When archeologist John Foster started peeling the asphalt from a parking lot in downtown Ventura, he knew he wouldn’t have to dig deep to find a cache of long-buried relics.
He just didn’t realize how many he’d find and from how many different eras.
“It was layer upon layer,” he said this week as he surveyed the emerging foundations of a long-buried, 3-foot-thick mission wall, a span of 200-year-old terra cotta floor tiles laid by Chumash laborers, and a channel fashioned from inverted roof tiles that irrigated a long-dead garden.
Digging down 5 feet, Foster and his crew have found shell beads, a stone bowl used for mixing pigment and lots of cattle bones — leftovers from the tanning and tallow-rendering that brought cash into Mission San Buenaventura. They’ve also plucked out empty champagne and wine bottles, shards of porcelain dishes and gas lamps from the elegant hotel that occupied the site after Ventura became a bustling commercial center in the 1880s.
The corner lot, bounded by a thrift store and a French restaurant, is in a neighborhood rich with history. It’s just a block from the mission church founded by Junipero Serra in 1782. Nearby excavations have uncovered a museum’s worth of artifacts, from a centuries-old lavanderia — laundry — to remains of the Chumash tribe, which was nearly wiped out by European diseases.
But it’s been years since the last big discovery — and even in a downtown that likes to call itself “historic,” there’s no consensus about what to do with the history that’s underfoot.
Plans for the half-acre site have been controversial in the past. When the current owners bought it in 2005, an activist threatened a “preservation jihad” if it were developed. And many Venturans came unglued in 2010 when the owners booted out the Top Hat, a much-loved hamburger shack that, after 63 years on the lot, some regarded as historic.
No project is currently planned for the site. A proposal for condos with underground parking was scuttled by the recession. The owner — a company called Downtown Ventura Properties III — brought in Foster for the archeological studies that would be required for any building on the site.
“We don’t want to come in with a whole set of plans and start digging only to run into all kinds of problems,” said one of the company’s managers, Charlie Watling. “We want to know precisely what’s there.”
About half of the site is laced with two centuries of artifacts. Here, a rectangle of charred soil might indicate a fire pit where huge cauldrons of tallow were set aboil. There, a cement slab supported the kitchen of the old 100-room Anacapa Hotel, a luxury destination that had all the finest amenities, including at least six baths.
But each discovery prompts new questions: Was the mission’s sturdy outer wall built in response to a Chumash uprising in 1824? Will pollen beneath the floor tiles tell researchers what crops were grown in the early 1800s? Will deer bones emerge, indicating that some of the Chumash laborers had more freedom than others and were allowed beyond the mission to hunt?
“This is like a rare document,” Foster said. “The Indians had their culture taken away from them and this is one way of telling that story.”
Buoyed by the findings, preservationists have begun dreaming of a park that could be the heart and soul of a reinvigorated archeological district as well as a major draw for tourists.
“We think this site is of unique academic and educational value,” said Steve Cummings, president of a group called San Buenaventura Heritage. Cummings still hands out the 2005 letter to the Ventura County Star in which he predicted a tide of lawsuits “if someone so much as contemplates building a sand castle with Dixie cups on the site, let alone a real building with heavy-duty equipment.”
The owners have other thoughts.
The half-acre property is for sale, listed at $2.75 million — an optimistic price, according to people familiar with the area. But Watling said a hotel has expressed interest in it.
Despite the recent finds, he said, something attractive could be built there.
“I don’t think that what’s below the surface should hold up bringing vitality to downtown Ventura,” he said.
Ventura Mayor Bill Fulton said a project could be carefully crafted to preserve the historic value of sensitive sites.
An urban planning author and publisher, he pointed to spots in Ventura where he said developers have built around history. At the mission, Holy Cross School was built on caissons to minimize disturbances of the artifacts underneath it. At a downtown restaurant called Jonathan’s at Peirano’s, a lavanderia structure is preserved beneath the building, encased in sand.
“Just because they’re finding stuff in the ground doesn’t mean you can’t build over it,” Fulton said. “It’s a matter of documenting and then preserving the stuff that’s down there.”
Archeologists said their work will be done in several weeks. Gravel will be layered over the fenced-off site to protect it.