Cuyama Valley- A Corridor to the Past
receives the 2016 Governor’s Historic Preservation Award

Far Western was awarded one of the coveted 2016 Governor’s Historic Preservation Awards for the Cuyama Valley – A Corridor to the Past project. The California Office of Historic Preservation chose the project as an exceptional example of historic preservation efforts on behalf of California’s cultural heritage. The project, directed by Far Western Project Manager and Principal Investigator Patricia Mikkelsen, was a collaborative effort among the Native Chumash community, the District 5 Central Coast Specialist Branch of the California Department of Transportation, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Foothill Resources, and Tiley Research.

Project Background

Excavation Cuyama

Excavation of the ethnographic village of Wenexe’l taken in 1970 by Crew Chief Al McCurdy. This impressive saucer-shaped depression was characterized by burned timbers, postholes, and hearth/pit features. Recovered artifacts from within the depression included flaked and ground stone tools, shell and stone beads, modified bone, bones, shell, and historic-period material such as glass beads and roof tiles. It dates to the Late Period-Historic-era, 600 cal BP–1806 AD.

Cuyama Valley – A Corridor to the Past showcases seven archaeological sites that underwent initial salvage excavations in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with final analysis nearly 40 years later.

The California Division of Highways (precursor to the California Department of Transportation [Caltrans]) carried out three highway realignment projects along State Route 166 in Cuyama Valley. As the project pre-dated the birth of modern Cultural Resources Management practices (i.e., funding was not set aside for analysis of cultural materials unearthed during infrastructure projects), the assemblage was never formally documented. As a result, the collection sat untouched in the UC Santa Barbara archives. Dr. Valerie Levulett, Chief of the Caltrans Central Coast Environmental Specialist Branch and one of the original archaeologists who participated in the salvage excavation work, submitted a Caltrans Transportation Enhancement grant proposal to address the long-delayed processing of these important collections. With the grant approved, Far Western, under a Caltrans cultural resources on-call contract, was tasked with the challenge of not only analyzing the collection, but recreating the excavation itself through numerous field and photograph logs, field notes, and maps. Far Western also reached out to others who were part of the original project, including Dr. Jeanne Binning, Al McCurdy, and Max Farrar, to help set the scene.

Prior to this endeavor, little was known about Cuyama Valley prehistory. Minimal formal archaeological work and few publications have focused on the valley—a corridor that once connected the prehistoric population centers of the Central Valley and Central Coast. The data compilation brought to light a wealth of information about the history and lifeways of the Native people of the region.

Far Western catalogued approximately 3,000 flaked and ground stone tools, including over 400 projectile points, and nearly 5,000 shell, stone, and glass beads and ornaments. These types of discoveries allow for an array of research opportunities and contributions to the archaeology, ethnography, and history of the region.

Archaeological Contributions

  • A graphic representation of local temporal indicators across time, as well as temporal charts of local projectile point and bead types
  • Identification of, and focus on, site-specific temporal components
  • Extensive original research and discussions on landscape evolution and geoarchaeological sensitivity, including a map of buried site potential in the Caltrans right-of-way in the Cuyama Valley
  • A detailed description and discussion of a fully exposed Chumash structure
  • Analysis of yucca-roasting ovens, including feature descriptions, plant identifications, and preparation methods and resulting archaeological evidence
  • A contribution to the ongoing debate on artiodactyl abundance
  • Patterns of technology, settlement, and social interactions.

 

Ethnographic Contributions

  • Estimates of non-mission populations in Cuyama Valley, and the effects of European-borne diseases, especially on children
  • Discussions and complex diagrams of social interactions between Cuyama Valley inhabitants and surrounding villages
  • Detailed kinship charts of Native individuals associated with Cuyama Valley villages
  • First-hand accounts from court dockets of Cuyama Valley Native Americans in the 1840s and 1850s
  • A focus on the concerns and activities of today’s Chumash who are carrying on the traditions and languages of their ancestors

 

Contributions to the History of the Region

  • A documented history of Cuyama Valley’s early settlement and land use, with special reference to the occupation of sites during the Spanish and Mexican periods in California
  • Evolution of transportation corridors through the valley
  • Development of adjacent road- and highway-related features that have encroached upon the seven Cuyama Valley sites.

 

Cuyama Exhibit

Far Western Art Director Tammara Norton worked closely with members of the Northern, Barbareño, and Ventureño Chumash tribes to create the displays depicted above for their use in educating the public about the unique prehistory of Cuyama Valley. Each tribe received a set of three portable exhibits designed to their specifications, for public outreach and education.

Public Outreach Efforts

The project produced four genres of public-oriented interpretive material designed in collaboration with individuals from the Northern, Barbareño, and Ventureño Chumash tribes for use in educating the public about the unique prehistory of Cuyama Valley—a booklet, exhibits, bookmarks, and tool replicas.

Far Western prepared a full-color, 70-page booklet, entitled The Long Road Traveled – Archaeology, Native Americans, and Europeans in Cuyama Valley, which discusses the Cuyama Valley project, the region’s prehistory and history, Chumash culture, and living descendants. It concludes with a short glossary of archaeological terms and suggestions for further reading. Caltrans printed 1,000 booklets and distributed them free to Native Americans, Cuyama Valley residents, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, and local libraries, museums, and schools.

 

 

 

The project could not have been accomplished without the following individuals:

Far Western

Pat Mikkelsen
Jack Meyer
Adrian Whitaker
Eric Wohlgemuth
Nathan Stevens
Deborah Jones
Molly Fogarty Starr
Tammara Norton
Elizabeth Honeysett
Laura Harold
Jill Eubanks

Foothill Resources

Julia Costello

Caltrans

Valerie Levulett
Jeannine Binning
Krista Kiaha
Paula Carr
Ed Schefter
Terry Joslin
Rochelle Vierra

Tiley Research

Michelle Tiley

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

John Johnson

Other Individuals

Robert Gibson
Kenneth Gobalet
Gregory White
Emma Britton
Ronald Bishop
Richard Hughes
Chester King
Jeff Parsons
Thomas Origer

Archaeobotanical Analysis

Charred Plant Remains Identification

Far Western employs a team of archaeobotanists who specialize in the recovery and identification of charred plant remains from archaeological sites. Archaeobotanical findings are integrated into Far Western excavation reports to address project-specific and regional research issues. In conjunction with remains of terrestrial animals and birds, fish, and shellfish, plant remains can help investigate prehistoric and historic-era use of food resources, changes in use of native foods across time and space, and reconstructing past environments and their changing patterns as landscapes evolved. Far Western also studies variability in fuel use through wood charcoal identification, working with Paleoscapes Archaeobotanical Services Team of Bailey, Colorado.

Far Western’s archaeobotany lab features flotation equipment and personnel capable of processing hundreds of archaeological sediment samples. Archaeological plant remains are identified with the aid of a reference collection of more than 500 seed, fruit, root, and wood samples from California and Nevada. Far Western has three binocular microscopes with capacity ranging from 7–70 magnifications, including digital image capture capability, and a digital scale with resolution to 0.1 milligram for weighing wood charcoal, nutshell, and berry pit fragments. Archaeobotanical data are entered into a relational database with quantitative and qualitative data on more than 2,400 flotation samples from cismontane California and hundreds of samples from the Great Basin and Mojave Desert.

Far Western’s archaeobotanists have worked with plant remains in California and Nevada since 1981. Archaeobotany lab director Dr. Eric Wohlgemuth has more than 30 years of experience in the field, and has written more than 100 reports on the subject, including several peer-reviewed publications on California plant remains. His research interests in California archaeobotany involve the evolution of and geographical variation in hunter-gatherer intensive plant use in California. Assistant Archaeobotanist Angela Arpaia, BA, also has many years of experience in identifying plant remains from California and Nevada, and she has presented scholarly papers on ancient California plant use.

Starch Grain Analysis

Starch grain analysis is an archaeobotanical research method long-used internationally, but still growing as a method used in California archaeology. Far Western’s Justin Wisely specializes in extracting starch grain residue using a non-destructive process with distilled water and a sonic cleansing technique, that can be used both in the lab and in the field. Wisely extracts samples to analyze under a microscope, working within a magnification range of 100x-1000x, and identifications are made based on Far Western’s ethnographically informed reference collection. Starch grain investigations can be conducted on a variety of artifacts and features, such as portable ground stone, flaked-stone, or bedrock milling features.

FW Geoarchaeologists Help Map San Francisco Bay Area Prehistory

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Cores in the Far Western Geoarchaeology Lab.

Cores upon cores fill the shelves of the Far Western Geoarchaeology Lab in Davis. These long tubes of “dirt” tell us a lot about prehistoric landscape evolution, and thus can help determine whether or not a location might have potential for archaeological findings. In most situations, backhoe trenching is the most effective way to identify sites. When backhoe trenching is not possible, in urban areas for example, or when the potential depth for a site exceeds the range of mechanical excavation, we conduct hydraulic continuous-core sampling to identify sites.

Coring in San Francisco.

Coring in San Francisco.

 

 

When archaeologists dig through the layers of earth carefully, the different soils and buried surfaces can be visually seen. Cores do the same thing, like inserting a straw into a layer cake, sometimes reaching 65 feet below surface. Each four-foot section of the core is pulled up in two-inch-diameter plastic liners, brought to the lab, sliced down the center, and splayed open to reveal the stratigraphic layers.

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OSL samples from cores.

Dating the layers can be done in a couple of ways. Most often, radiocarbon dating is used to get close estimates of how old plant, bone, or shell is in a certain layer, or when now buried surfaces were exposed at the surface. Other times, however, there is not enough organic matter to be sampled. In those cases, Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating can be used. OSL samples must be removed from their original location in complete darkness, and kept in the dark until tested to provide accurate dates. The dates for each layer let geoarchaeologists map similar types of strata throughout a particular location. This helps archaeologists figure out where sites might be buried.

Schematic Cross Section of Study Area in San Francisco.

Schematic Cross Section of Study Area in San Francisco.

 

Recently opened core exposing artificial fill at the surface (~1.5–2.4 meters below surface), underlain by recent alluvium (~2.5–3.5 meters below surface), and followed in turn by a dense prehistoric shell midden (~3.5–5.5 meters below surface) formed on a Pleistocene-age sand dune (starting ~5.5 meters below surface).

Recently opened core exposing artificial fill at the surface (~1.5–2.4 meters below surface), underlain by recent alluvium (~2.5–3.5 meters below surface), and followed in turn by a dense prehistoric shell midden (~3.5–5.5 meters below surface) formed on a Pleistocene-age sand dune (starting ~5.5 meters below surface).

 

 

 

Once buried land surfaces are identified in the cores, they can be sampled to not only determine their age and whether they contain archaeological materials, but also tested to see what types of small seeds, pollen, or other diagnostic material. This can be used to reconstruct the type of landscape that was present when that layer was at or near the surface.

Currently, Far Western Geoarchaeologists are using cores to map the potential for intact buried land surfaces below the historic-era extent of the San Francisco Bay. As ocean levels have risen, they have covered up landforms where people once lived. Recent findings indicate that we may be able to quite accurately map where some people lived for long periods of time, and perhaps returned over and over again generations later.

For interested archaeologists and non-archaeologists alike, we suggest reading: Waters, Michael R.,1992, Principles of Geoarchaeology: A North American Perspective. The University of Arizona Press.

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