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Curving bridge on Del Dios highway to damage San Dieguito Indian site

Dust flies over ancient settlement

What archaeologists throughout the West call the C.W. Harris site is the oldest archaeological site in San Diego County and one of the oldest in California.
  • What archaeologists throughout the West call the C.W. Harris site is the oldest archaeological site in San Diego County and one of the oldest in California.
  • Image by Dave Allen

Wandering bands of Stone Age hunters came to this area about 10,000 years ago and set up camps along a river that is now known as the San Dieguito. For 30 centuries these San Dieguito people roamed California, using stone tools to kill animals that are now extinct. The hunters disappeared 7000 years ago, leaving only their dart points, scrapers, exquisitely tapered basalt knives, and a collection of mysterious, carved amulets whose purpose continues to confound anthropologists. Several thousand such artifacts have been excavated from a series of trenches in a 60-acre swath along the San Dieguito River, about three miles west of the Lake Hodges Dam, in what archaeologists throughout the West call the C.W. Harris site. It is the oldest archaeological site in San Diego County and one of the oldest in California, and it is now imperiled by the latest human migration into North County.

In June of 1989, the San Diego County Historical Site Board voted 13 to 0 to designate the Harris site a historic district. Such a designation would help protect the ancient settlement from damage due to development, but the site board's vote has to be ratified by the county board of supervisors. Each time the Harris site has come before the board, the decision has been put off to some future date. Next week the board is expected to delay the matter of designating the Harris site until mid-January of 1991.

The latest delay is predicated on analysis of county-sponsored studies, which were contracted to determine the exact locations of the Harris-site boundaries. It lies within the proposed San Dieguito River Valley Park, a 60,000-acre corridor extending 55 miles from Volcan Mountain to the ocean. But more significantly, the Harris site is in the path of State Arterial (SA) 680, a four-lane, 1 1/2-mile-long road that will cross the river and connect the Del Dios Highway to the end of San Dieguito Road in Fairbanks Ranch.

Prior to 1988, SA 680 was envisioned crossing the river farther to the east, where a dirt lane already exists. But after intensive lobbying by the Rancho Santa Fe Association, the county adopted a route that places the road several hundred yards downstream, smack atop the Harris site. Construction of a curving bridge off the Del Dios Highway would have a major, unmitigable impact on the site, according to a county-commissioned report completed in September. The owner of the land, Sunland Communities, wants to build Rancho Santa Fe-style estates in the area and would prefer that the road be moved back upstream, away from the archeological site, where it was originally planned.

Although no one disputes that the Harris site is a unique cultural resource, there is disagreement on whether top priority should be given to automobile circulation or the protection of ancient remains.

“That road has been on the general plan for a couple of decades,” remarks Jim Hare, planning director for the Rancho Santa Fe Association, who argues that the road — and its current alignment — is necessary to service the mushrooming development of the area. Conversely, a county staffer remarks, “The Harris site has been there 9000 years. A bunch of amateurs in Rancho Santa Fe think 680 will bleed the traffic out of their enclave. But highways don’t reduce traffic, they bring more people in.”

Archaeologists and anthropologists consider the Harris site important enough to merit inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. According to Claude Warren, chairman of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, the Harris site is unique because the evidence of San Dieguito habitation is buried undisturbed beneath other Indian relics.

The archaeologist who originally excavated the site in 1938, Malcolm Rogers of the San Diego Museum of Man, was the first to demonstrate that there were three distinct waves of early man in Southern California. He named the oldest group the San Dieguito people because their stone tools were found along the San Dieguito River. The next group, whose artifacts rest above those of the San Dieguitoans, Rogers called the La Jolla people. This civilization existed between 5000 and 7000 years ago. The most recent group, the Yuma Indians, were living here when the Spaniards arrived.

“That is the site where San Dieguito people are defined,” explains Dr. Warren. “It is the most important site in San Diego County, prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Losing it would be like losing the cave paintings in France. This is a major archaeological site that they really ought to be capitalizing on.” Several preservationists have suggested that the site should be used as an interpretive center, similar to a historic park that recently opened near Lubbock, Texas, where excavations open to the public show a progression of artifacts from the Stone Age to the arrival of Spanish explorers.

That prospect is dim for San Diego, where archaeological remains have usually been pushed aside to make room for development. The high-tech factories of Sorrento Valley lie on top of an old Indian village that was never properly excavated; mysterious rock paintings a few paces from houses above Lake Hodges have recently been defaced by water-soluble paint pellets; and various ancient campsites around North County lagoons have been tom up by farming and housing. Preservationists are determined that this time, history will win out. “The Harris site and SA 680 have become all mixed together, but that’s not what this should be about,” observes Karen Berger, who has been active in trying to establish the San Dieguito River Park. “The Harris site must be protected first, then let’s figure out where to put the road.”

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