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Past Is Probed as Future Looms : Archeology Has Its Day While Irvine Coast Awaits Bulldozers

Times Staff Writer

While its future may hold resort hotels and designer homes with ocean vistas, life on the Irvine Coast thousands of years ago was anything but glamorous, according to local archeologists.

Imagine living in a rock cave with nothing for warmth but a small fire and a bear skin. Imagine fishing for dinner in a stormy winter ocean and cooking the catch to serve with berries gathered by family members.

Scenes such as these probably characterized life on the Irvine Coast about 3,000 years ago, said Michael Macko, director of archeology for the Costa Mesa-based Keith Cos.

Macko and a staff of 35 archeologists, field workers and students have been surveying the 9,234 acres of unincorporated Irvine Coast area where the Irvine Co. plans to develop 2,600 housing units, 3 hotels and 2 golf courses. There also will be a Sheriff’s Department substation, a fire station, a library and a child-care facility in the area, an Irvine Co. spokeswoman said.

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The Irvine Co. finally won approval from the County Board of Supervisors to develop the area between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach last year, after a compromise was reached in a battle of more than 20 years with environmental and community groups opposed to development. The company gained approval for the project after several plan changes, the last of which was designed to leave as much open space as possible in the county’s only remaining undeveloped expanse of coastline.

$5-Million, 3-Year Project

To meet the requirements of the project’s environmental impact report, the Irvine Co. hired archeologists to study the area and ensure that much of the area’s archeological information would be preserved for study after development, Macko said. The most interesting findings will be displayed at Irvine’s Museum of Natural History. Others will be stored in the museum’s warehouse for possible study by future archeologists, he said.

The Irvine Co. plans to spend $5 million on the 3-year project, which Macko said he hopes will be “the most in-depth history of Orange County ever taken.”

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While those in the field haven’t yet discovered “Irvine Man,” Macko said, some of their finds are estimated to be as many as 5,000 years old. Among the items on display in a special showing Thursday were primitive tools, arrowheads and spearheads, and crude beads. Radiocarbon dating was used to determine the age of the artifacts, he said.

“What we see at this time period is a very accomplished people,” Macko said of those who must have used the artifacts. Though archeologists believe that they were nomadic, studies of the artifacts that surrounded their dwellings indicate that they were also sophisticated mariners and hunters, he said.

The remains of two humans, believed to be of early Indian tribes that inhabited the area more than 800 years ago, also were found, Macko said. They were moved to an undisclosed burial area at the recommendation of an Indian consultant, he said.

So far, Macko said, there are 90 archeological sites on the Irvine Coast; of those, 67 are being preserved by the state as wildlife reserves or park areas.

The remaining 23 sites are being studied by archeologists, and since the project began in March of last year, they have excavated nine of the sites. Within the next year, they will complete the remaining sites, and the final year will be used to study their findings, Macko said.

Computer Aids Search

From an on-site field office, Macko is refining a computer-assisted technique that enables him to project which of the sites will contain the most material of archeological importance. By surveying predetermined amounts of surface soil from several areas on a site and entering findings into a computer, Macko said he has been successful in determining which areas will contain the richest deposits of archeological information.

Employees also work from the office to label and catalogue excavation findings, Macko said.

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And while their work would not compare to the elaborate Lascaux cave paintings in Southern France, the people who inhabited the miles of hilly coastal area between today’s Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach did dabble in the arts, archeologists said.

Assorted shapes and sizes of stones that were on display at the museum Thursday were decorated with indecipherable etchings. Archeologists said they believe that these were attempts at art by the early coastal dwellers.

“They are not considered unique or priceless in their own right,” Macko said. “But they are valuable historically.”


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