Human Remains

Archaeology can tell us much about the ways that people lived in the past. In an archaeological deposit, we may find tools and the debris left by their manufacture and use, dietary remains and indications of butchering, food preparation and cooking practices, and ornaments, along with evidence of how they were used. We may be able to infer where and how food was collected, and even some of the effects of the local population on the surrounding environment. Human skeletal remains provide information about stature, diseases and injuries suffered by the population, warfare, and life expectancy.

However, archaeology is limited to the study of what can be learned from material remains, usually those of cultural groups whose practices have changed significantly since prehistoric times. We must fall back on inference to investigate ceremonial and religious practices, and we can only speculate about the thinking and beliefs of the people represented by the physical remains in the ground.

In every culture, death is a significant event. The practices surrounding disposal of the dead - as represented in what may be preserved archaeologically - may provide a glimpse into the thinking and beliefs of those who are left behind. There is nothing more poignant for archaeologists, nothing more evocative of the people behind the archaeology, than a human burial found as it was placed in the ground, surrounded by valued ornaments and tools.

A human interment in many ways is a snapshot in time because we know that the human remains and the artifacts found in the grave were deposited together, and represent a single significant episode in human lives. A burial may provide us with insight about what was important and valuable to the people at that place and time.

Ceremonial Site
The people of the Emeryville Shellmound buried their dead with reverence and ceremony. Some archaeologists and modern Native Americans even have suggested that the Emeryville Shellmound was primarily a ceremonial place, where people from the surrounding area came to bury their dead and to participate in memorial feasting hosted by powerful leaders.

It has been suggested that the mound itself - which over time was built up into a substantial topographic feature, which would have been visible at great distances around the bay - was a ceremonial marker and beacon, rather than a living place. While this speculation is not substantiated convincingly by archaeological findings, the shellmound clearly was an important place to local Native Americans, and many hundreds of individuals were interred there during the 2,000 years of the site's occupation.

The mound is composed of vast quantities of dietary debris, intermixed with charcoal and rocks from cooking hearths, and a wide range of stone and bone tools. The soft soil created by the accumulation of this material over time formed a mound elevated above the waters of the bay, and was a place where a grave could readily be excavated. People buried their dead close to where they lived, just as they carried out the other activities of their lives.

Early Excavation
Archaeological excavation in the Emeryville Shellmound in 1999 was confined to the basal layers of the mound, since the huge cone of midden material that originally had identified the site had been destroyed long before. When the mound was leveled in 1924, archaeologist W.E. Schenck noted as many as 700 burials. However, many burials -represented by skeletal remains and associated artifacts - also were present in the basal part of the mound, the 6-8 feet of deposit that remained after the cone was destroyed in 1924 and during subsequent industrial activity on the site.

During the 1999 archaeological excavations, skeletal remains of over 120 individuals were recovered from the site. Some of these were represented only by a few scattered bones, often found in midden material that had been removed from the cone and dumped elsewhere on the site during historic times. However, other skeletal remains were found intact, just as they had been placed in the ground.

Grave Discoveries
The portion of the mound where most burials were found intact was deposited between 2,000 and 2,400 years ago. Similar patterns can be observed in many of the interments of that time. The grave generally was an oval pit just large enough to accommodate a crouched individual. Archaeological evidence suggests that the grave pit would be about 2 feet deep; additional soil might have been piled on top.

Before the individual was placed in the grave, a fire might be built there: many graves are lined with a shallow bed of ash with charcoal and burnt animal bone and shell. After the fire went out, a layer of red ochre and sometimes a woven fiber mat might be placed atop the ashes in the grave pit. The individual might be arrayed with ornaments, including strings of beads made from the shells of olive snails and finely made abalone shell pendants, often placed about the neck and head, perhaps attached to a head-dress or other clothing. Abalone ornaments sometimes were placed over the eyes or around the chest and pelvis as well. Groups of whistles or tubes of bird or elk bone, bone pendants or spatulas, or bundles of bird bone, raptor talons, and possibly whole fish accompanied some individuals. In many cases, the body was coated with a fine powder or paste of red ochre - a deep red pigment.

The deceased would then be arranged in a tightly flexed position, with knees drawn up to the chest, and placed in the grave, usually face down or on 1 side. Then the grave was refilled with soil. Beds of ashes overlying some graves suggest that another fire might be built atop the grave, but this is uncertain. Graves from the same general period tend to be grouped together, which suggests that there was a designated mortuary area on the site during different periods. However, there is no archaeological evidence that graves were otherwise marked and, in fact, the excavation of later graves not infrequently disturbed earlier graves.

Abalone Ornaments
It is of interest that abalone ornaments at Emeryville were found almost exclusively in graves. In fact, almost no abalone shell in any form was found in the deposit outside of graves, although the midden contained millions of clam, mussel and oyster shells. Abalone, which occupies rocky habitats in the low intertidal zone, is not present in the inner reaches of the San Francisco Bay. The inhabitants of the Emeryville Shellmound would have had to travel to the ocean coast, or trade with coastal groups or intermediaries to obtain this material.

Since no abalone manufacturing debris was found in the Emeryville midden, we must assume that the occupants of Emeryville obtained abalone ornaments ready-made in trade. Such traded items undoubtedly were exceptionally valuable, since they had to be "purchased" ready-made, probably were not easily obtained, and likely were limited in availability. The presence of such valuables in graves is yet another indicator of the reverence accorded the dead, and also suggests that these ornaments had more than ornamental value, and perhaps were primarily ceremonial in use.

Individual Treatment in Death
Sometimes an individual was accorded exceptional treatment in death: a few interments were accompanied by large numbers of bird bone tubes or whistles, clusters of plummet stones ("charmstones"), or unusually large numbers of shell ornaments and beads. Other individuals were buried without ornaments or tools, or only with a coating of red ochre. Differential treatment of human burials often has been interpreted by archaeologists as an indication of the status of the individual. For instance, it has been suggested that a renowned warrior or leader might be buried with more ceremony and accompanied by more artifacts than with an undistinguished individual.

At some sites infants and children - who presumably had not lived long enough to acquire high status through their achievements - are accompanied by elaborate grave assemblages. Some archaeologists have suggested that this may imply a stratified social structure, in which higher status was accorded to some families, and might be inherited rather than earned. Although analysis is still underway, in the basal levels of Emeryville there is no distinct pattern of grave treatment differentiated by age or sex. However, the elaborately accompanied individuals at Emeryville include several infants and young children.

Burial Evidence
Multiple burials, particularly of infants, are relatively common at Emeryville. This might be expected from a time when infant mortality was high. However, there also are instances of multiple adult or adult and child interments, which is suggestive of epidemic disease, or other events that affected the health of the wider population over a short period of time. There also is evidence of at least 3 deaths by human violence: 3 burials included 1 or more projectile points either embedded in the bone or within the body cavity. One isolated skull, found interred neck-down in a bowl mortar, also suggests violent death. Broken bones, often healed before death, are not unusual.

Evidence of arthritis is very common, even among relatively young individuals, and significant tooth wear is almost universal among the burial population, even among children. Tooth wear - grinding down of the chewing surfaces of the teeth, such that the inner pulp is exposed - results from a diet high in abrasive materials. The diet of California Native Americans relied extensively on plant foods, such as acorns and seeds, prepared by grinding with a stone mortar and pestle. As the tools were used, the fine stone grains worn off their surfaces were included in the meal that was produced. Tooth wear also resulted from the use of teeth in processing hides and sinews for use in clothing.

Study of Human Remains
The study of human remains is among the most valuable sources of direct information about an archaeological population. However, because it entails the disturbance of human graves, it also is a highly sensitive topic. For many, reverence for the dead and for the mourners who interred them, also extends to reverence for the skeleton, and the grave and all that was placed in it. In California, when disturbance of a grave cannot be avoided on a construction project, the grave may be excavated by archaeologists, but state law requires that the recommendations of potential descendants of the deceased be sought, to ensure respectful treatment of the remains.

The most common practice today is that the skeleton and the artifacts that accompanied it are reburied after excavation, in a place that will not be subject to further disturbance. In some cases, the Native American descendant may be willing to have archaeological studies made of the skeleton prior to reburial. These may include photography, measurements of the bone, examination to determine age and sex of the individual, and studies of diseases and genetic traits. In other cases, the descendant may prefer that no such studies be done.

Emeryville Shellmound Human Remains
Based on descendant recommendations, archaeological treatment of human remains from the Emeryville Shellmound consisted of exposure and drawing of the remains in the ground, and removal to a lab on site for washing, inspection and basic inventory of bones present. More detailed studies were not permitted, as it was the feeling of the descendant that these would be disrespectful.

For artifacts found within a grave, and also within 1 meter of any human bone, drawing, photography and casting of selected artifacts were permitted. (Casting is the process of making a mold of the artifact from which replicas can be made for study or curation). Once these tasks were completed, the burial collection was stored for reburial.

It is the intent of the Emeryville Redevelopment Agency that these replicas of artifacts be made available for educational purposes. Some may be viewed at the Community Room of the Bay Street Project.