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East Village construction dig uncovers 2-million-year-old marine fossils

The ancient shells found in a construction pit were given to San Diego Natural History Museum, nearby elementary schools

Tom Deméré relishes visiting construction sites with vertical shafts sunk deep into the earth.

“It’s always exciting to be involved in a project that extends straight down. The deeper you go, the farther in time you go back,” said Deméré, the longtime curator of paleontology for the San Diego Natural History Museum.

On March 18, he and fellow paleontologists from the Balboa Park museum were at the Jefferson Makers Quarter construction site in East Village, where thousands of marine fossils up to 2 million years old were discovered about 48 feet below street level. Deméré said the fossilized shells included oysters, clams, snails and barnacles from the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs, a time when the East Village area was an estuary.

“It’s an odd juxtaposition when you’re deep down in one of these excavations and looking at strata a couple million years old and you can hear the sounds of the city around you,” said Deméré. “People in East Village might not realize that where they’re living has history, and in this case it’s at least 2 million years old. If they just pause for a moment and think about that, they’ll realize they’re living at just one point of time in history.”

A sample of these new fossil finds are being added to the museum’s 1.5-million specimen fossil collection, most of which has been gathered over the past several decades in the same way: salvage paleontology. Under state law, large construction projects in fossil-rich areas are required to have scientists onsite to protect and recover any fossils unearthed. Deméré said the relationship between contractor and scientist can be strained or it can be fruitful.

“Different developers have different views on what they want to do with discoveries on their projects. Some want us gone and want it to be a secret, but sometimes you have projects where the people onsite are excited about not just digging a hole in the dirt but about digging a hole in time.”

Fortunately for this salvage project, the construction team loved collaborating with the scientists. San Diego native Frank Najera is senior project superintendent with JPI Development and Construction, the Texas company that’s building the Jefferson Makers Quarter project at Broadway and 15th Street. The massive mixed-use project, slated for completion in fall 2023, will have 384 housing units, ground floor retail and three-and-a-half floors of underground parking. Its exterior design will incorporate the original facade of an historic Ford car dealership building that has stood on the site since 1919.

Najera, 62, is passionate about history. In the mid-1990s, his company won a national award for historic preservation for re-creating the House of Hospitality in Balboa Park with 6,000 elements of the original building. Before he started on the Jefferson project, Najera said he and his construction crew toured the museum’s fossil collection so they’d know what to look for while digging. In this case, Deméré told them to keep an eye out for shells.

Two million years ago, San Diego looked very different. The sea level was higher and San Diego Bay was larger and deeper. Over millennia, the shallower areas of the bay near downtown and East Village filled with silt, forming an estuary with streams and mud flats where tidal species thrived.

Najera said the JPI crew didn’t come across any fossils until a contractor dug a rectangular pit about 45 to 48 feet down for the footings of the building in the parking garage area. The workers ran into a layer of rock that had the look and structure of concrete. Deméré told them they’d likely hit highly pressurized sandstone and if they chipped away at it with a hammer it was likely packed with shells.

“So they hit it with hammers and picked and prodded and then they got a water hose and sprayed it. It was like you went to Las Vegas. The shells were spilling out like it was a slot machine and you’d hit the jackpot,” Najera said.

After studying the site, Deméré said the shells found in the pit appeared to be an accumulation of dead marine organisms that had been flushed out of their habitat to the east by rainfall or flooding. The shells were found scattered and on their sides, rather than attached vertically to substrate as they would be when they’re alive.

To help the paleontology team, the construction crew excavated the rock and brought a huge load up to street level. Deméré and his team gathered all the samples they needed. Then he asked Najera if the excess fossil-filled sandstone could be donated to three nearby elementary schools for their hands-on science programs.

Najera was happy to oblige. He broke up the huge rocks into basketball-size chunks, loaded them in the back of his truck and delivered them to the principals at nearby Perkins Elementary, Burbank Elementary and King-Chavez Arts and Athletics Academy. He has asked the schools if they might invite him back so he can watch the children chip away at the rocks to make their own fossil discoveries.

“I really think it’s important for us to preserve the past,” Najera said. “I feel really blessed to help give this to the museum and to the kids of San Diego Unified.

Shelley Baca, principal at King-Chavez, was thrilled to receive these heavy hunks of history for her students, who she said will do their own paleontology discovery work later this year when they’re allowed to gather again in groups for science projects.

“They’re absolutely going to love it,” Baca said. “Hands-on learning is always the best route to go. What’s really special is that these fossils came from our own community, just down the road. That makes the connection so much greater for our students. They’ll have a blast with it.”

Deméré, 72, has worked at the museum since 1979 and has no plans to retire because he finds his work so enjoyable. One of his greatest pleasures is interacting with the young dinosaur-obsessed children at the museum, so he enjoys finding ways to get fossils into kids’ hands.

“I love the opportunity to bring on board these young people who are interested in fossils,” he said. “These 5- to 7-year-olds may be the paleontologists of the next generation.”

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