The sensory onslaught was bad enough. The grief was worse. Those involved won't soon forget it, though some wish they could.
The event was the discovery of American Indian remains during the clearing of a site for a regional shopping center in Emeryville from 1997 to 2002. As recounted in "Shellmound," a short documentary by Oakland filmmaker Andrés Cediel, the find was extraordinary. Hundreds of bodies were uncovered, many of them having been buried with obvious reverence by the rich and peaceable Ohlone culture that thrived on San Francisco Bay for thousands of years before California was colonized by people of European descent.
The 21-minute movie focuses on how various participants handled the challenge of managing what became a construction site atop a cemetery. It would have been a delicate task under any conditions, but consider that the ground in which the remains were embedded was saturated with a singularly vile toxic brew left behind by the acid vats of an abandoned paint factory.
Thrown together in a triple ordeal, workers had to weigh the foul and the sacred, progress and memory, and decide whether to hurry up or to pray.
Contractors performed the necessary task of removing the poisons so that future users of the land -- shoppers, diners, moviegoers and residents of new apartments and townhomes with Golden Gate views -- would be protected. American Indian representatives also had a vital task to carry out: trying to ensure that the ancient users of the land, their nameless ancestors, would be able to rest with dignity.
In the film, Ohlone descendant Kathy Perez recalls finding a jawbone and reburying it on the spot. Over the remains she simply said, "Forgive me."
Cediel's goal when he started filming was to tell the history of a central spot on the Bay Area landscape: the shoreline at the mouth of Temescal Creek near the eastern approach to the Bay Bridge. He was interested in exploring the various transformations the place has undergone over the millennia.
The 29-year-old filmmaker had a sense that with a 400,000-square-foot shopping and entertainment center having just opened, the location had come full circle back to the busy and diverse crossroads it had been before modern times.
For thousands of years, the shoreline at the creek was the salubrious meeting ground for one of the most densely populated and linguistically diverse communities on the Pacific Rim. It was a food hub and trading center - - a "flea market," one speaker in the movie says -- with bay views from atop a 60-foot-high cone of discarded shells that spread out over the equivalent of a football field.
The mound-building culture had gone by the time the Spanish arrived in the 18th century, but the towering shell mound remained undisturbed for another 100 years. Modernity came in 1876 when the top of the man-made hill was lopped off for the dance pavilion for Shellmound Park, San Franciscans' playground till the 1920s.
It was literally a case of dancing on the grave, a historian says in the movie, yet the amusement park also preserved the base of the mound and most of the remains buried deep within it.
In the 1920s, archaeologists were able to save more than 600 remains before the amusement park gave way to a plant making pigment for red paint. The bones are still stored at the Hearst Anthropology Museum on the UC Berkeley campus, awaiting repatriation to the Ohlone.
As he began shooting, Cediel knew he had more on his hands than a story about the past. He was surprised by the intensity of the emotions still felt by people who had worked on the cleanup and recovery of remains, which had been sealed off below the floor of the mound when the paint factory was built.
He found that although the land had been cleaned up and transformed into a vibrant urban space, memory remained a powerful force. The shopping center, Bay Street Emeryville, was open and busy, but the conflict was unresolved.
Every one of the native people and archaeologists who worked on the site told Cediel that they won't go back. Two seemed almost scarred by the experience.
"I personally don't shop here," Cediel said while walking the site recently. "I do feel conflicted about the whole situation. There are unresolved issues here. This is a place of transition, and it's a transition that usually happens once in a thousand years.
"There's a lot of volatile energy here," said Cediel, who made the film for his journalism master's project at UC Berkeley last year. "Most of the people I talked to in the film were very emotional. People were very upset about what had happened."
Some 300 bodies were reburied in an unmarked grave on the mall site. About 100 were taken from what later became the parking lot behind a Victoria's Secret store.
It's estimated that hundreds more lie beneath the center's concrete floor. Nobody knows how many remains were scooped up and taken to landfills or incinerated during the toxic cleanup. Chuck Striplen, an Ohlone descendant and archaeologist who worked on the excavation, estimates dozens.
No sign exists to indicate the Emeryville spot was and remains a burial site. But the workers saw everything.
Glimpsing thousands of years back in time inside the most intimate part of the largest of the hundreds of shell mounds that once dotted the Bay Area, they saw adults with limbs intertwined, women with babies, bodies in groups, bodies laid to rest under a large grinding stone mortar and uncovered during the digging of a hole for a french-fry grease pit, bones rubberized by exposure to arsenic-laced goo, skeletons broken by time and the backhoe.
"Inside, I was feeling this emotion of wanting to scream and wanting to cry at the same time," Ohlone descendant Perez says on camera. A consulting archaeologist appears equally upset, calling the place toxic.
"When you're the person uncovering it, you've released what energy is there," said Cediel, who has a 20-month-old son with his wife, Nives Wetzel de Cediel, the director of a nonprofit youth program in Oakland. "That's why a lot of the people who worked on this site were so conflicted."
Cediel, whose ancestry goes back to the Chibcha people of the high mountain plains of Colombia, doesn't take sides in the movie, which he presents in sober PBS-like style. He acknowledges the efforts made by the developer, Madison Marquette, to pay homage to the past, including a memorial walk that tells the story of native life on Temescal Creek.
However, Cediel said in an interview that the memorial could have gone further. "There's no mention that we found over 1,000 people buried here," he said.
"Apparently a lot of time and effort went into the design of the memorial -- the detail of the symbolism, the use of native plants and motifs," he said. "It's too bad that a similar effort hasn't been made to outreach and educate the community about the significance of the land they walk on." The memorial is a sensitive point among some Ohlone. "If the Ohlone people who worked on the site can't even stomach going there, why have a memorial in the first place?" Striplen asked.
Also touchy is how the recovery of the remains was handled. A company representative says in the film that he is proud of how sensitively the task was done. Ohlone descendant Striplen strongly disagrees.
Berkeley resident Stephanie Manning, publisher of the Shellmounder News and an advocate for preserving native burial sites, points blame at no one. In an interview, she said the Emeryville experience showed that when the interests of development and history clash, the odds are stacked against history.
"The city of Emeryville scrupulously followed (California Environmental Quality Act) regulations, and they really covered themselves," she said. "And even still we lost the most valuable of shell mounds to the shopping mall. It kind of speaks to the failure of CEQA to protect sites."
Cediel is considering filming a postscript that would enlarge on the complicated emotions and politics still swirling around the Emeryville shell mound. The views range from an Ohlone leader who did his Christmas shopping at the mall last year to protesters who gather at the start of the Christmas shopping season to demonstrate against what they call the "dead mall."
The retelling of the Emeryville story comes at a time when Ohlone representatives are concerned about possible development in nearby West Berkeley on the base of what is an even older shell mound. Striplen, who believes the mound also contains burials, hopes that if development occurs the soil will not be seriously disturbed.
"Shellmound" has played at several small film festivals. Cediel also is distributing it to schools and libraries and hopes to work out a local television deal.
"People have been coming here for thousands of years," he said. "There's something special about this place that's drawn different people for a long time. Certain bad things happened here. It's kind of a force of human nature. What I see as my role and my task is to at least let people know where they are."
As Cediel looked west from the mall, shore birds wheeled above the mudflats and a spring breeze from the Golden Gate blew softly over Shellmound Street. People were pouring in for another day of shopping and relaxation.
"Without that thing about bones," Cediel said, "this place would be a complete success."