The site of the new gymnasium at San Ramon Valley High School has become more of an archaeological dig than a construction site as technicians undergo the laborious process of uncovering and disinterring the 27 human remains found so far.
Flat blades have been added to the toothed maw of excavators, forcing them to carefully scrape layers of ground away as the search continues for more remains. Archaeological technicians have come from throughout the area to document the remains found. The bodies are found buried in small oval depressions, legs drawn up to the chest and arms folded into their sides.
Years of time in the ground have left little remaining but bones, but experts say this will be enough to tell at least some of the tale.
"This is called a 'flexed position' that they're buried in," said Andrew Galvan. Galvan, the curator of Mission Dolores, is a Native American who can trace his roots back to before the European colonization.
Galvan was named by the Native American Heritage Commission as the Most Likely Descendant, which puts him in charge of removing the remains and transporting them to the Ohlones Indian Cemetery in Fremont.
"There is a lot you can tell from the remains," he said. "By the size you can tell if it was an adult; you can tell the sex a couple of different ways."
One way scientists can determine gender is through the sciatic notch. Galvan said that because the notch will expand slightly during childbirth, a wider notch generally suggests a female while a narrower notch means a male. Another method would be using the brow ridge. Males had a greater protuberance in their brow ridge.
Technician Joel Garcia, a masters student at San Francisco State, marked off a grid surrounding one burial site in order to map out the remains.
"What we're doing to mitigate the site is to reconstruct it on paper," he explained. "It gives us a record of how the remains were situated within the site." Garcia said once the record was complete they would begin the process of taking the remains out of the site for transportation to a laboratory.
Testing is expected to determine how old the remains are, but Galvan said he would estimate they are somewhere between 250 and 2,000 years old. He added that because they have found some remains as deep as 8 feet below the ground and some as shallow as 3 feet that there could be a wide range in the timeframe the individuals were buried. Workers will examine artifacts found near the remains as a rough means of estimating their ages.
"The depth certainly is no sure indicator, but it suggests that those buried deeper may be from years earlier than those buried more shallowly," he stated.
Galvan, who has served as Descendant on numerous occasions during the past three decades, said he is expecting that they will find still another 20 or more individual remains over the course of examining the area.
Several archaeological sites surround the high school location. Galvan said Tatcan was a Bay Miwok village located near the high school, and the workers may have uncovered a mortuary complex.
"Think about the little church on the hillside with the fenced in cemetery in back," he posed. "People did that because they wanted to be able to bury their loved ones close by."
Once the remains have all been exposed, they will be carefully removed to an undisclosed location where they will be examined and prepared for re-burial in the Ohlones Indian Cemetery in Fremont.
In the meantime, work is proceeding on the new gymnasium at the high school, albeit more slowly. The major foundation work is expected to be completed by early next week. Galvan said that if they have found no further remains when the excavation for the foundation has reached its maximum depth they will close their investigation.
School District spokesman Terry Koehne said the project is continuing. "We're still allowed to work in certain areas, areas where we have not yet found any remains," he said.
At this point Koehne said it is unknown if the discovery of the remains will delay the conclusion of the gym project or whether it will add to the nearly $10 million price tag of the construction.
Koehne said they do know that because the remains were found on district property, it is up to them to pay the costs associated with the removal process, an amount estimated at $25,000.
Both Galvan and school district officials remind residents that the site is closed to the public both as a sign of respect for the dead and for public safety. Individuals are not allowed on the dig site.
Those looking for more information on the Bay Miwok tribe and their history in the San Ramon Valley can visit the Museum of the San Ramon Valley. An exhibit on the Bay Miwok will run from October-November.
Training 'Most Likely Descendants' for the future
Taking part in the excavation and relocation of the dozens of Bay Miwok remains found at San Ramon Valley High School is an exercise in archaeology and local history. But for some it's a lesson from their shared cultural heritage and a step in the process to being a part of it.
Andrew Galvan has spent decades serving as a spokesman for the local Native American tribes, as well as the designated Most Likely Descendant, a job in which he assists in the preservation and relocation of Native American remains.
Now he has begun the process of passing on to others the history he learned from his ancestors. Joining Galvan at the dig site at the high school were his great-nephew James Irwin and Vincent Medina, a cousin.
"The two of them I'm hoping are the next generation. Not just in the field with the skeletal remains, but the knowledge I can share. The traditional knowledge, all the things I've learned over the years," Galvan said.
Both young men are studying anthropology, Irwin, 21, at the University of Nevada Reno, and Medina, 22, at Berkeley City College. Irwin began studying his heritage early, as he would often go to dig sites with "Uncle Andy" and his mother, Desiree Irwin, who worked as a field tech for her uncle.
Medina said that while he did not have the same intensive background training as Irwin, the desire to learn about their ancestry grew in him through high school. "I've always known this part of my identity but it made me wonder more about it, so I went and talked to Andy," he recounted.
Irwin and Medina were friends at Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo and midway through they learned that they were related, sharing a common great-great-great-grandmother. Irwin said that having that knowledge of their history gives him a greater sense of place.
"It's interesting knowing that they can trace our family history back to the 1700s, knowing that I come from something back that far," he said. "Going from being friends to being distant relatives was just really intense."
Galvan said he has taken the two young men under his wing, apprenticing them in the heritage and history of their people and the duties they have to their people, both living and dead.
"My goal is to teach them. Teach them the stories I've been told. Pass on the knowledge I have to the next generation so it doesn't get lost when I die," Galvan said.
Added Medina, "That's how the flame stays alive for us."