Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
Archaeologist Alex Kirkish at his District 7 digs.

Dishing the Dirt with Caltrans Archaeologists
by  Judy Gish
Issue Date: 06/2010

District 7's Cultural Affairs Office observes, conserves and preserves valuable historical resources.

[Click on photos to read captions]

Basic to every project, before design, funding, and construction, is one common element: dirt.

For the most part, that dirt is benign and free of significant history. Most project sites can be evaluated on a map or a brief site visit, said Caltrans Archaeologist Alex Kirkish of the District 7 Environmental Division Cultural Affairs Office. But some others require more investigation to determine if the dirt contains archaeological artifacts.

The first phase of any investigation is identification of resources, then evaluation to determine significance. If significant, the investigation would then go to the mitigation phase (“what we call data recovery”), Kirkish said. “We go out there and get it out of harm’s way, digging it up systematically so we can actually reconstruct it on paper.”

Although significant finds occur rarely, they do occur. And, should they find, say, human remains, the next step in that case would be to call the coroner, who would determine if the remains belonged to a murder victim or Native American. “If it’s Native American, it’s our bailiwick,” Kirkish said.

In addition to Kirkish, who is a principal investigator, the two other district archaeologists are Branch Chief Gary Iverson and Lead Surveyor Michelle Goossens. If a project area hasn’t been surveyed, Kirkish and other Cultural Affairs staff go out to the field to survey it. If they find significant sites, they make a recommendation to either avoid the site or mitigate it. Every step is dictated by a protocol that involves interagency review.

“We’re not here flying by the seat of our pants,” Kirkish said. “We have to coordinate with Headquarters, the Federal Highway Administration or the State Historical Preservation Office. There has to be a consensus before we do anything major.”

Although it is unusual to find a significant site, it does happen. One such site was off Highway 138 in Llano, where remnants of an experimental socialist community from the early 1900s were discovered (See Inside 7 Archives 3/2007).

A surprising discovery was made last November on a permit project off the Ventura Freeway (U.S. 101) in Oxnard. Bones were found, which the coroner identified as Native American. At that point, protocol dictated that a Most Likely Descendent be contacted. A Native American consultant met Kirkish at the site, where it was recommended that everything be left as is. They put burlap slurry (a jelly-like material of jute and ground rock) over the buried remains and then a slurry seal on top to preserve the site from further disturbance.

The consultant’s team spent nearly four months sifting through the spoils (removed dirt), while the project, a residential development, was put on hold. Kirkish went out again with Branch Chief Gary Iverson and determined that a minimum of one other person had been buried there. Before the area was covered by long-standing development, “it was possibly a major site with a cemetery,” Kirkish said.

Sometimes, they think they might be onto something that does not pan out, "but that is okay since negative findings mean that there will be no impact to sensitive cultural resources," Kirkish said. One such project is on the Simi Valley Freeway (VEN 118) in Somis (near Camarillo), where Caltrans is planning to modify the intersection of VEN 118 and Lewis Road (SR-34). Archaeological surveys are part of the environmental process. In this case, initial testing of a 30-foot by 50-foot section revealed a “subsurface component,” Kirkish said.

What they found were marine shell remains one and a half feet below the surface, indicating the possible presence of buried archaeological material. The findings triggered another excavation roughly five months later. “We needed to go out and dig bigger holes, which would give us more data to determine whether or not this site was significant,” he said.

Fieldwork concluded on March 29 with a finding that the site was not significant. “No significant (a measure of quantity) cultural material (flakes, or thin, flat slivers of stone made by Native Americans, shell fragment, bone, etc.) was found,” Kirkish said. “The project is free to proceed in regard to cultural resource concerns.”

Kirkish and his team have also managed to save sites from inadvertent damage or destruction. Recently, a very significant archaeological site located along SR-1 was protected from impending development by instituting measures which would steer the construction away from the site. "It is all part of the job," he said "In addition to planners, we are also conservationists."

Recognizing the importance of studying the past, Caltrans is in the forefront of archaeological research. In fact, the Department recently received the Mark Harrington Award for Conservation Archaeology. The award recognizes contributions to site preservation and public archaeology and honored Caltrans for 50 years of cultural resources work. 

Lead Surveyor Michelle Goossens working at the Somis site along with Associate Environmental Planner Noah Stewart (seated). Environmental Division Cultural Affairs Office Branch Chief Gary Iverson (L) and Alex Kirkish look at bottles from the early 1900s, found when the District Office Building was being excavated. Kirkish displays a projectile point recovered at another site. A closer look at one of the historic bottles discovered during building excavation.