Berkeley Landmarks :: The Shellmound

The shellmound: more than a parking lot

Letters to the editor

Southern wall of the Emeryville Shellmound being leveled to build
a paint factory (photo: W.E. Schenck & L.L. Loud, 1924)

Monday, 21 September 2003

Will Harper’s assessment of the West Berkeley shellmound (“Pave Paradise, Landmark the Parking Lot,” East Bay Express, 17 September 2003) is blind and misinformed.

At the original shoreline by the mouth of Strawberry creek, the mound was once 30 feet high and a hundred yards long, a pyramid of shell and earth, a burial ground for ancestors of the Ohlone Indians, a sacred site. The Ohlone people lived here continuously from around 3,700 B.C. until 800 A.D., when they moved their village, and thereafter used the mound as a ceremonial site.

The Berkeley Shellmound is the earliest inhabited location in the Bay Area. Contrary to Harper’s misinformation, archaeologists have recovered large numbers of tools and ornaments from the mound, and 95 human burials. Most of the artifacts are stored in the catacombs of U.C. Yes, the above-ground part shellmound was leveled and paved over. But much of the below-ground part remains intact today, extending up to twenty feet down in some parts, under parking lots, streets, railroad tracks, and buildings.

Ceremonies are still performed on the mound today by the local native people.

The shellmound needs to be treasured and preserved, the heritage of future generations. A museum should be built on the spot, with access down into layers of the mound. It is the one truly sacred site in Berkeley. The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe and the City of Berkeley are currently negotiating a collaborative legal and economic framework for all decision-making over the mound.

On Saturday, 11 October, at 8:30 am, the second annual Berkeley Shellmound Run will be held. Runners will gather at University Ave. and 4th St. beginning at 7:30. Like all Indian “runs,” it’s about community and spirit, not competition, and is open to all people. Registration is Free. The run will begin with ceremonies on the shellmound and end at the Indigenous Peoples Day Pow Wow at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park.

When you step onto that West Berkeley parking lot, let the mound below transport you back a thousand years. Hear the drum beats, the rattles, whistles and chants of the dancers, feel the stomp of their feet.

John Curl
Berkeley Planning Commissioner


Monday, 29 September 2003

I object to the many mistakes and misconstruals in the article by Will Harper on “Hysterical Landmarks.” Most grievous were his slurs against the historical significance of the West Berkeley shellmound (“Pave Paradise, Landmark the Parking Lot,” East Bay Express, 17 September 2003). Obviously he did not consult with the proponents of Shellmound preservation, or he would have learned how significant these moundsites are. True, the mounded portion is no longer there, however through subsidence, much of the very earliest parts of the mound has been found deep below the surface.

Radiocarbon dating has identified the oldest portion as being from 3,700 B.C., while the topmost portion stopped increasing in 800 A.D. But even if not one bone or artifact is currently found below the surface, it is still significant for its history, much the same way as Anglo-Saxon cemeteries are significant.

Native people occupied the site for 4,500 years—hundreds of generations of families. They lived, cooked, ate, played, brought up their children, conducted ceremonies, and buried their dead on the moundsites. The one in West Berkeley at the foot of Strawberry Creek is thought to be the oldest and one of the biggest of the 425 mound sites around San Francisco Bay. In the Fifties, U.C. anthropology students excavated a small portion of the moundsite and brought up 92 human burials!

There is much recently uncovered about the Shellmound that should be taught in classrooms. Marginalizing the site because of some anti-landmark agenda certainly does not constitute fair reporting. Readers should seek out further information on the subject and not rely on the misinformation presented in this article.

There will be a series of history lectures commemorating the 150th anniversary of Ocean View in October & November. The first will be on this subject of ancient native habitation. Speakers will be Malcolm Margolin, HeyDay Books publisher and author of The Ohlone Way, and U.C. Anthropologist Prof. Kent Lightfoot, moundsite expert. Harri Sittonnen will speak briefly on the history of Toverii Tuppa (Landmark #31, better known as Finn Hall), where the lecture will be held.

Friday, 3 Oct. 2003, at 7 p.m.
Finnish Hall, 1819 Tenth Street
Admissions: $10 per lecture or $45 for the series of eight
Tickets at the door or by advance reservation through BAHA at (510) 841-2242.

Stephanie Manning


Recommended reading:

Sacred Sites International Foundation: Emeryville Shellmound


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