The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Scotts Valley Site

The Scotts Valley Site, which is luckily located down the street from my apartment and no so luckily nearly destroyed, is one of the oldest archaeological sites known in California. Radiocarbon and obsidian hydration dates place the earliest occupation of the site at between 10,500 and 12,000 years old. As an early site that had been continuously used over several millennia, the Scotts Valley Site has the potential to yield information on major changes to the cultural patterns of California, information on environmental changes (and how humans dealt with environmental changes) throughout the Holocene (approximately the last 10,000 years of time), and also answer some puzzling questions about why there are so many more early sites in arid southern California than in the relatively resource-rich Bay Area.

Or, at least, it had that potential until some guy took a bulldozer to it.

The story of the destruction of the Scotts Valley Sites is an odd mix of history, civic pride, institutional arrogance, and religious fundamentalism. It’s also both tragic and funny. I have been unable to track down written sources detailing all that went on – official documents so often downplay the basic wackiness of so much of the human behavior that creates events – so I am having to rely on what I have heard from the people involved. I keep digging for more information however, and if I find anything that contradicts what is written here, I’ll post an update.

The site is in Scotts Valley, and covers a large area in the northern part of town. When it was first settled during the late Pleistocene, the early site sat on a lakeshore (Scotts Valley, like many other parts of California, is filled with cyclical lakes – they’ve been dry for 8,000 years, but will eventually fill up again). As the lake expanded and contracted in time with rain cycles, eventually settling into a creek as precipitation and snow-pack melt slowed at the end of the last ice age, the people who occupied the site moved with the water, resulting in a huge site that covers a large part of the Carbonero Creek drainage’s floodplain.

The site became the center of a controversy in the late 1970’s. The City of Scotts Valley needed to build new public administration buildings, and the early stages of the Silicon Valley computer boom had entrepreneurs scrambling for any land that was driving distance from San Jose. The Scotts Valley Site was on some prime real estate.

As with any project, the construction of new buildings in Scotts Valley was subject to an environmental review process. In the course of this process, it came to the attention of the City of Scotts Valley that this ancient and huge archaeological site was present right where they and the private investors were wanting to build. Historic preservationists, “small town” folks opposed to growth, archaeologists, Native American groups and individuals, and people who realized there was legal trouble on the horizon were either urging caution in dealing with the site or outright opposed to the construction.

On the other side, business interests, residents who saw (admittedly real) economic opportunity in the construction, and the city government all wanted the construction to start.

These two sites squared off for some time, arguments in favor of preserving one of the oldest archaeological sites in North America vying with arguments for economic development, getting nowhere.

Finally, the stalemate was broken. The mayor of Scotts Valley at the time was a young-Earth creationist, someone who believes that the entire Universe was created 6,000 years ago, with all animals in their present form. He decided that he was sick of scientists trying to tell him that there was anyone on the planet, much less Scotts Valley, 10,000 years ago. And so, one fateful day, with great personal aplomb, the mayor climbed on top of a bulldozer and plowed into the site. Those who were around at the time report that the mayor made it clear that he thought of himself as a hero, standing up for his city and his faith.

The State of California had a different attitude, however. When the City was faced with repercussions for the mayor’s actions, they agreed to allow and pay for archaeological excavation (though I am told that even in the face of an impending lawsuit and review agency actions, the city was still reluctant). Nonetheless, excavation was performed, and a very nice volume was produced (check it out:, and the City of Scoots Valley is A LOT more cautious about how they treat archaeological sites nowadays.


Joshua said...

So, what happened to the mayor afterwords? Did he get reelected?

The YEC element makes the thing all the more ridiculous. That's an amazing example of not only not believing evidence but going out of the way to destroy evidence. The set of humans who will do that for their beliefs is thankfully very tiny.

Anthroslug said...

I never did find out what happened to him. Some folks were probably upset that he had caused the town to receive trouble, but others probably view him as a hero - sticking up for his town and/or religion against the government. So, I have no idea.