Old Salt Lake | Virtual Museum
Report by Galen Hunter
[ Page updated - August 31, 2022 ]
This report looks at the study area in terms of the historiography methodology of the influential French historian Fernand Braudel. His model of historical time is applied to this writer's study of what happened to the original natural resources of the area. A fundamental multidimensional explanation of what happened is revealed. Braudel's three level model of history was first described in his monumental work "The Mediterranean" published in 1949 and is considered one of the most important historical works written during the past century. The full title of his book is: The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II.
Preface to the Second Edition from "The Mediterranean" by Fernand Braudel (last two paragraphs of the 1963 preface):
"The basic problem, however, remains the same. It is the problem confronting every historical undertaking. Is it possible somehow to convey simultaneously both that conspicuous history which holds our attention by its continual and dramatic changes - and that other, submerged, history, almost silent and always discreet, virtually unsuspected either by its observers or its participants, which is little touched by the obstinate erosion of time? This fundamental contradiction, which must always lie at the centre of our thought, can be a vital tool of knowledge and research. Relevant to every area of human life, it may take on a variety of forms according to the terms of the comparison.
Historians have over the years grown accustomed to describing this contradiction in terms of structure and conjuncture, the former denoting long-term, the latter, short-term realities. Clearly there are different kinds of structure just as there are different kinds of conjuncture, and the duration of either structure or conjuncture may in turn vary. History accepts and discovers multidimensional explanations, reaching, as it were, vertically from one temporal plane to another. And on every plane there are also horizontal relationships and connections. The reader will find my feeling expressed more simply and unequivocally in the preface to the first edition, which also describes my original intentions and explains the arrangement of the chapters of the book."
Preface to the First Edition from "The Mediterranean" by Fernand Braudel (selected excerpts from the 1946 preface):
"The first part is devoted to a history whose passage is almost imperceptible, that of man in his relationship to the environment, a history of constant repetition, ever-recurring cycles. I could not neglect this almost timeless history, the story of man's contact with the inanimate, ..."
"On a different level from the first there can be distinguished another history, this time with slow but perceptible rhythms. If the expression had not been diverted from it full meaning, one could call it social history, the history of groups and groupings. How did these swelling currents affect the Mediterranean life in general - this was the question I asked myself in the second part of the book, studying in turn economic systems, states, societies, civilizations and finally, in order to convey more clearly my conception of history, attempting to show how all these deep-seated forces were at work in the complex arena of warfare. For war, as we know, is not an arena governed purely by individual responsibilities.
Lastly, the third part gives a hearing to traditional history - history, one might say, on the scale not of man, but of individual men, what Paul Lacombe and Francois Simiand called "l'histoire événementielle", that is the history of events: surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs. A history of brief, rapid, nervous fluctuations, by definition ultra-sensitive; the least tremor sets all the antennae quivering. But as such it is the most exciting of all, the richest in human interest, and also the most dangerous. We must learn to distrust this history with its still burning passions, as it was felt, described, and lived by comtemporaries whose lives were as short and short-sighted as ours. It has the dimensions of their anger, dreams, or illusions. ..."
"The final effect then is to dissect history into various planes, or, to put it another way, to divide historical time into geographical time, social time, and individual time. ..."
Braudel's Three Planes of Historical Time (brief outline):
1) Structure, Longue Durée (Long Term), Geographical time, Geological time, Ecological history
2) Conjuncture, Cyclical movements, Social time, Political and Economic history
3) Events, Individual time
The Study Area and Research:
The study area is a place with a remarkable past. Located on the Pacific Coast in Southern California, there are remnants of the original prehistoric and historic natural resources. Moreover, there was an old tradition of serious curiosity about these resources. Accordingly, a person today can, 1) study the archaeology, anthropology and natural history of the area, 2) study the social, political and economic history, 3) live there and become familiar with the other individuals living there, 4) attend local social and political events, 5) figure out how to obtain copies of the oldest surviving documents about the area, and 6) find the current location of many of the oldest surviving artifacts collected from the area long ago. Next, a person can, A) track how the vast majority of these old documents and artifacts became stored elsewhere, out of the study area, B) realize the degree to which the official history of the area is wrong, and the reason, C) generally marvel how epic it is what actually happened to the original natural resources and is still happening to the remnants, and D) personally experience how closely connected past events are to current events. Perhaps then to continue that old tradition, a person can try to independently document the results of their own research for someone in the distant future to maybe discover and even update.
“Engva. The Place of The Salts” by William J. Wallace
Dr. William J. Wallace (1915 – 2005) became a resident of the Redondo Beach area in 1955 and first viewed the lake site in 1956. He later obtained collections from at least two excavations of the site. The first collection from a dig in May 1960, with his USC class. The second collection from a dig in the spring of 1961 with a four volunteer crew. Some twenty four years later, Wallace wrote a paper about the 1960/61 excavations titled “Engva. The Place of The Salts”. Excerpt:
When first viewed in 1956 during the course of an archaeological survey of the Redondo Beach - Palos Verdes area, Engva presented a depressing appearance and gave a sad reminder how man had changed the entire look of the landscape. The salt ponds no longer contained water and Southern California Edison Company Steam plant occupied most of their former beds. Atop a sandhill north of the Edison installation and separated from it by a dead-end road stood ruins of an old salt works brick building and an abandoned oil-well, local residents had for a long time used the locality as a casual dumping ground and all manner of that littered the ground.
Despite man-caused devastation and a veneer of modern rubbish, signs of former Indian presence could still be readily detected. Liberally sprinkled over the ground were weathered seashells and fire-cracked rocks. And, here and there, beneath shifting sand could be seen patches of darkened soil. Surface hunting carried on sporadically for several years, most often following heavy wind – or rainstorms, yielded a modest assortment of artifacts.
Engva seemed worthy of fuller exploration, so two excavations were undertaken."
[ ... ]
A few general conclusions regarding Engva’s native history can be drawn from the archaeological findings. To begin with, the nature of the deposit – it’s shallowness, discontinuity and meager artifact content – strongly argues for brief intermittent rather than sustained occupation. Seemingly, Indian peoples came to the ponds only when they wanted to renew their stock of salt and stayed just long enough to harvest what they needed or wanted for trading purposes. At such time they camped along the fringing sand dunes. Preference for certain spots led eventually to the building up of relatively thick bands of habitational debris such as the one revealed by the second excavation.
Remains of their meals make it clear that the salt-gathers took full advantage of the ocean’s proximity to collect shellfish along its shores, to fish in its waters and to capture marine mammals and sea birds. Just as surely, they drew upon local plants for food, implements for their processing figure among the finds. A few rabbit bones and antler fragments demonstrate that they occasionally hunted land animals."
[ ... ]
"It is hard to say just when native utilization of the Redondo salt ponds began, for the great majority of objects found are either to general in form or too long-lasting to be helpful as indicators of time. However, two classes of artifact, small, leaf-shaped projectile points and shell fishhooks have value in this regard. Both regularly form part of collection from archaeological sites in this section of the Southern California coast that saw habitation in the last prehistoric period (Wallace).
"On the slender evidence of the presence of these two kinds of items, combined with a lack of demonstrably older materials, it can be suggested that the salt ponds were exploited by native peoples only during the last prehistoric period, generally believed to have begun around A.D. 500 or a few centuries earlier. The established pattern of intermittent harvesting presumably lasted up to the time when the local Indians took up residence at San Gabriel and San Fernando missions in the late 18th and early 19th century."
|Baseline Durations of Time with Status of Natural Resources|
|Duration of time around 1,300 years "the salt ponds were exploited by native peoples". 500 to [say] 1805, according to Wallace above.|
|Duration of time around 36 years. 1769 to 1805. The Spaniards arrived in 1769 as the Portola expedition first exploring the Los Angeles basin. In 1805, the hunter-gatherers permanently gone from the salt lake site after using it for 1,300 years. The native peoples left the area as a place and basically in the condition they found it.|
|Spanish control of the area lasted 52 years. 1769 to 1821. Mexico obtains independence from Spain in 1821.|
|Mexican control of the area lasted 27 years. 1821 to 1848. Although, Americans began to arrive in the area around 1830, they officially take the control of the area from Mexico in 1848.|
|The natural resources of the area after the Spanish and Mexican period of occupation -- somewhat intact, with the exception of the native grassland ecology being destroyed forever by their cattle and probably the deforestation of native willow trees for fuel. However, the native marine life was good and the rain catchment areas and the salt and fresh water aquifers still functioned, relative to what happened next, in the same condition as when the area was taken from the native peoples.|
|Duration of time around 100 years. Say, 1848 to 1950. In less than one-tenth of the duration of time hunter-gatherers extracted salt from the salt lake site, the Americans eliminated the possibility of any hunter-gatherer culture ever simply existing in the area again living off the native natural resources. By 1950, the Americans had devastated the area, including replacing the pebble beach with rock revetment and a breakwater, paving the rain catchments/watersheds, dumping tons of DDT, the toxic pesticide, into the ocean, depleting and polluting the salt and the fresh water aquifers, bulldozing the sand dunes and the salt lake, etc.|
Reminiscent of the "Longue Durée", the archaeologist William Wallace in 1956 observed:
"Engva presented a depressing appearance and gave a sad reminder how man had changed the entire look of the landscape."
Imagine you obtained an copy of Dr. William Wallace's paper titled “Engva. The Place of The Salts". This is a copy of his original, handwritten, unpublished manuscript plus notes. You're taking the time to wrap your mind around Wallace's observations while sitting at a desk in the Redondo Beach Public Library, which is located two blocks from "Engva". From this desk, you can see through a window with a view in the direction of the site you're currently reading about. You can see the stacks of the electricity generating power plant which has been occupying this site for a long time. From the spot where you are sitting, 150 years ago you might have been able to see the salt lake, the sand dune and even hear the sound of waves breaking on the pebble beach. Being a good time to stretch your legs, you walk out of the entrance to the library. Instantly, you look east as the siren of an emergency vehicle starts blasting its way through the traffic on Pacific Coast Highway. Then you look west. A group of people are milling around.
There's an event next door. It's a city council meeting. You walk into the meeting room, sit down and observe. The meeting is about the future of Engva. The people in the room are referring to the site as the AES Power Plant. You're still thinking it's a place named Engva. However, you've also been studying the corporate history of the area and are quite aware "AES" is the name of an international energy corporation and this corporation is the current owner of the power plant, as well as, the area the plant is occupying. You think about an old photograph you've seen of the "Engineering Library" inside the power plant. The building and the room the engineering library was in still exists. However, you were told by representatives of the current and previous owner of the power plant that documents important to your research of the area (old geotechnical, hydrological studies, etc.) are no longer around. The building where the engineering library room is located is where the sand dune was. The sand dune was located between the salt lake and the pebble beach. The sand dune, the salt lake and the pebble beach are gone. The pebble beach is now a harbor. Recently trapped inside the harbor, a massive amount of sardines died due to a lack of oxygen in the water. The event was initially reported to the news as likely a natural die-off. This message traveled around the world. The event will happen again.
In the city meeting room, people are still talking about the future of Engva in terms of what AES is going to do. You wonder, what interval of time will pass before individuals are no longer using the name "AES" in a city council meeting? What interval of time will pass before there is no longer a functioning city? The townsite as a project was feasible primarily because, historically at the time, the salt works at the salt lake site had a "practically inexhaustible" supply of excellent fresh water. The first task of the Redondo Beach Company was to put in a works to extract the water in large amounts and they did. The townsite was originally planned as a seaside watering place. It's epic how conjunctures have superimposed upon one another on the area and individuals are still acting -- As If -- when the structure of the area has always been and will remain virtually imperceptible to them. This contradiction is a fundamental explanation of what happened to all the original natural resources of the area. The degree to which the contradiction resolves through durations of historical time blows your mind.