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Excavation at L.A. Museum Halted, Simple Internet Search May Be Cause

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The excavation site at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in Downtown L.A. sits empty on Friday after work was halted | Photo by Seth Strongin/The City Project, used under a Creative Commons License

Excavation at a downtown Los Angeles museum was halted Friday after two weeks of controversy over the work continuing despite the discovery of skeletal remains more than two months ago.

"We at LA Plaza have decided to halt work on the former camposanto area of our campus indefinitely, in light of the unexpected number of human remains uncovered and their great historical significance," said Miguel Corzo, the CEO of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, in a statement. 

The move comes after two weeks of complaints by archaeologists and Native Americans about the remains being handled improperly.

The L.A. Archdiocese also weighed in earlier this week. "Frankly, I was surprised and disappointed to learn through a story in yesterdays' Los Angeles Times that a substantial number of remains had been discovered and unearthed at your construction site," wrote Brian McMahon, the Director of the Cemeteries Department, in a letter on Tuesday that was obtained by KCET. "In your only communication with me about the discovery of the remains last November, the impression I received was that a few bone fragments were all that had been found."

Museum officials say they have followed the law strictly. The County-owned land where the museum sits was once, until it was moved in 1844--say records, at least--the site of a cemetery for the neighboring and still active church La Placita. At first fragments of bones were found in late October last year, followed by more substantial remains within a few days. Excavation work continued after approval from the L.A. County Coroner and discussions with the church, but not Archdiocese administrators.

County coroners in California have the power to stop projects when Native American remains are found, but the L.A. County one determined it had no jurisdiction based on evidence at the time. Corzo said he had no records of who was buried there.

The answer to that, however, may have been a few clicks away on the internet, thanks to the nearby Huntington Library. In 1998, the institution embarked on a project to transcribe records from 23 locations: California's 21 missions, El Presidio de Santa Barbara and the Los Angeles Plaza Church, commonly known as La Placita.

A search for death records in the Library's Early California Population Project reveals that 127 people of Native American descent were buried there. But Steve Hackel, a professor at University of California, Riverside, and a Library researcher, estimates that up to 381 Native Americans could be buried there. That's based on a lack of surnames in the records.

"They were very good record keepers," explained Hackel. "If somebody doesn't have a last name, it's either a cleric error by the mission, which is pretty unusual, or it's an Indian." He added that other supporting information, like origin, can clue in researchers to Native American descent.

"They kept on falling back on 'there's no records,'" said Desiree Martinez, an archaeologist and Gabrielino community member who says she has documented ancestors that were buried there. "His mouth dropped," she said about Corzo, when at a meeting on Thursday she handed over the records she found in the Library's database.

Lawyer Robert Garcia of The City Project was also present at the meeting and said Corzo explained the excavation could not be stopped until the nonprofit board gave its approval and that "it would take a week to give notice under the bylaws."

In an interview with KCET on Wednesday, Corzo said they would "wrap up excavation in a week or so."

Museum officials were tight lipped Friday on the exact reasons why excavation abruptly ended, but some believe the records were the cause. Martinez said the L.A. County Coroner's office was informed by the records and was looking into them before the excavation was called off.

In his statement, Corzo said "it is in the best interest of both LA Plaza and the larger community to put this section of our project on hold." Construction will continue on other parts of the center where no skeletal remains were found. "We believe this discovery and the resulting conversations will engender further education about the rich and complex history of Los Angeles, a history we are committed to exploring here at LA Plaza," he said.

The museum is slated to open in April and will educate visitors about the Mexican and Mexican American experience and culture. It is located in the historic El Pueblo area--the birthplace of Los Angeles--which is the same area that was home to the Indian village of Yanga.

Earlier Coverage on KCET
- Museum Excavation Continues as American Indians Call for Work to Stop
- American Indian Board Wants L.A. Museum Project Stopped

The photo used on this post is by flickr user The City Project, which has also written about the issue here. The image was used under a Creative Commons License.

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