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Melones Indian artifacts get home

A $1.5 million building is being constructed at New Melones Reservoir to store American Indian artifacts found during the dam’s construction in the 1960s and 70s.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation broke ground on the project in September and is eyeing a completion date in mid-January, according to bureau spokesman Pete Lucero. The 4,000-square-foot building is in the same area as the New Melones Visitor Center and Museum. It will not be open to the public, however.

“It’s a storage facility where we will house the artifacts on behalf of the tribes who may have a stake in those pieces,” Lucero said. “What we’ll most likely end up doing is bringing out some of the more interesting artifacts for public view at the Visitor Center.”

This week, construction crews were mostly doing “under slab work,” which involves installing some plumbing, electrical wiring and rebar prior to pouring concrete for the building’s foundation, according to Bureau of Reclamation construction-control representative Dennis Schuenemann.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built New Melones Dam from 1966 to 1978. A number of artifacts were uncovered during construction that had been left behind by the Me-Wuk Indians, who inhabited the area in large numbers for hundreds of years prior to the arrival of non-Indian settlers.

Other artifacts have been uncovered over the years as well, along the reservoir’s shorelines and areas that were inundated with water after the dam’s construction. Lucero said all those artifacts will eventually be catalogued and stored at the new building to ensure they are “protected for the ages.”

Lucero couldn’t disclose the current locations where the artifacts are being stored or provide descriptions due to ongoing “security issues.” He said some were at New Melones, while the rest were at secure facilities at various universities and colleges.

Artifacts are still found at New Melones from time to time, Lucero said, but visitors are encouraged to leave them in their place and inform the bureau of the locations.

“Part of the value of the artifact is the context of where it is found,” he said. “We could do surveys of the area to determine what it is, why it’s there and the cultural aspects of it. When you put it in your hand and walk it over to the next county, it no longer has some of the historical value it once had.”

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