The past and future recently collided in the dirt five feet beneath Santa Barbara’s Veterans Memorial Building on Cabrillo Boulevard, where the jaw bone and finger of a Chumash Indian were discovered as well as a host of other Chumash artifacts estimated to be “hundreds and hundreds of years old.” The shock waves of this discovery — perhaps the most significant find in downtown Santa Barbara since archeologist John P. Harrington dug up Burton Mound in 1927 — could well knock out of consideration long-simmering plans to erect a three-story museum in the courtyard behind the vets building honoring Santa Barbara’s servicemen and women who fought in all foreign wars since World War I.
The archeological work took place this June as a precautionary step before the County of Santa Barbara — which owns the building — installed the shaft for a new elevator. That area along the waterfront was once the site of Syuxtun, a major Chumash community for about 1,000 years with about 500 people in its prime, so UCSB archeologist and anthropology professor Lynn Gamble was hired to ensure no significant historical remains would be disturbed. Gamble, overseeing a team of UCSB students, dug three holes about five feet deep. The UCSB crew dug up 397 shell and glass beads, nine arrow tips, 27 fish hooks, a few bead drills, many stone tools, a bone hairpiece, and the bones of countless fish, sea mammals, and even a giant whale vertebra that Gamble suggested might have been used as a stool.
But when Gamble’s team stumbled on what was clearly a human mandible, she said the Chumash on-site monitor was immediately notified and the exploration brought to a halt. The human bones were quickly reburied and no tests done to determine the age. With that discovery, county officials abandoned their plans to build the elevator. Instead, they’re now considering installing a one-seat motorized lift along the stairs.
It remains premature to predict what effect the archeological find will have on John Blankenship’s plans — eight years in the making — to build a military museum where the vets center gardens now stand, but clearly, it’s a setback. Blankenship, a retired navy pilot who served during the Vietnam War, was given $1 million by now deceased philanthropist Pierre Claeyssens to build a World War II museum, but since then he’s been forced to expand the scheme’s scope to include anyone from Santa Barbara who served in any armed conflict.
Blankenship, a former developer with formidable political connections, has pledged to harness his fundraising skills to help restore the vets building, built in 1922, which has yet to be seismically renovated, as well as the museum. But Blankenship and his plans — none have been officially submitted for governmental review and approval — have sparked intense infighting among the many veterans organizations now using the building. Some, whose members have enjoyed the property as an oversized man cave for many years, simply oppose change. Others, like the Veterans for Peace, object the museum would glorify war. And some affirmatively support Blankenship’s idea. But in recent years, meetings of the building’s governing council have grown longer and acrimonious.
This Wednesday, Blankenship hosted a press conference at the site to applaud the county supervisors for funding three veterans service officers instead of just one. He also displayed some of the 300 portraits of men and women who died during foreign wars that will be hung in the building. Despite the discovery of human remains, Blankenship said it’s too soon to throw in the towel. “Maybe you can go 15-20 feet away and not hit anything,” he said. “I don’t know until I read the report.”
Gamble said the report has yet to be written because much work and analysis still needs to be done. She said she was struck by the richness of material uncovered from so small an area, but given that the village of Syuxtun probably functioned as the Chumash capital for a coastal stretch ranging from Santa Barbara to Pt. Concepcion, it was not that surprising. Archeologists in 1927 reported finding the remains of 300 bodies nearby, and in 1969, the remnants of a large house or sweat lodge was unearthed.
Gamble said some of the materials used to make the shell beads and arrowheads came from long distances away, reflecting the extensive trading and sophisticated economic activity undertaken by the Chumash. The Chumash traded for glass beads, she said, from the Spanish colonists, as well as the needles they used to drill the beads. That the Chumash used the Spaniards’ needles to drill their own shell beads, she said, reflected their desire to maintain their own economies. She said she was struck by the abundance of sea mammal bones, which made her wonder if the area served as a butcher’s site. The Chumash skill at harvesting the sea, she said, enabled them to achieve population densities uncharacteristic of hunter-gatherer societies but common for agrarian cultures. The vets building discovery, she suggested, could expand contemporary understanding of just how sophisticated the Chumash trade economy — with both the Spaniards and other tribes — really was.