About two years ago, I was performing an archaeological survey in Ventura county. An energy production company was installing facilities to transport natural gas from submarine mineral deposits in the channel off of the Ventura County coast to a processing facility in the Los Angeles Basin. In order to transport the gas, a series of subterranean pipelines were being constructed, which, under both federal and state laws, required archaeological studies to ensure that no significant sites would be damaged, and so off I went with my merry crew of the ex-marine and the wanna-be martial artist (no, I'm not making that up).
The survey lasted about a month and a half, which was fairly nice, as we spent our days hiking, sometimes in crappy places but often in beautiful scenery, and as we were working close to home, we still got to sleep in our own beds every night. All in all, a pretty good field assignment and one that I was happy to have.
During the final week of survey, we had to walk a pipeline route that crossed over a small mountain northwards into the Santa Clarita Valley. The land belonged to a ranch, and we had to meet with the ranch foreman in order to have access to the route.
So, at 8 AM on a Thursday morning, my crew and I stood at the gates to the ranch, waiting for the foreman to arrive - he was a half hour late, and he insisted on waiting for our land access manager (a useless and rather creepy man who bore a more than passing resemblance in both appearance and mannerisms to Floyd the Barber from the Andy Griffith Show), who took another forty-five minutes to show up. In the meantime, the ranch foreman walked up to me and said "So, you're the archaeologist, right?"
"I have something to show you..."
He walked around to the back of his truck, opened up the rear window on his camper, and pulled out a sandstone mortar.
"Nice mortar. Where did you find it?" I expected him to tell us about a site on the land that we were about to walk out on, or to hear that he had been looting sites on state park lands.
"I found this on some land I own down near Malibu."
"Yeah, there's loads of this stuff down there. Check this out!" He pulled out the pestle that seemed to match the mortar perfectly.
"Well," I said "that looks about right. Where is your land?"
"Near Malibu. Oh, and I saved the best for last!" He reached back into the camper and pulled out a human skull.
"Ummm...you know, that's a human skull"
"Yep. This is also from Malibu!"
"Yeah, buddy, you need to call the coroner."
"Why would I want to call the coroner?" He gave me a shocked look.
"Well, if you find human remains, by law, you have to call the coroner. You could get into some serious trouble if you don't."
"Hey, this is an old Indian skull. This wasn't a murder, the coroner isn't going to care."
I then proceeded to explain that, yes, I realized that this skull probably was a few centuries old, and that there would be no murder investigation, or anything of the sort (the skull actually had "cradle board" flattening, which is rare in modern populations but was common in Native Californian populations). However, it was still a human skull, and therefore still something that the coroner needed to be notified of.
"But, if I report it, they'll take it away from me!" He was nearly pleading, as if I had any power to change the law on this point.
"Well, it is a human head! Look, if someone found your grandmother's head and kept it in their truck wouldn't you be pissed?"
"So, shouldn't the coroner be called and the descendants of this person be notified that this skull has been found?"
He gave me a 'punk kid' sort of look, and said in a rather petulant tone "Look, this ain't my grandma! And the skull is mine! I found it, so it's mine, and I ain't going to let the coroner have it!"
Soon, the land access manager showed up, and we proceeded on our way. I wonder if the fellow ever called the coroner. Probably not. He's probably still carting the head around with him like some sort of grizzly Cracker Jacks prize.
Still, this reminds me of a story involving Clarence "pop" Ruth, an "archaeologist (really, more like a grave-robber who called himself and archaeologist) in the early 20th century. Folks who knew him report that on his death bed he began to scream that the ghosts of the dead Chumash (the ethnic group that had occupied the part of California where he had been working) were coming to drag him down to Hell. Maybe I should have told the foreman that story.