Sonoma County wildfire debris cleanup reveals Native American artifacts

The shiny black piece of obsidian, pointed at one end and with chiseled edges, lay in plain view on earth scorched bare by the Nuns fire on private land in Glen Ellen.

David Carrio, a full-blooded Coast Miwok born and raised in Sonoma County, recognized it immediately as a tool fashioned by his forebears who once inhabited Marin and southern Sonoma counties, a bountiful land for hunter-gatherer people, rich in food and laced by freshwater streams.

“It was kind of like spotting a footprint of your ancestors,” he said. “It’s something that says we are home.”

His own presence that day, Carrio said, signified that “we’re still here. We survived.”

Carrio, a member of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria’s Sacred Sites Protection Committee, was summoned to the site two weeks ago by Thomas Martin, the archaeologist employed by a private company who spotted the 2-inch-long chunk of sharpened obsidian.

The two men work as part of a little-known aspect of the Army Corps of Engineers’ clearing of debris from some 4,500 Sonoma County properties incinerated by the October wildfires.

Dwarfed by the painful losses of life and property to the most destructive wildfires in state history is a poignant gain: the discovery of Native American artifacts that, like the hand-chipped stone in Glen Ellen, might have remained hidden forever.

Army Corps debris removal contractors, who have hauled away nearly 1.3 million tons of debris from Sonoma County, are required under a federally mandated cultural resources protection program to hire archaeologists and tribal monitors such as Carrio to assess and protect any artifacts that turn up.

The teams are on hand for cleanup work in areas where artifacts are likely to be found, and when such discoveries occur unexpectedly the contractors halt work and summon the experts, said Clay Carithers, the National Environmental Policy Act compliance officer for the Army Corps’ Sacramento District.

Since the debris cleanup efforts started in November, well over 100 properties have been surveyed in Sonoma County by at least four archaeologists and a similar number of tribal monitors, he said. Carithers declined to say how many artifacts have been found, asserting the information is not public record.

The architects and tribal monitors will, at the conclusion of the cleanup, file reports on the surveyed properties and found artifacts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he said. The information will be available only to certified archaeologists, Carithers said.

Officials, he said, “don’t want any Joe Blow Indiana Joneses out there” hunting for artifacts.

Obsidian tools, including at least one fashioned more than 11,000 years ago, are prevalent throughout the county, where what is now Annadel-Trione State Park was a major source of the hard rock formed from volcanic lava.

“They are ubiquitous,” said Tom Origer, a retired Santa Rosa Junior College archaeology instructor. Obsidian artifacts are “all over Sonoma County because Indians were all over Sonoma County.”

Martin described the Glen Ellen artifact that fit easily in the palm of his hand as an “obsidian tool fragment” amounting to about half of what was originally a cutting tool. Native Americans made such tools by chipping brittle obsidian stones with a harder rock, an antler or large bone.

It is “100 percent Native American,” he said, noting that it is illegal for the general public to look for such artifacts on anyone’s else’s property.

Martin said he knew other artifacts have been found in areas burned by the wildfires, calling it “an opportunity for us to learn a little bit more about the prehistory of our area.”

Native Americans gleaned obsidian from Trione-Annadel State Park - “a little like us going to Safeway” - and carried it far and wide, Origer said. Obsidian was used to make tools for cutting and scraping, as well as points for arrows and spears, he said.

Generally, obsidian artifacts are found throughout the American West, hundreds of miles from their source, he said.

Annadel obsidian is “medium grade” material, while the rock from a place called Glass Mountain near St. Helena is higher quality and found as far away as Eureka, Lake Tahoe and Santa Barbara, Origer said.

A crescent-shaped obsidian artifact found by an SRJC student at the Laguna de Santa Rosa in 1996 was made about 11,100 years ago, he said, which places humans in Sonoma County at least 4,000 years earlier than previously thought, he said.

Origer runs a laboratory that dates obsidian artifacts based on the amount of water the stone has absorbed since it was altered by humans.

Discovery of Native American artifacts can be a sensitive matter, as well as a law enforcement concern.

Archaeologists were rankled in 2014, when Greg Sarris, the Graton Rancheria tribal chairman, insisted on reburial at an undisclosed location of a trove of Coast Miwok remains and artifacts dated back 4,500 years and found during construction of a Larkspur subdivision.

Rebuffing experts anxious to study the find, Sarris dismissed the “damn gall” of those who felt they could “come in and do what they want” with remnants of Native American culture.

“We know our own history,” he said.

The government’s interest in secrecy was underscored in 2015, when a Lake County sheriff’s deputy arrested a man carrying a cache of Native American artifacts - including obsidian points and clay pottery - in his van.

The deputy had just completed a course in archaeological crimes, and learned that Lake County has several hundred Indian cultural sites, some made vulnerable to looting by the receding level of Clear Lake during the drought.

The lake, which scientists estimate is 2.5 million years old, endowed Lake County with a wealth of cultural sites.

Carrio, whose parents are both Coast Miwok, said he also found a charm stone in fire-ravaged Fountaingrove, a roughly 6-inch stone cylinder used in tribal ceremonies and distinguished by the smooth surface imparted by centuries or millennia of handling.

It was reburied on the same property where it was found.

So was the obsidian tool found in Glen Ellen, in keeping with the preference of the Graton Rancheria, Carrio said.

“That’s where it was left (long ago),” he said. “That’s where we want to leave it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.

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