Posts Tagged ‘burial’

More Than Just a Mound of Shells

Perry Matlock joined us on Sep 19th to talk about Ancient Monuments and Funerary Places in the San Francisco Bay.

When the word “shellmound” comes to mind, the first picture in your head is probably that of a garbage pile, a midden heap, a pile of refuse, or dinner table scraps – a big pile of empty discarded shells. This is the remnants of the dismissive thoughts of the archeologists who first looked at them.

There are other things in the shellmounds: fish remains, bones & scales, charcoal residue, which might add to that picture. But the significant find is that the mounds often contain human remains. With that simple fact, we might thing of them quite differently not as a pile but a place – burial mounds, sacred places, akin to hallowed places round the world: the geomorphs, mounds, earthworks, and stones that are quite often protected and preserved with maps and guidebooks pointing them out.

Now the numerous shellsmounds that could once be found all over the Bay Area (425 according to one 1909 map) are almost all gone. Some of the mounds, like the one in present day Emeryville were huge, thousands of years old – likely landmarks. Most of them have now been destroyed dug up, bulldozed, sometimes dynamited used for roads or tennis courts, garden beds, or just to get them out of the way.

It was only with the dismantling of the Emeryville shellmound that the issue of the dead came to the forefront. Local Native Americans and allies did their best to bring the issue to the forefront. They lost that particular battle (Emeryville has a little homage to the mound, which can’t really in any way make up for it) but it brought together the right people to start saving those mounds that were still left.

There is still some mystery as to what larger purpose these mounds had, how exactly they were used and played a part in everyday life. One interesting note is that Coastal languages done’t have a word for shellmound — or possibly just not telling it to anyone. Whatever we know or don’t know the local tribes consider these places sacred — which really should be enough.

If you are interested in learning more one place to check out is the Oakland Museum of California – their new exhibit on the Bay (Above and Below) has a section on Ohlone life prior to the Spanish.

I will add links to additional resources and books that Perry mentioned in his talk to the website. Perry was not speaking as a representative of any tribe, but only for himself having been involved and volunteering on these issues for many many years.

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