A pile of dirt on the parking lot across from Spenger’s in February, where the archeological dig happened. Photo: Emilie Raguso

After months of poking, prodding, sifting and examining soil, an archeological dig beneath the parking lot across from Spenger’s restaurant on Fourth Street found no evidence it had ever been home to a Native American shellmound.

The findings that the site was not historically important means the owners will seek to develop it.

“Investigators found no historically significant remnants of the West Berkeley Shellmound within the parking lot grounds and have concluded to near certainty that none exist within the property,” says a report on the findings by archeologist Allen Pastron and his team from Archeo-Tec Inc., an Oakland-based firm. The dig team included an Ohlone Indian observer, Andrew Galvan.

Read the 1900 Fourth St. archeological project website here.

“It is the sincere hope of the researchers and sponsors of this study that the findings and conclusions advance general understanding of the history of the site and its surroundings, and contribute to fact-based land-use decisions and policy-making going forward.”

The sponsors of the study were property owner Dana Ellsworth and her family firm, Ruegg and Ellsworth, a real estate group that co-owns the parking lot with the Spenger family. Ellsworth’s father, Robert Ellsworth, a Berkeley native, is co-owner of Ruegg and Ellsworth. Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto was sold years ago.

The West Berkeley Mound. (date unknown). Photo courtesy of the Nels Nelson Archive, American Museum of Natural History/UC Berkeley.

The property owners have long challenged the assertion that the lot was home to the well-documented Berkeley shellmound. While the owners don’t deny the mound existed or that the area was home to Ohlone activity, they’ve argued that the actual mound, once a hill-sized midden of shells, bones, tools and even skeletons, lay west of their property. The actual area of the shellmound is covered now by railroad tracks and freeway, said Ellsworth.

After contentious debate, the city of Berkeley in 2000 designated the parking lot a landmark known as the West Berkeley Shellmound. That status prohibited development without approval from the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission, an added step to the usual development process. It’s also a state registered archeological site of prehistoric significance.

The site is bordered by Fourth Street, Hearst Avenue, University Avenue, and the railroad tracks east of Interstate 80.

Historical records place the mound alongside Strawberry Creek, which once meandered freely to the bay near what today is Hearst Street and Interstate 80. But its exact boundaries have been hotly and litigiously debated, with the initial area proposed for landmarking larger than the parking lot.

“I really just did not expect to find anything,” said Ellsworth of the recent results, explaining she’s personally done extensive historical research. “I would have been surprised to [find] something. It was time to find out: Let’s know, let’s go take a look. Let’s find out in the most appropriate way.”

Archeologists from Archeo-Tec of Oakland excavated a site at 1900 Fourth St. in the winter of 2014 to look for evidence of the Berkeley shellmound’s existence. Photo: Archeo-Tec
Archeologists from Archeo-Tec of Oakland excavated a site at 1900 Fourth St. in the winter of 2014 to look for evidence of the Berkeley shellmound’s existence. Photo: Archeo-Tec
Allen Pastron, the archeologist who oversaw the dig, at the site. Photo: Archeo-Tec

The recent archeological examination, which began earlier this year, found “no intact shellmound, only secondary material moved to its location, most likely by 20th century excavation and redistribution as agricultural soil enhancement or road-base-fill associated with industrial development of the area,” the report said.

Archeologists uncovered signs of late 19th and early 20th century activity including glassware, ceramic and brick, but “no cultural artifacts or materials of definitive pre-contact origin.”

Ellsworth said she has shared the results with members of the city’s preservation commission. Berkeleyside reached out to the commission for comment and hasn’t heard back yet.

The property owners, who have tried to develop the site in the past, will try again, with more confidence the landmark status won’t be a prohibitive obstacle, Ellsworth said.

“It looks like some sort of development will be possible. In the past there was a lot of conjuncture (about the exact location of the mound); now we have more information,” she said. The archeological report recommends that any construction digging below 4 feet, “the historic fill layer,” be monitored by an archeologist and Ohlone observer.

Ellsworth said they’ll look at the kinds of projects being built in the area to guide their plans.

“If we had found something there, what a wonderful discovery to help contribute to the research of the shellmound. But I didn’t expect to.”

Read more about local shellmounds, and view historical maps, on the Indian People Organizing for Change website. Explore the 1900 Fourth St. archeological project website here.

A dig in a Berkeley parking lot seeks shellmound answers (02.03.14)

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.

Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years, and also happens to live in Berkeley, near downtown. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from...