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Treasure of Indian Artifacts Triggers Ownership Battle : Archeology: Palomar College files suit seeking return of the artifacts from teacher who says they belong to landowner.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An argument over broken bits of bone, shell, pottery and stone has escalated into accusations of grand theft and a civil lawsuit between an archeologist and one of the colleges where she teaches.

The debris, left behind by ancestors of the Luiseno Indians, is priceless to Leslie Quintero, an archeologist and instructor at Palomar Community College and San Diego State University. From the debris, she is reconstructing the life style of an Indian culture that lived in the area at least 600 years ago.

To Palomar College, these thousands of pieces of ancient leftovers are worth $100,000. That’s the price the college put on the material when college officials filed a complaint with the county Sheriff’s Department earlier this month alleging Quintero took the artifacts from college property and refused to return them. In legal language, that adds up to a felony: grand theft.

Quintero readily admits that she removed the artifacts from a Palomar College lab during the Thanksgiving holidays and concedes that the artifacts do not belong to her. But, she adds, neither do they belong to Palomar College.

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The midden--or refuse heap--into which Quintero has been probing since 1981 is on land owned by Donald Sullins of Vista, she explained. Sullins owns what was found on his property, Quintero claims, and Sullins gave her permission to remove the Indian artifacts and to use them in her research.

“I was very surprised when Dr. (George) Boggs called me and demanded that I return the artifacts to the college,” Quintero said. “I have never heard of any case in which an educational institution has acted in this way.”

Boggs, president of Palomar, said that he, too, was surprised. He said that he could not understand why Quintero, a teacher at the San Marcos junior college since 1981, would remove college property. He said that the instructor had been given permission to use the materials from the dig in her research but had not been told she could remove them from the campus.

“I have tried to talk to her in recent days and have been unable to,” Boggs said. “We feel that we must protect the public funds used on the dig and must recover the artifacts. Their value to us is in the teaching field and for research. We can’t place a value on that.”

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Boggs said that the $100,000 value placed on the collection included about $56,000 in salary paid to Quintero as a part-time instructor, the cost of cleaning, marking and cataloguing the artifacts, and the expense of determining the age of the materials.

After an unsuccessful attempt to obtain a court order forcing Quintero to return the collection, Palomar College attorneys filed a civil suit against the archeologist and landowner Sullins to recover the materials.

Quintero shakes her head at the legal maneuvering.

“It’s a very curious situation,” she said. California has very specific regulations on personal property rights, she said, all placing ownership of artifacts with the landowner.

Sullins could not be reached for comment but his wife confirmed that he had given Quintero permission to conduct the dig on his property. Sullins hopes to build a museum for the artifacts on his property after Quintero finishes her research, his wife said. As for the archeologist, she is far from finished with her work at the site.

The painstaking collection of bits and pieces has so far shown her that the tribe led a well-ordered life, using the dig site as their winter quarters, making autumn forays to Palomar Mountain to harvest acorns--a staple food in their diet--and spending the summers at the beach.

Their seafood diet included not only mollusks, probably gathered at Carlsbad’s Agua Hedionda Lagoon, but also deep-sea fish like skipjack and tuna, Quintero said.

Chips of obsidian found in the midden indicate that the early-day Indians also engaged in trading. She has traced the chips to sources near the Salton Sea and to the Coso Mountains near the Owens Valley.

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Quintero said she never signed agreements with the college concerning the artifacts because they are not hers to give. She said she had planned to take the collection to San Diego State, where more sophisticated equipment is available to continue her research. But, she said, Palomar officials blocked that move by speaking to SDSU officials.

The dig has gone slowly, she said, because the midden does not yield its clues in neat layers. Ground squirrels, burrowing into the ancient trash heap, have scrambled the artifacts, making it more difficult to unravel clues about this early San Luis Rey-area tribe.

With time-dating, which Quintero says was paid for by funds she solicited, and with a special technique she has developed to determine the season the animals were killed from rings in their teeth, she is piecing together the lives of these early ancestors of the Luiseno Indians.

Quintero said she is determined to finish her research, despite the college’s decision not to renew her teaching contract for the coming semester. She said she will miss the Palomar students who aided her at the dig while she taught them fine points of archeological sleuthing.

“At first I arranged meetings with school officials” over the artifacts, Quintero said, “but the school agreed to meet only if I brought the artifacts back. I suggested that we meet in a neutral place but they gave me an ultimatum,” to return the Indian materials or face the consequences, she said.

Gene Jackson, dean of Palomar’s humanities division, said that the hostilities that have escalated between the college and Quintero “is a sad thing.” He said that the school has had plans for a museum to house such artifacts on the drawing board for years.

“There should be a common ground here,” Jackson said, “and this should be worked out somehow. The artifacts belong here, near where they were found.”


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