It's not unusual in Los Angeles for construction crews to find buried remains, but it is surprising to find a cemetery.
Under a half-acre lot of dirt and mud being transformed into a garden and public space for a cultural center celebrating the Mexican American heritage of Los Angeles, construction workers and scientists have found bodies buried in the first cemetery of Los Angeles — bodies believed to have been removed and reinterred elsewhere in the 1800s.
Since late October, the fragile bones of dozens of Los Angeles settlers have been discovered under what will be the outdoor space of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes downtown near Olvera Street. According to archaeologists and the chief executive of La Plaza, they appear to be remains from the Campo Santo, or cemetery, connected to the historic Catholic church Our Lady Queen of Angels, commonly called La Placita. The remains are just south of the church.
Pieces of decaying wood coffins as well as religious artifacts such as rosary beads and medals have also been unearthed.
The cemetery, which officially closed in 1844, was the final resting place of a melting pot of early Los Angeles — Native Americans; Spanish, Mexican, European settlers; and their intermarried offspring. But the repercussions of the discovery outside La Placita have been anything but peaceful.
A chorus of archaeologists, Native American community advocates and possible descendants of the people buried in the cemetery have criticized the methods and speed of the excavation, and questioned whether it should be continuing at all. The cultural center, including the outdoor space now under construction, is set to open with a gala on April 9 honoring La Plaza founder and Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina.
Miguel Angel Corzo, the chief executive of La Plaza, says he and his staff have acted legally and observed meticulous archaeological protocol since construction workers first chanced upon a piece of an arm, a triangle of a skull and a jaw in late October. "The moment that happened we called the coroner's office," Corzo said.
A private firm hired to oversee the archaeological excavation has its staff "digging with toothpicks and little brushes," he said.
Rene Vellanoweth, chairman of the department of anthropology at Cal State L.A., toured the site last week and found scientific workers proceeding carefully. "In this case, the bones are deteriorated and in poor condition. They need to be studied in place as much as they can," he said.
Once remains are unearthed, they are stored securely offsite, according to two archaeologists familiar with the work.
Corzo said La Plaza notified Los Angeles Archdiocese officials of the discovery, and were told to proceed. "We would turn over the remains to the church and the church would rebury them," he said.
But Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said Sunday, "We had no idea of the extent of remains that have been found to date." Tamberg said that when La Plaza officials contacted the church's cemetery office, "we asked, 'What were the nature of these remains?' The response was 'We only found these few little fragments.' Once the excavators began to realize they were digging up more than a few remains, that should have caused them to stop immediately and notify their own superiors."
The original Catholic cemetery on that site, as far as the archdiocese's records indicate, was not simply closed in 1844 — it was relocated. "We removed the bodies," Tamberg said. "It's a huge distinction." Tamberg said there is no documentation on where the remains went or why bones are there now.
Spokeswoman Katie Dunham said Sunday evening that La Plaza officials made it clear to the archdiocese that they had found multiple human remains.
Corzo said he also contacted the Native American Heritage Commission when workers turned up an artifact that might have been Native American. "They asked some questions and said, 'you can proceed,' " Corzo said.
The commission has since questioned the excavation in a letter to the coroner's office.
Wendy Teeter, curator of archaeology at UCLA's Fowler Museum, said continuing the excavation does not comply with California health code law on cemeteries. Teeter says project officials should have combed records and placed public ads in an effort to find descendants. "They haven't notified next of kin that they are planning to move the cemetery, where they are taking care of the remains, what's the process of how they will be examined. Really basic things," she said.
Tamberg said the archdiocese has no records of who was buried in the original cemetery. But some archaeologists concerned about the construction said they easily found records in historical collections. They brought them to a Sunday morning vigil outside the excavation site.
A small crowd — some claiming to have Native American and Spanish ancestors in the first cemetery — gathered on Main Street where a chain-link fence cordons off the construction site. The smell of burning sage wafted through the cool morning air as people placed an altar of shells, oranges and flowers on the sidewalk. Tiny cloth bags of tobacco, tied with yarn, dotted the links of the fence — offerings to the dead.
Irene Sepulveda Hastings, 80, said she had five Sepulveda relatives buried there. Unless the remains are moved to another historic cemetery, she said, "I'd like them to remain and have a marker put here."
Critics of the excavation see an irony: The remains appear to be those people from whom the city took its heritage. "They're desecrating and destroying the cemetery to put in a fountain monument to honor the history and culture of Mexican Americans," said Cindi Alvitre, director of the Ti'at Society, a local Native American group. "I don't get it."