Unearthing a Hidden Past : Archeology: After years of controversy, Native American artifacts excavated from the Lost Village of Encino will be on display.


For most of the past decade, thousands of Native American artifacts recovered from the Lost Village of Encino, one of the costliest archeological excavations in state history, have been sitting in an Orange County warehouse, freed from the earth after centuries, but collecting dust in obscurity.

Soon, however, the public will get its first chance to see the most significant pieces--stone tools, shell beadwork and arrowheads--when they are donated by an archeologist to two San Fernando Valley museums. Nancy Whitney-Desautels is celebrating the resolution of a series of controversies that have embroiled Native Americans, archeologists and the corporate developers of the site since the 3,000-year-old village was accidentally unearthed in 1984.

The debates that have swirled around the finds have overshadowed their archeological importance, some scientists say.


“This was clearly a very important discovery for both the diversity and quantity of artifacts and also that so much of it was found intact,” said Mark Raab, director of the Center for Public Archeology at Cal State Northridge. “But there hasn’t been an extensive publication on it” in peer-reviewed archeological journals, he said, the key step in establishing scientific worth.

“Neither the scientific community nor the public really know what’s there, so displaying some of them should help.”

Whitney-Desautels said she hopes to deliver the first of the artifacts this month but arrangements with the museums have not been finalized.

The gift of about 10 pieces to the San Fernando Mission and San Gabriel Mission museums and the placement of other, larger artifacts--probably at a state museum on Ventura Boulevard near the site of the find--comes after Whitney-Desautels had refused for years to hand over the pieces until she was paid for her work by the company that constructed an office building on the site.

But with the settlement of a $1-million lawsuit against the developers in 1989 and the completion of the cataloguing of most of the pieces, Whitney-Desautels said this month that she is ready to part with the collection.

“I never intended to keep the artifacts, but a lot happened along the way,” she said. “It’s not really anybody’s fault. The village was a surprise and there wasn’t a lot of time to prepare for everything that was coming.”


Indeed, the recent history of the prehistoric village is a thoroughly modern story of cultural clashes, cost overruns, bankruptcy and even slow-growth politics.

At first, discovery of the village was simply the solution to a decades-old archeological mystery. For years, archeologists had attempted to find the ruins of the large settlement described in a 1769 diary kept by a member of the Spaniard Gaspar de Portola’s expedition, the first Europeans known to have reached the San Fernando Valley.

It was clear that the village must have been somewhere in the vicinity of Los Encinos State Historical Park on Ventura Boulevard, where a spring that continues to flow today would have provided water.

But despite the efforts of several researchers, no sign of the settlement was found, earning it the nickname the Lost Village of Encino. Many archeologists who had searched for it unsuccessfully, hampered by inexact Spanish maps, feared that recent urbanization might have irretrievably buried the site.

But in July, 1984, a construction crew accidentally solved the mystery. While demolishing a defunct restaurant on the southeast corner of Balboa and Ventura boulevards in preparation for construction of an office complex, the workers came across a few artifacts, leading eventually to the discovery of increasing numbers of them and then the skeletons of about 20 Native Americans.

Although more than 2 million tiny artifacts and fragments of human and animal bone were found in the village, only a few thousand of the larger items are of real significance, Whitney-Desautels said.

Among those are mortars and pestles, milling stones, stone bowls and arrowheads and other projectile points. The presence of both Native American shell beads and Spanish glass beads suggests that the two groups engaged in trading before the village was abandoned for unknown reasons some time in the 19th Century.

During the dig, scientists also found the areas where villagers cooked, processed hides and made beads.

The village had a large burial site, where researchers dug up the bones or cremated remains of about 20 humans, 20 dogs and at least one bird. Whitney-Desautels believes the animals were used in sacrifices.

Complying with state law that requires that such finds be examined and safeguarded by an archeologist, First Financial Group Inc., which was building the office complex, hired Whitney-Desautels.

Originally, Whitney-Desautels and First Financial negotiated a fee of $10,000 to $20,000, but because the scope of the archeological work expanded as more and more artifacts and skeletons were unearthed, her excavations lasted almost eight months and the price eventually ballooned to $1.7 million.

First Financial balked, firing Whitney-Desautels after paying her about $600,000.

Although First Financial did not return phone calls for this article, the company’s vice president, Joel Shine, said at the time that the firm had gone beyond its legal requirements and refused to pay additional costs for the dig.

State law requires that real estate developers pay archeological excavation costs of up to .5% of the site’s construction budget, which First Financial followed.

But Whitney-Desautels contended that the developer had also agreed to pay additional expenses for the excavation and preservation of the artifacts and said that she had paid $350,000 of her own money to complete the work.

In June, 1987, she filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. However, saying she had a “moral duty” to complete the work, she continued to sort, catalogue and preserve the pieces in the Newport Beach warehouse owned by her company, Scientific Resource Surveys.

A month later, she filed a lawsuit against First Financial which sought more than $1 million in compensation for labor, storage, attorney’s fees and profits she maintained she would have earned if the developers had not breached their agreement with her.

Additionally, she placed a lien on the artifacts so First Financial could not get them.

Meanwhile, representatives of Native American groups were also squabbling. Gabrielenos, Chumash and Fernandenos all claimed the village as the ancient dwelling place of their ancestors.

Fernandeno leaders maintained that the settlement is in an area they had inhabited for centuries. Chumash representatives cited reports by two consulting archeologists that found evidence of Chumash-style burials in the village.

But Whitney-Desautels said the artifacts she found were clearly the work of the Gabrielenos. The state Native American Heritage Commission also declared that the village had probably been inhabited by Gabrielenos.

Under state law, Native American remains belong to the groups representing descendants of the dead, as nearly as those can be determined. So, with the state commission backing them, the Gabrielenos won the right to reinter the bones, choosing the Los Encinos park, only half a block from the excavation site. On April 15, 1985, the park was closed to everyone else at dawn so a delegation of Gabrielenos could rebury the bones in a secret grave, its location known only to them.

The wounds of that rift have not healed.

“My great-great-grandmother owned that land, so I ask how it can be Gabrieleno?” said Rudy Ortega, 67, of San Fernando, who claims to be hereditary chief of the Fernandenos.

The controversy reached Sacramento in 1985, when then-state Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys), introduced legislation to set aside $11 million to buy land and build a museum to house the artifacts. A portion of that appropriation would have also helped First Financial pay Whitney-Desautels’ fees.

But after state-hired archeologists concluded that the collection was insufficiently valuable to warrant its own museum, the bill stalled.

Robbins had to settle for a $195,000 appropriation to remodel the historic Garnier House in the Los Encinos park to house some of the artifacts.

Although Whitney-Desautels now says the museum at Los Encinos State Park will probably get only a selection of the artifacts, park manager Russell Kimura said he originally expected to receive as many pieces as Garnier House could hold.

“We thought that we would get most of the larger pieces here,” Kimura said. “I thought it had been arranged, but hopefully we can work something else out because this is something we’d like to be a part of.”

In 1990, when a $35-million office building was planned for land across the street from the Lost Village site, an unusual alliance of Native Americans and slow-growth suburbanites opposed it, arguing that the area could contain additional artifacts and human remains.

After the developers, Katell Capretta Partners of Gardena, paid for an archeological survey--which found no significant artifacts--the city gave them the go-ahead to build.

With that battle ended, and large building complexes now covering both the excavation on the southeastern corner of Balboa and Ventura Boulevards and the northeast corner as well, attention turned back to Whitney-Desautels.

Although she had settled her lawsuit with First Financial in 1989--dividing ownership of the artifacts between them--the pieces remained in her company’s warehouse, where they were still being catalogued.

It was not until this year that the work was completed.

While it is still unclear where the majority of the artifacts will be placed, many who have been involved in the protracted battle believe the displays at the two museums will focus attention on the people who inhabited the area long ago--and still do.

“A lot of people think that there aren’t Indians in the San Fernando Valley anymore,” said Ortega, the Fernandeno leader. “But I have 12 children, 69 grandchildren and either 44 or 49 great-grandchildren, and they all live in the San Fernando Valley. Maybe by displaying these artifacts, we will remind people that we have been here a long time and plan to stay here.”