An archeological dig is currently underway in the parking lot of Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto on Berkeley’s Fourth Street. Photo: Emilie Raguso
An archeological dig is currently underway in the parking lot of Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto on Berkeley’s Fourth Street. Photo: Emilie Raguso

So what’s lurking behind the recently erected wire fence around the Spenger’s parking lot, on Berkeley’s Fourth Street?

That’s precisely what the property owners are trying to find out with an archeological dig. And not for the first time.

“My hope is to clarify what cultural resources might exist so we can make the best decision on the use of the property from the standpoint of all concerned,” said Dana Ellsworth, whose family business, Ruegg and Ellsworth, co-owns the lot with a Spenger’s family entity. (They don’t own Spenger’s restaurant.)

A pile of dirt on the parking lot across from Spenger’s on Sunday, where the archeological dig is happening. Photo: Emilie Raguso
A pile of dirt on the parking lot across from Spenger’s on Sunday, where the archeological dig is happening. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Ellsworth is a broker with CLI Real Estate, of which Ruegg and Ellsworth is a principal client. Her father, Robert Ellsworth, a Berkeley native, is co-owner of both companies.

The lot is a designated city of Berkeley landmark as the West Berkeley Shellmound, a status made in 2000. The landmarked parcel, the entire parking lot, is bordered by Fourth Street, Hearst Avenue, University Avenue and the railroad tracks running east of Interstate 80.

The shellmound, identified through years of historical and archeological investigation dating back to the turn of the 20th century, was once a hill-sized pile of shells, bones, tools, soil and even skeletons, created by thousands of years of use by the Ohlone Indians. It’s a state registered archeological site of prehistoric significance.

Long-flattened by decades of development, and now covered by roads, railroad tracks and parking lots, the shellmound’s modern history is marked by impassioned controversy, with widely differing views on the accuracy and appropriateness of the city’s landmark designation.

(For a flavor of the debates, take a look at this discourse page from the website of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA), a proponent of the landmarking.)

The designation, adopted by the City Council after a recommendation by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, requires property owners to get the commission’s approval for most new development on a landmarked site — an added step beyond the city’s usual development process. (See Berkeley Municipal Code 3.24.200.)

The large size and number of shell mounds found in the Bay Area - this one is called the West Berkeley Mound - suggest a fairly large population of native Californians were living along the shore at least 5,000 years ago; early 20th century UC Berkeley archaeologists Nels Nelson and Max Uhle identified more than 425 ancient mounds. Photo courtesy of the Nels Nelson Archive, American Museum of Natural History/UC Berkeley
The West Berkeley Mound. (date unknown). Photo courtesy of the Nels Nelson Archive, American Museum of Natural History/UC Berkeley.

No one debates the existence of the shellmound, one of hundreds around the San Francisco Bay, where Ohlones settled near creeks, subsisting in part on the bay’s wealth of shellfish, and discarding the shells and other left-overs of daily life in piles that grew substantially through the centuries. The mounds also served as burial sites.

West Berkeley’s mound is believed to have been one of the largest in the region, reportedly reaching a height of 30 feet, and encompasses an area of 300 feet by 100 feet along Strawberry Creek. A UC Berkeley archeological investigation of the site in the mid-1950s identified 3,500 artifacts and 95 skeletons from the mound.

What is debated, however, testily and hotly and litigiously through the years, are the precise dimensions of the shellmound, its boundaries, which has relevance to property owners who are interested in their above-ground development options. The initial area proposed for landmarking was larger than the parking lot.

“We’ve always thought, quite frankly, we were not the site of the shellmound,” said Ellsworth, whose family tried to develop part of the lot in 2000, pulling back when they felt city requirements such as for parking weren’t financially feasible.

“It was obviously nearby. The Indians were there, they were right in the neighborhood, but whether or not they were settled on our land… We feel at this point let’s find out what’s there or not; and should it be landmarked,” she said.

And so, what you might see behind the recent fence around the Spenger’s parking lot are archeologists, poking around under the surface. For Ellsworth, this is a back-to-the-drawing-board, or back-to-the-Berkeley-soils, investigation.

Ellsworth hired the same archeological consultants, Oakland based-Archeo-Tec, led by Allen G. Pastron, to test the site in 1999, during the landmarking discussions. At that time, the scientists found a couple of spots with shellmound or midden evidence. Ellsworth is now seeking to learn more about the extent of the historical material, especially its eastern edge.

An early 20th-century historical map shows the sites of shellmounds in the San Francisco Bay Area. Source: FiveCreeks.org

“Dr. Pastron characterizes the larger midden deposit near the center of the property as ‘thin, scattered lenses of shell deposit, possibly secondary deposit from the Berkeley Shellmound, possibly when it was moved and scattered around the mid 20th century,” Ellsworth said.

The smaller area, which is near the corner of Hearst and the railroad tracks, he would characterize as “‘thicker, may be a primary deposit, possibly indicating the Eastern edge of the shellmound,’” she added.

The testing is being conducted with the highest ethical standards, Ellsworth said. An Ohlone observer is watching the work. “We need to be sensitive and respectful of that history,” she said.

Councilwoman Linda Maio, whose district includes West Berkeley, said she doesn’t know details about the recent effort, but that “the dig is a great move. We should all know what is there.”

Why now? Ellsworth is clear that her family is interested in developing the site for more use than a parking lot. But she says she doesn’t have any set ideas or plans. The best starting place, she said, is to look underground, a little more thoroughly than in the past.

She adds that anyone walking past the site today would have no sense of its prehistory. “The parking lot as it stands does not indicate anything to visitors about the history of the area.”

Read more about local shellmounds, and view historical maps, on the Indian People Organizing for Change website.

For details and images of many of the new building projects underway in Berkeley, check out Berkeleyside’s recent real estate articles.

Follow Berkeleyside on Twitter and Facebook. Email us at tips@berkeleyside.com. Get the latest Berkeley news in your inbox with Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing.

"*" indicates required fields

See an error that needs correcting? Have a tip, question or suggestion? Drop us a line.

Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...