On the Hunt
Controversial wildlife photographer tracks potential archaeological treasures.
Thursday, November 15, 2012
The rocks at Carmel River State Beach are a bit like cumulus clouds: Lighting, angle and imagination can reveal different pictures in their shapes.
But Pacific Grove-based wildlife photographer Ivan Eberle thinks one particular hunk of granite is too symmetrical to have been sculpted by wind and waves. He describes it as “Sphinx-like,” and its horned visage—complete with a deep, round eye socket—is uncanny.
Eberle isn’t an archaeologist, and he knows that without an official State Parks assessment, his Sphinx idea is just a hunch. But he suspects it, and other sites deep in Monterey County’s wilderness, merit closer inspection.
In June, Eberle led a team of archaeologists—Gary Breschini and Trudy Haversat of Salinas-based Archaeological Consulting, and Bob Strickland of Los Padres National Forest—to a cave in the Tassajara area, where he showed them six white paintings consistent with the more numerous hand-print designs documented in another Los Padres cave. Breschini believes those paintings date back to Esselen Indian inhabitation in the late prehistoric era.
Eberle claims his discovery has gotten the cave into the National Register of Historic Places. But officials with the California Office of Historic Preservation and the National Register have no record of a recent Monterey County prehistoric cave listing.
“I’m sure it could not have happened,” Strickland says.
Still, Breschini appreciates that Eberle’s photographic forays led to sites meriting archaeological inspection. “We’ve been out there since the ’70s looking at these caves, and [Eberle’s discovery] was in a different direction than where we’d been looking,” he says.
He’s cautious about interpreting the rock on Carmel River State Beach as a prehistoric sculpture, but he confirms the beach contains ancient mortar holes and is adjacent to an Esselen ancestral site dating back nearly 10,000 years.
On Oct. 18 Eberle launched a Kickstarter campaign, soliciting $16,500 in crowd-sourced funding to digitize and print his large-format negatives and continue the field work he claims could unveil more archaeological treasures.
But as of Nov. 13, two days before the campaign’s close, only $10 had been pledged. In a related comment thread, three posters mock Eberle’s claims.
They’re not the only skeptics. Keith Vandevere, a Monterey County planning commissioner with an interest in wilderness issues, posted a tongue-in-cheek entry about the Kickstarter bid on his blog Xasáuan Today, writing, “Ivan Eberle recently revealed to the world what could well be the most significant finds ever made in the field of North American pre-history…Exciting stuff!”
Just the mention of Vandevere’s name triggers Eberle’s fury. The two began sparring online in the wake of the 2008 Basin Complex Fire, when Eberle was caretaking the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy’s observatory.
Eberle was charged with interfering with firefighters during the blaze but claimed he was only protecting the observatory. The charges were dropped.
Commenting on a July 2008 Xasáuan Today post about wildfire management, Vandevere and Eberle locked horns in a prickly debate. Eberle, convinced Vandevere found a way to optimize Xasáuan Today posts in a Google search of his name, still holds a grudge.
“The only secret search engine optimization technique I know is to write about stuff people are interested in reading,” Vandevere responds.
Still, Breschini says Eberle’s explorations hold real potential for archaeological discovery. “In the process he’s found this one site,” Breschini says, “and to us that’s extremely useful.”