Archaeologists Patricia Martz, a professor emeritus from Cal State Los Angeles, right, and Sylvere Valentin search for evidence of an ancient Native American settlement at Fairview Park on Monday. They feel more developments in the park will disrupt the Fairview Indian Site, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (KEVIN CHANG, Daily Pilot / September 23, 2013)

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To the untrained eye, the area of Costa Mesa's Fairview Park near the cliffs offers sweeping ocean views, but the grounds themselves may not look like much.

It's a mesa of dirt, brush, trails, mounds and rocks among bicycle tracks, footprints and paw prints.

But within that dusty medley on a recent afternoon, a pair of archaeologists found themselves uncovering a more subtle history.

Eyes focused on the ground, Patricia Martz and Sylvere Valentin saw ancient tools where others saw rocks. They identified a piece of a mammal bone, possibly 1,000 years old.

Martz, a professor emeritus of archaeology and anthropology at Cal State Los Angeles, saw sea shells — scattered white specks on a brown surface — as evidence of a Native American diet.

To anyone else, the specks might seem like inconsequential broken shells — in dirt.

"That's a clam shell," Martz said, pointing to the ground. "That's their food remains. That's their garbage. That's what archaeologists do: We dig up people's garbage to find out what they were really like."

Martz, who lives in Irvine, and Valentin, formerly an archaeologist consultant with Monrovia-based Paleo Solutions, were walking a portion of what's commonly known as the Fairview Indian Site.

The area contains remnants of two Native American cultures from thousands of years ago and, since 1972, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the only location within Costa Mesa city limits with that federal designation.

As such, what happens within the Fairview Indian Site is bound by certain environmental rules that, according to the archaeologists, may have been broken in the planning of a nearby parking lot. The lot, later downgraded to a turnaround space, would be within the park's southwestern quadrant, entered from the northern terminus of Pacific Avenue.

And while there has been no official confirmation that the boundaries of the Fairview Indian Site extend that far south, Martz and Valentin contend that they do.

"Think of your neighborhood," Martz said. "It spreads out. It's not going to be just one little area."

While standing around one of the park's flattest portions, made brown from the dry summertime conditions and prone to dust-ups from frequent winds, Martz acknowledged that it may be hard for some to say, "Oh, this is so important."

But Fairview Indian Site — one of two federally listed archaeological sites in Orange County — gains greater importance, she said, as new developments locally and nationwide destroy archaeological evidence of past eras.

However one defines preservation, it must be done, Martz and Valentin said, and the plans for Fairview Park may be impeding that goal.

"For archaeologists, it's extremely important because this site is the last one that we have that hasn't been impacted," Valentin said.

Martz couldn't help but note the ubiquitous dirt mounds, created without city permission, around the Fairview Indian Site. They're often used by adventurous cyclists as ramps.

"Hopefully, they'll do more to preserve what's left of the site," she said. "It's just so sad that we've lost so many really important sites to housing developments, and then here we have a park, where they have a really good opportunity to preserve."


Ongoing debate