West Berkeley Shellmound


designated in 2000

Site of the West Berkeley Shellmound

Spenger’s Parking Lot: 1919 4th Street

Bay Area cities have failed to protect archeological sites that once contained stone relics, bones, and other artifacts left by the area’s earliest inhabitants. Little now remains of the just over 400 shellmounds that once circled the Bay. The site of Berkeley’s mound, one of the oldest, may be the City’s least known, most hidden landmark.

Before the time of Jesus, before Solomon built his temple, before Stonehenge was erected or Cheops built his pyramid, a small community of Native Americans lived on a mound of shells and ash in marshlands that are now West Berkeley. Shellfish—mussels, clams, oysters, barnacles, abalone, and others—were their food staple. With passing centuries discarded shells and ash from burning wood formed a huge mound. One in neighboring Emeryville was 270 feet in diameter and 60 feet high. An exhibit behind the shopping mall that sits atop that site on Shellmound Street commemorates the flattened mound.

The above-ground portion of the Berkeley mound was removed, shovel by shovel, between 1853 and 1910 and sold as fertilizer, chicken feed, and grading material for roads. Portions of the mound may have been scattered in your backyard or beneath the street where you live. The mound’s oldest subterranean parts now rest beneath Spenger’s parking lot though, after a 1950 UC archeological dig, portions were replaced by “engineered soil” to better support subsequent development.

Radiocarbon dating suggests that native people settled here in 3700BC and inhabited the area of Berkeley’s shellmound for 4500 years. Around 800A.D., at the time when Arab mathematicians were inventing algebra, they mysteriously disappeared. It is speculated that the Ohlone Indians, who the Spaniards encountered in this area at the end of the 18th century, were descendants of people who had lived here peaceably for millennia.

Contributed by Robert Kehlmann, 2013

  • Shell Mound Amusement Park once sat near the site of Emeryville's shellmound (ca.1900), Wikimedia Commons

  • Emeryville Shellmound being leveled, photo (1924) W.E. Schenck & L.L. Lound, Hearst Museum of Anthropology

  • Berkeley Shellmound today, photo (2013) R. Kehlmann

More information:
Malcolm Margolin, The Ohlone Way, Heyday Books, Berkeley (1978)
Emeryville Shellmound
City of Emeryville
Indian People Organizing for Change
Berkeley Landmarking controversy
Before California: An Archaeologist Looks at Our Earliest Inhabitants, Brian Fagan, Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, CA (2003).

Photo credit abbreviations:
BAHA: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Assn.
BHS: Berkeley Historical Society