An archaeological excavation, now entering its fifth month at a future Napa luxury hotel site is in view of streams of motorists on two busy streets who are wondering what is going on.
At least one person associated with the Mishewal Wappo Tribe is present while more — and deeper — holes have been dug since the work began in April at the northwest corner of First Street and Silverado Trail.
Exactly what workers are finding has not been announced.
Workers at the site and Kevin Teague, a Napa attorney advising the property owner, Palm Hill Inc., declined to say why they were still digging or what they had recovered.
Marie Dolcini, a Napa resident who drives by the site frequently, observing the tarps and tents and multiple dig sites, said she was intrigued and even somewhat concerned about the excavation.
“What’s going on?” Dolcini asked this week. “It’s just kind of mysterious.”
“The public has the right to know” about the site, said Dolcini, who is a Napa County Landmarks board member and formerly served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission. “That’s part of our cultural inheritance.”
In April, the work was described as a routine excavation of an 11-acre parcel scheduled to become home to a 351-room luxury hotel and resort estimated to cost $200 million.
At that time, Teague said surveyors were trying to determine if there were any historically significant artifacts on the site.
“This is all very standard protocol for any project along the river,” Teague said then.
“Given the amount of research we have done on the site, we do not expect any surprises,” Teague said in April. During previous digs at the same location, items such as bottles, cans, trash and quartzite flakes were found, he noted.
While no further details have been provided, some of the work can be observed from outside a security fence.
A group of workers appears to have settled in for an extended stay, pitching sleeping tents and using portable toilets and shade canopies around the parcel.
On Monday, from outside the security fence, 11 cars were seen, five overnight tents and at least seven canopy structures — some covered, some uncovered.
On two different days this past week, at least a half a dozen workers were seen in or around multiple large pits on the property.
Several men and women moved around the fenced-off area wearing outdoor work clothes, gloves and wide brimmed hats. One used a garden rake to move dirt.
Judging by how deeply the workers walked into the pits, some of them have been excavated to six feet or more.
On Monday, one man carried five-gallon plastic buckets of material from the dig sites at the center of the parcel to a covered area. At that station another man emptied part of the contents from the buckets into a framed box with a screened bottom.
He then used a hose to wash the debris and transfer what was left to another similar pan. That pan was then carried to another area near a large rented shipping container.
Small blue flags on wire stakes were seen clustered at several spots in the earth.
On Monday, a woman wearing outdoor work clothing and a wide brimmed hat approached a reporter standing outside the security fence.
The woman declined to give her name or to be interviewed but said she was concerned about interlopers or curiosity seekers disturbing the dig site.
In a phone call on Wednesday, Scott Gabaldon, chairman of the Mishewal Wappo Tribe, declined to be interviewed for this story but indicated the woman who talked to the reporter was his sister.
Teague did not return phone calls this past week to comment on this story. Another Native American tribe representative, Charlie Toledo, executive director of the Suscol Intertribal Council, could not be immediately reached for comment.
Dolcini said she has some experience with archaeology. She’s participated in conservation work in South Dakota and Australia and has done work with the Forest Service.
From her viewpoint, “This is extensive” work being done, she said.
She would be reassured if a Native American representative was involved but Dolcini wondered who else is monitoring the expanding excavation, if at all.
“It might be in the interest of any potential developer to minimize the significance of the site,” she noted.
According to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, several state and federal laws protect Native American historic and cultural resources from vandalism and looting.
The California state Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC) stipulates that when developers assess the environmental impact of their projects, they must consider historical resources as an aspect of the environment in accordance with California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) guidelines.
These cultural features can include Native American graves and artifacts; traditional cultural landscapes; natural resources used for food, ceremonies or traditional crafts; and places that have special significance.
When projects are proposed in areas where Native American cultural features are likely to be affected, one way to avoid damaging them is to have a Native American monitor present during ground disturbing work.
In sensitive areas, it may also be appropriate to have a monitor on-site during construction work. A knowledgeable, well-trained Native American monitor can identify an area that has been used as a village site, gathering area, burial site, etc. and estimate how extensive the site might be.
A monitor can prevent damage to a site by being able to communicate with others involved in the project.
If Native American artifacts are found and are believed to be burial items, the NAHC or local law enforcement should be contacted.
If remains are found, the county coroner would then be contacted. The county coroner will make a determination whether the remains are Native American; if they are, the coroner will contact the NAHC.
If Native American artifacts were to be found on the site, it wouldn’t be the first time in Napa County.
In 2015, Native American remains were found during an effort to restore the Napa River to a more natural state between Oakville and Oak Knoll.
An estimated $116,900 was allocated to analyze and preserve the human remains and $128,000 to survey undisturbed work areas to see if similar issues exist.
In 2015, Public Works Director Steven Lederer said that the finding of Native American remains does not happen with every county project, but neither is it a shock, given the historic Native American presence in Napa Valley.
Dolcini said she’s keen to make sure any artifacts are properly handled.
And if there are significant findings, it would be great to include the public in the process, she said.
“This is great stuff for kids,” students and others to learn about Napa history, she said.
The city first approved the luxury hotel in 2008, clearing the way for a five-star resort with a restaurant, spa, boutique shopping and underground valet parking. The project was to have been a Ritz-Carlton property.
But the Great Recession cut off financing and stalled the project, which has passed through several ownership changes since.
Palm Hill, the current owner, acquired the property in 2013 from River House Land Co., which had sought the Ritz-Carlton brand for the resort.
In April, Teague said results of the dig would be included in a report to the city.