay was filled intentionally to make more land for development around its shores. Because of all these changes, the plant and animal life of the bay also has changed drastically. Where once stretched miles of marshland, there now are paved streets. The natural environment of the bay shore has lost much of its natural wealth.

How did the Emeryville people live?
Throughout the almost 2,500 years that the site was used, the people of Emeryville were what anthropologists call hunter-gatherers. This means that they got all the food, tools and materials they needed by hunting, fishing and collecting wild animals and plants. Although they probably had tame dogs, they did not raise animals like sheep or cows - in fact, there were no such animals in America at the time.

Native Americans in the Bay Area managed natural plant resources through controlled burning and selective harvesting, but they did not grow crops. The study of the animal bones and plant material showed that people lived at Emeryville year round, but they probably made hunting and collecting trips inland to gather resources from the surrounding areas.

The bay shore provided the Emeryville people with a wealth of natural resources. Temescal Creek, which ran close to the site, provided drinking water and fish all year round. Probably the local rocks used for many tools also could be gathered from the creek bed.

Oysters, mussels and clams grew in abundance in the marsh at the edge of the mound. In the bay, marsh and on the nearby plains, the Emeryville people hunted and fished - very successfully - for ducks, geese and other waterfowl, sea mammals like seal and sea otter, elk and deer, and fish such as sturgeon, bat rays and salmon. Although whale hunting tools were not found at Emeryville, the people used whale bones for tools and maybe meat, possibly from whales washed up or beached on the Emeryville shore.

Many plants also were used for food, clothing, tools, and medicines. Grass seeds, harvested and ground into flour, were important plant foods. Later acorns were used in the same way. Seeds or burnt parts of almost 50 different varieties of plants were found in the archaeological deposit at Emeryville.

Fresh Water Channel PlantProbably the people of Emeryville made houses much like those described by Spanish explorers - small round, domed structures made from a frame of poles covered with brush or tule mats. Ethnographically (during the time described by the Spanish explorers who 1st saw Native Americans), tule reeds also were used to make boats, mats, twine and even clothing.

Local Native Americans at that time also made many kinds of baskets, some so tightly woven that they could hold water! While many Native Americans in North America made clay pots, the people of Emeryville - like most other California groups - did not. Instead, they almost certainly made baskets and other woven containers of grasses, ferns, tules and other plants, possibly using bone tools. Animal hides and fur undoubtedly were used to make clothes, blankets, and leather items, probably using bone needles or awls with "thread" of sinew or leather.

The Emeryville people also used animal bones to make flute-like whistles. They ground nuts and seeds into flour in well-made mortars (stone bowls), with stone pestles (grinding tools). They used obsidian and other rocks to make sharp cutting tools and projectile points for spears and, later, arrows.

They traded with coastal people for beautiful pendants made of abalone shells, and made strings of small shell beads that could be sewn unto special headdresses or clothing. The Emeryville people had plenty of all they needed.