Archaeologists dig up history before water covers it

March 14, 1994|By Orange County Register

DOMENIGONI VALLEY, Calif. -- John Foster stood at the site of the 19th-century homestead of Angelo Domenigoni, the Italian-Swiss namesake of this scenic hollow destined to become Southern California's largest reservoir.

Nearby, a half-dozen people dug into ground where Angelo's outhouse once stood.

"Most privies had about a 10-year life, at the end of which they were filled with trash," Mr. Foster, an archaeologist, said. "By looking at that, we can tell what people ate and drank, what medicines they took, all kinds of personal things about their lives."

A mile away, fellow archaeologist Melinda Romano scratched her fingers through dirt that left them smudged and greasy.

"We call this culturally altered soil," she said, holding up a hand covered with remnants of burned bone and animal fat, the residue of a native American culture dating back thousands of years.

Just as the two cultures they study are intertwined, so are the tasks facing Mr. Foster and Ms. Romano: tracing the valley's past before it is covered by water. By the turn of the century, the new lake will help supply the water needs of Orange and five other Southern California counties.

Working under the mandate of state law, Mr. Foster and Ms. Romano head separate teams of archaeologists digging at the site of what will be the Domenigoni Valley Reservoir, the Metropolitan Water District's largest water-storage facility.

When completed in 1999 at a cost of $1.8 billion, the reservoir northeast of Temecula will nearly double the district's capacity to quench the collective thirst of 15 million customers.

The lake will cover 4,500 acres of valley floor and hillsides that in recent years have been occupied by dairy farms and chicken ranches, mobile homes and sprawling retirement homesteads.

It is land once inhabited by European, Mexican and Midwestern settlers, and before them the Luiseno and Cahuilla Indians.

But the past year has yielded more than just a glimpse of ancient life here. The massive archaeological investigation -- which TC encompasses the 4,500-acre lake site and an additional 7,500 acres of land surrounding it -- has unearthed a variety of finds, ranging from ice-age fossils to turn-of-the-century harvesters.

Included are bones and other parts of large mammals such as elephants, bison, mastodons, camels and "an extinct zebra-like horse," said Kathleen Springer, a paleontologist at the San Bernardino County (Calif.) Museum.

Scientists have not yet determined the age of most of the fossils, which have been moved to the museum for carbon-dating. However, it is known that bison were not present in North America until about 200,000 years ago, Springer said, so those bones provide "at least a starting point" for paleontologists.

Human remains at the reservoir site indicate that people occupied the valley at least 4,000 years ago and perhaps 4,000 years earlier than that.

Among the more interesting finds are beads, seashells and pieces of obsidian, a dark volcanic glass imported into the valley from the desert for toolmaking. All those objects are indications of trade with outsiders and travel beyond the valley, Ms. Romano said.

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