So Much History, So Little Space

The operators of Orange County toll roads deserve credit for accomplishing what the county seems unable to do: displaying buried treasures from the past.

The Transportation Corridor Agencies has put on display in the Old Courthouse Museum in Santa Ana some of the thousands of prehistoric animal bones uncovered during construction of a toll road.

Workers started discovering the artifacts six years ago when they began building the 15-mile San Joaquin Hills toll road, connecting Newport Beach and San Juan Capistrano. County paleontologists said the find was of major scientific importance.

But because the county lacks facilities to display the bones of ancient whales, mastodons, dolphins and other mammals, the TCA staff last year recommended giving at least some of the bones to UC Riverside.

The TCA board rejected the suggestion, but it was not that easy a call. The San Joaquin Hills specimens have been stored at the offices of a paleontological consultant in Irvine. Other bones found during excavation for the Eastern/Foothill Transportation Corridor are in a Quonset hut on TCA property in South County.

Not only do temporary storage spaces like that run out of room in a hurry, but scientists say the bones that are not studied by experts in the field aren't worth much.

Orange County is unlikely to offer display space for the bones, aside from the courthouse exhibit. After all, the county has stuffed a warehouse in Santa Ana to the walls with artifacts excavated during development.

Some fossils have been left in a parking lot, wrapped in cracked plaster jackets, for lack of room.

Attempts to create a nonprofit natural history foundation to display the bones collapsed several years ago.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer said he has talked to Cal State Fullerton about the possibility of displaying some bones there. That would have the benefit of bringing academic expertise to bear on important parts of the county's history, while letting residents learn what was here before the malls and housing tracts. The bones help bring the past alive and fire the imagination. They are too important to be left out of sight and out of mind.

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