Buried Treasures : Wealth of Clues to County’s Past Revealed at Digs

Times Staff Writer

Piney Hunn remembers the story his grandfather used to tell: Somewhere on their half-acre of land, El Bandito Juan Flores may have buried silver and gold.

No one, including Hunn, has yet to find any gold.

But San Juan Capistrano city officials are inviting the public today at 2:30 p.m. to view possible 18th-Century adobe foundations and American Indian artifacts, discovered by archeologists this week, that may date back 12,000 years, said Nick Magalousis, an archeology and anthropology professor at Chapman College in Orange.

Magalousis serves on a subcommittee of the city’s Cultural Arts and Heritage Commission and assists the archeology project.


Actual dates, however, will not be confirmed until radio-carbon dating is completed, which could take up to six months, he said.

The discoveries were made on a 3-acre vacant lot at El Camino Real and Forster Street by Irvine-based LSA & Associates Inc., archeologists hired by the city last November to excavate the historical area.

“We’ve discovered something lost to history. We’re thrilled to death,” said Steve Wormer, one of the archeologists.

The lot, part of the city’s 6-acre Historic Town Center redevelopment area, is being excavated as part of an environmental study to determine what kinds of historical and cultural remains are located on the site.


One proposal for the site is a 125-room village inn, with additional retail and restaurant space, said Nancy Erikson, a city community development administrator. But local historians say they hope the findings may encourage the city to rebuild parts of the historical site.

Hunn, 45, was born and raised on the site. He said one of the areas excavated used to be the Burruel Adobe. The home was once owned by Chola Martina, reputed to be the sweetheart of the Mexican bandit Flores. Martina, he said, adopted Hunn’s grandmother, giving her the house before she died.

The Burruel Adobe may have been built between 1790 and 1830, a local historian said.

“The (Burruel) Adobe will be designated as a site to be preserved, but as far as everything else, it’s speculation. It depends on the findings,” Erikson said.

After Hunn’s grandmother married and gave birth to Hunn’s father, another one-bedroom, wood-framed home was eventually built in the ‘30s, several yards away from the Burruel Adobe.

Today, the vacant site, adorned by willowy pepper trees, palms and African date trees, is being carefully excavated by machine and hand.

Since archeologists began their work Tuesday, 14 trenches, each 2 feet wide, have been dug by operators driving backhoes.

“Once we remove the (first layers) of soil, then we do the rest by hand,” said Magalousis, observing one archeologist gingerly brushing dirt off Riverine cobblestones used as foundations for the old adobe homes.


Some of the other discoveries this week included an Indian “matate” used as a seed or acorn grinder. In one trench, archeologists also discovered some cow bones and chipped ceramic pieces in what they think was an old trash dump.

Magalousis speculated that some of the cobble lenses (rocks or soil arranged in broad flat layers) also discovered this week resembled the floors in the San Juan Capistrano Mission, less than two blocks away from the site.

“In this entire town, there has been very little archeology conducted. There’s a chance that some of the historical resources (adobe foundations) go back as early as the 1790s,” he said.

In 1979, Chapman College established a scientific program on the mission grounds to excavate some remains, but the mission town known to people around the world has not completed much other archeological work, he said.

Magalousis, who once found 4,000-year-old burial tombs along the Euphrates River in Syria, said the recent discoveries were “exciting.”

“In Southern California, the discoveries may not be as old (as those he found in Syria), but that doesn’t matter,” he said. “What matters is what’s important for this geographical area. It’s not the Old World, but it’s the New World.”