Workers Unearth the Unexplained


Veteran archeologist Frank McDowell arrived at Arco’s Carson refinery in mid-September, ready to begin a routine excavation of a recently discovered Indian burial site.

Instead, he found a mystery.

In one of Southern California’s most unusual--and possibly most significant--archeological finds is evidence of a human cataclysm that wiped out at least 50 Gabrielinos, including two unborn children, probably about 200 years ago.

Some of the skeletal remains bear witness to violent ends--ribs snapped from a sternum, front teeth bashed from a skull, forearm bones with hands sliced off.


Workers unearthed the skeleton of one woman with her hands in front of her face, as if she had died trying to ward off blows. Another skeleton appeared to have been bent backward so violently that the spine snapped and the head ended up near the pelvis.

“As we began excavating, it became apparent something big was going on here. This was beyond being just a burial ground. These people met sudden, very violent deaths,” McDowell said Thursday as he and members of his crew continued to sift through their findings.

While some of the bodies had been buried with obvious care, others appeared to have been thrown into graves in great haste. There was evidence of some quick--and futile--attempts at cremation. There were no signs of the usual implements meant to help the departed in the next life, no fishing equipment, no grain bowls.

Working closely with the state Native American Heritage Commission, McDowell has been unearthing burial grounds and villages of California’s early inhabitants since he went on his first dig, in 1967, as a freshman anthropology student at Los Angeles Valley College.

But he had never seen anything like this.

“I bring other archeologists out here, and they can’t believe it,” McDowell said. “Nobody’s seen anything like it.”

The mystery began Sept. 3, when workers draining water from a construction site trench at the eastern edge of the refinery found a skull and several bones. Arco officials called the sheriff’s office, which in turn brought in the county coroner. They concluded the bones, quite old, had belonged to five humans and said the site had probably been an Indian burial ground. Arco notified the Native American Heritage Commission, as required by law whenever indigenous remains are found at a construction site.


Arco hired McDowell’s Temecula-based Solstice Archeological Consulting, whose work is being supervised by Gabrielino Sam Dunlap on behalf of his probable ancestors. The refinery turned over to archeologists two rooms in its administration building.

The rooms contain some of the recently retrieved items, awaiting analysis. Large white cardboard file boxes, piled atop desks along one wall, each hold a skeleton. They are numbered and labeled “done” and are set aside for Gabrielino-supervised reburial on a grassy, tree-shaded spot outside the administration building, not far from where the bones were found.

Archeologists started work Sept. 12, moving all the material into bins for sorting so Arco could complete its construction project. The dig continues at a remote section of the refinery, where McDowell’s crew sift through shovelfuls of dirt from a large, plastic-covered mound, all that is left from the original excavation.

Meanwhile, word has spread about the find not only through archeological circles but also to local schools. Arco employees began bringing their children to observe the work, and they told their teachers, several of whom have brought their classes on field trips.

It is a rare opportunity to see a part of California history firsthand.

McDowell expects the work to take six to eight weeks more. When it is completed, he will put his findings into a detailed report, copies of which will be printed by Arco.

One young archeologist, methodically working with a wood-framed screen sifter on Thursday, produced the results of six hours of labor--a half-filled plastic bag holding shells, a tooth and some bone fragments.

Workers also have found glass beads from Venice, evidence that the Gabrielinos, who may have been from the nearby Suanga village, had had contact with the Spanish or other European explorers. There were 5,000 to 10,000 Gabrielinos living in what are now Los Angeles and Orange counties when the Spaniards arrived in the 1700s.

The workers also found some Indian artifacts--basketry, beads and part of a burial mat.

But they have found no signs that the Indians who left them had been converted to Christianity, although there were missions in the area at the time these Gabrielinos are believed to have lived. Tests to more precisely determine the age of the skeletons will be completed later.

Nor have the archeologists found clues to how the Indians were killed. McDowell said his crew has unearthed no signs that they were attacked by Europeans--no evidence of sword wounds, for example, and no signs of musket balls.

“It was clearly violence by humans, but one of the unanswered questions is who they were,” McDowell said. “We may never know all the answers, but we are sure trying.”