Friday, October 21, 2011

Ghosts of Howard Hughes, a Small Boy, and the Playa Vista Project

One of my subordinates was an osteologist* on the Playa Vista project (see commentary below for description of the project).  Her job was to excavate and process human remains excavated from burials that were to be otherwise destroyed by the construction of a new planned community.  Once the human remains were removed from the ground, they were taken to a building that was once one of Howard Hughes' industrial facilities where they were catalogued and prepared for further analysis, repatriation, or curation, depending on the particular materials in question.

While working in the field lab, my minion (I prefer the word "minion" to "subordinate") and her coworkers began to experience some strange things.  They would see shadows moving in unoccupied rooms or between stacks of boxes; they would see something colored bright white moving along just at the corner of their vision; and they began to hear what sounded like the footprints of a child.

After a time, they began to hear noises, which at first were simply odd, indistinguishable sounds, but eventually became voices.  On more than one occasion, one of the archaeologists working int he lab said that she heard someone whisper her name into her ear.

My minion reports that after the sound of the child's footprints began at the lab, she also began hearing them at her home.  One morning, she woke up and saw the child, a little caucasian boy who looked like something from the 1950s, standing in her room.  Others working on the project reported the same thing.

For reasons that she was never quite clear on, she and the other workers came to the conclusion that the white shape seen moving in the lab was another spirit, specifically the ghost of Howard Hughes.  As far as she knows, people on the project continue to see it.

*An osteologist is an anthropologist who specializes in dealing with human bone.  On projects like this one, they often are brought in to study the remains taken out of burials.

Commentary:  First off, let me say that I am happy that this is not a typical "haunted Indian Burial ground" story.  The entire trope is rooted in racism and is insulting to Native Americans, as it essentially says lays at the feet of their ancestors every stupid thing that someone is too lazy to explain about their home.  That being said, even though the ghosts aren't Native American, these stories wouldn't exist without the excavations being performed at Playa Vista, so I would like to explain a bit about what is going on there.

The Playa Vista project is something of a textbook case of what can go wrong when Native Americans and land developers clash.

In 2003, construction of a huge mixed-use community called Playa Vista began along the Ballona Wetlands in Los Angeles County, California.  Cultural resources studies, including archaeology, had been performed prior to construction, and plans put into place for treatment of any archaeological resources encountered during construction.  This is all on the up-and-up, and everything appears to have followed the usual path from planning to environmental studies to development.

But then something went wrong.  It had been anticipated that a few burials might be found during construction, but hundreds were found.  The Native Americans who had participated in the initial studies and consultations, as well as others who had not (some claim that they were excluded intentionally, though I can find no evidence to confirm or deny such claims) demanded that plans be changed to account for the number of bodies found.  The developers refused, and continued on with the project.  Archaeologists tasked with excavating burials and seeing to it that they were properly treated got caught in the middle (with some archaeologists choosing sides and, frankly, making matters worse).  It is possible that the matter could have been resolved if the developers had been willing to redesign a portion of the project to avoid burials, or if enough bad blood had not been developed to allow for further consultation rather than simply the excavation of more burials, but this was not to be.  The project has now stretched on for eight years, and emotions continue to run high on all sides.

This Playa Vista project has devoured a huge amount of money in the excavation, study, and treatment of Native American remains.  I am one of the few archaeologists I know who has worked for more than a year in southern California who has not been sucked into the project, a fact for which I am very grateful.

So, it is in this pressure-cooker situation in which the archaeologists were working on this project, and a field lab for processing archaeological materials was set up in a building that used to be used by famous aircraft magnate/nutjob Howard Hughes.  Under the conditions, it is fair to ask whether the people who reported strange events were really experiencing them, or were simply dealing with a high-pressure situation while dealing with human remains in a building that has been owned by one of history's great creepy guys.

Still, I like the fact that the ghost story that came out of the excavation of Native American burials deal with a white industrialist and some white kid.  That amuses me.

Sources:  Personal Account, NPR News, Los Angeles Times, New York Times

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