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State archaeologist digs deep for stories

For archaeologist Breck Parkman, the thrill of the job isn’t confined to the dig. An intriguing find is only the prelude to a story that will flesh out and unfold with ever more research and deeper digging.

As a senior state archaeologist, based in Sonoma County for more than 30 years, Parkman distinguished himself with a wildly diverse and sometimes unconventional array of work — from identifying ancient mammoth rubbings on coastal rocks to successfully advocating for the preservation of a mid-century European-born potter Marguerite Wildenhain’s home and studio in Austin Creek State Recreation Area.

But Parkman’s strength is also as a master storyteller in the fading tradition of rangers around the campfire. He puts the dry facts of history into broader context and answers for the listener that one key question: Why should I care about this?”

“Being an archaeologist I got to work on everything,” he said of his eclectic interests. “And because I was interested in it, I embraced everything.”

The Georgia-born Parkman — his mother named him Breck after her favorite shampoo — retired this spring at 65 after 36 years on the job. He leaves a major legacy of work and institutional knowledge that pushed forward the public’s understanding and awareness of the history of the North Bay and beyond, starting with Native American cultures to his bold and groundbreaking study of a 1960s hippie commune at Olompali State Historic Park.

When documentarians needed an expert voice to put on camera, most recently the BBC’s 2013 miniseries “Ice Age Giants,” the formidable 6-foot-3-inch Parkman, with his gentle Southern accent, was the go-to guy.

He dropped out of the University of Georgia’s pre-med program at 19 and, like many an adventurer before him, heading as far west as he could. Landing in California he enrolled at what was then Hayward State, where he earned a master’s degree in anthropology, with a focus on archaeology, which in the United States is considered a branch of anthropology.

For 15 years, Parkman lived in a state-owned mobile home in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and wrote eloquently about life on “The Ridge,” the changing skies and season, the nighttime sounds, the movement of wildlife. He plans to continue to write and research in his retirement.

He recently moved with his 11-year-old son down the mountain to the Sonoma Valley, to a century-old home that aptly has some rocky ruins of an old hot springs resort in the front yard.

Q: Where are the roots of your interest in archaeology?

A: Growing up I wanted to escape. I loved adventure stories, and I would escape in books, like “Treasure Island.” When I was a kid I went all over the world. I sailed. I was a pirate. It gave me this wanderlust that in the second half of my life I’ve been able to do. I’ve ended up working on five continents now.

Q: What inspired you over the years to become such a visible spokesman for historical projects?

A: I didn’t just want to do archaeology, I wanted to do storytelling. I would go nuts if I had to just write numbers on arrowheads. It’s the story that resonates with the public. Twenty years ago, I was president of the Society for California Archaeology.

One of my platforms was my belief that we have to do a better job of sharing what we’re doing with the public or we’re going to eventually get done in. The public funds so much of what we do. That’s why I always went to the press, to get the story out because you can write a little report and maybe 10 archaeologists will read it.

I can put it in the file and maybe in 100 years, 25 archaeologists will read it. I can go into a park and talk about something to maybe 30 people sitting around a campfire with me. But if I do a story with the press thousands of people all over the world will read it. That’s a powerful tool.

Q: How were you able to spread yourself so thin over so many parks and projects?

A: All the really cool things I’ve done, I go out one day on state time to do something and I find it, but do most of the work on my own.

As the only archaeologist (in this region) I could not afford the time to sit at work and do all that research. I had to sign off on every development project in Northern California for years as a part of my job. So if anyone needed to build a new trail, add a site to a campground, put up an interpretive sign or repaint an historic structure, they have to fill out this multiple page Project Evaluation Form.

And then it would go to review and I would review it. I probably signed off on 5,000 to 8,000. For years, I was the regional archaeologist. So I did all of Northern California alone from the Golden Gate Bridge to Lake Oroville, Burney Falls to Jedediah Smith. I had about 90 state parks.

Q: What is your view of that level of bureaucratic oversight?

A: We don’t own the parks. The parks belong to the people. We have the California Environmental Quality Act, which the state has to abide by. I think it’s a really good thing but it’s misunderstood.

It allows California to stay like it is and how it was when I first came here. It allows the air to be clean and the water to be clean.

Q; How did you first come upon the discovery that led to your theory that ancient mammoths and other Ice Age animals used giant rocks along the Sonoma Coast to scratch and groom?

A: I found the site Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I went outside with a paleontologist friend. It was really windy. We sat behind these beautiful rocks.

Rather than taking a 5-minute lunch like I had intended we wound up talking for two hours.

As we sat there we began to notice a polish around the rock. I don’t think we noticed it before, even though I had been out at those rocks looking for rock art and never noticed. I think the difference was having the time to observe and soak in what I was seeing.

Q: What was the reaction to your discovery:

A: When I found the polish on the rocks, everybody pooh-poohed it until I got them out on the site. I took over 100 scientists out there. Only one person ever left saying I’m not sure. All the others said they could see what I saw.

Over the years enough people have looked at it and written about it and confirmed it. That still doesn’t make it true. It’s still a hypothesis until I create a time machine. But I’m sure that it is.

A few years before the discovery I had been working up in Canada with some northern Cree people. They showed me a lot of buffalo rubbing rocks that were polished and I was learning all about the plains Indians and buffalo rocks.

Q: You had a little known role in naming Olompali State Historic Park back in the 1980s. How did that happen?

A: Back then it was called Rancho Olompali Project. So when they came up with a general plan, I wrote the justification for naming it Olompali instead of Rancho Olompali. I made the case that if you call it Rancho Olompali you’re dismissing all the Native American history.

You’re just concentrating on the Mexican Rancho. Olompali was a Coast Miwok name that was used by the Californios (the early Mexican and Spanish land grant holders) right up to the hippies in the 1960s.

Q: Wow did you get started interpreting that part of Olompali’s history?

A: In January of ‘81 I went out there to do my survey. That first day I got to the burned out mansion (where the commune dwellers lived) and there was this big pile in the kitchen, a dark heap with a bunch of things, with all of these 331/3 albums laying on it.

I picked one up and it was The Beatles. I thought, “Oh, this is a hippie artifact.” Tongue in check I called it “Hippie Horizon” because back then we used the Horizon System — the Early Horizon, the middle and the late. The more I thought about it, the more I thought the Hippie Horizon was really the last occupation, and part of the story. In April of that year we had a public meeting in Marin to share our information with the public and see if they had anything to add to it.

I gave a 30-minute slide show of what I had found. When I started talking about the importance of this the people there were booing and hissing. This was only 10 years after the same community had forced the hippies out and now you have a state worker talking about the importance of it. Yet, in the flow of history, you can’t rule it out. But I never thought it would be so important in our lifetime.

Q: Did people question why you found it historic?

A: Some of my colleagues wondered. I took a lot of ridicule when I wanted to gather the artifacts from The Chosen Family commune (which collapsed in 1969 after a fire and the tragic death of two children). But I wanted to collect some of the diagnostic material, a little bit of this and that and send it away to put deep down in the basement in Sacramento for 100 years.

After every last one of us that lived in the ’60s is gone some curator could bring it out and do a nice little exhibit about 1968. It turns out it didn’t have to be 100 years, It was only about 25 years. There were some people who wanted to get me fired and who didn’t like it. But there were far more people who thought it was important. Since then I’ve gotten letters and emails from people all over the world. You don’t have to be a hippie to be interested. You don’t even have to be progressive. It’s bigger than that.

Q: What was one of the most interesting objects you dug out of the burned remains of the old commune home at Olompali?”

A: Probably the kids’ artifacts. There were Monopoly pieces. Here you have the most revered capitalist game being played in this hippie commune, which was the scourge of capitalists at the time.

Q: You were instrumental in getting the memorial with names of Native Americans who died at the Sonoma Mission created and installed. How did that come about?

A: When I got to Sonoma in 1992 my office was right by the mission. One of our volunteers came over and said, “Now that you’re here, what are you going to do about the cemetery?”

I had never thought about it. But there are 896 neophytes buried right over there. So I got Ed Castillo ( a Native American activist and then a professor at Sonoma State) to take a couple of grad students to Santa Barbara Mission and go through all the records and carefully copy down all the names. ... Along the way I interviewed some of the elders of the four tribes buried there — Wappo, Coast Miwok, Sutter Pomo and Patwin.

I said we want to put all of the names on a memorial. Two hundred years ago they avoided the name of the dead until there was a special ceremony and that name was given to a new kid; they believe that the a dead person was slowly making his way into the land of the dead and if he hears his name, he’s going to come back. You don’t want a ghost in your village. So the idea of putting all those names out there freaked out a couple of elders. The compromise I found was to use the Latin names the padres gave to the people when they came to the mission and they felt comfortable with that.

Q: What was the public reception?

A: We started in 1996 when the canonization of Father Serra was so controversial. I took a lot of grief as the state liaison who set up the committee and saw it through. I had a few people after me. People either thought we were gong to do something to make the church look bad or there were people who thought we were going to make the Catholic Church look great at the cost of Indian people. So we came up with doing something like The Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. We were able to reach out and give both communities something.

Q: What intrigues you about California’s native people

A: When I started working in California a lot of people still called the California Indians “Diggers.” It was in their minds –– one culture –– and they said it in a very derogatory way. You start digging into history and you realize there is so much variability in California. The only place that even comes close to California as far as linguistic diversity is New Guinea. In California they developed this incredible diversity of languages. And no tribe is exactly like the other. But you have to look more than a second to see that. And the folks that lived here had all their knowledge, everything that was important to them, in their head. So in many ways they were smarter than us.

Q: What’s ahead for you now?

A: I’ll have more time with my son. And I write everything. I have an unfinished novel. I probably have a history of California that’s about a quarter written, a unique history of the last 250 million years. The third is a memoir. When I walked out of the door for the last time I left some projects unfinished so I’m going to come back as a volunteer and finish up a couple that are important to me.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.