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Documents discovered by museum curator reveal Catalina Island's earliest history
Funded by the Heye Foundation, amateur archaeologist Ralph Glidden is shown excavating on San Nicholas Island.

AVALON, CA.- He was a colorful character whose research into many of North America’s earliest human settlements was both groundbreaking and highly controversial. Which made all the more remarkable the announcement this past week that a large cache of original papers and photographs had been discovered documenting the earliest excavations of Catalina Island by the amateur archaeologist Ralph Glidden. Details of the discovery were first reported in a front-page article published in the Los Angeles Times. The article describes how a curator at the Catalina Island Museum discovered numerous journals, personal letters, albums, newspaper articles and, most significantly, hundreds of photographs that Glidden had compiled during his years of his research on the island.

“The sheer scale of this discovery is immense,” stated John Boraggina, the curator who discovered the collection and who has been on the job for less than a year. “One scholar from UCLA looked at all the documents and claimed that it represented 20 years of research.”

The archive of material provides the kind of documentation of Glidden’s excavations that many scholars believed either did not exist or had been lost. Found in two modestly sized boxes in the museum’s research center, the entire archive is related to the hundreds of sites Glidden excavated on the island between 1919 and 1928. Many of the oldest settlements known are located on Catalina Island and date back at least 8,000 years. Glidden was the first archaeologist granted permission to excavate the island’s interior by William Wrigley, Jr. — the chewing gum magnate, who virtually bought the island in 1919.

Glidden uncovered thousands of artifacts, including mortars and pestles used for preparing food, knives of bone and stone, cooking stones for boiling soup in baskets, flutes made of bone, beads used as currency, arrowheads, war clubs, and fishhooks made of shell and weighted with stone. The artifacts reside today in the permanent collection of the Catalina Island Museum, a museum that William Wrigley, Jr.’s son, Philip K. Wrigley, helped to establish in 1953. Glidden’s digs uncovered human remains often, and perhaps his greatest discovery was an enormous ancient cemetery with hundreds of burial sites. The archive of documents recently discovered has been described as a “missing link” that provides written and visual documentation of the thousands of skeletons and artifacts uncovered by Glidden during his nearly 10 years of excavating Santa Catalina.

“The insight that the photographs alone lend into Glidden’s work is remarkable,” Boraggina stated recently. “We had previously thought that Glidden paid little regard to any type of scientific method when working with human remains. But these photographs are evidence of his attempt to document human remains during the earliest stages of their excavation. We see a large number of undisturbed skeletons, the majority of which have been buried in what seems to be the fetal position. We’ve never before had this amount of evidence related to Glidden’s work.”

“None of the Glidden archive had ever been exhibited,” Dr. Michael De Marsche, Executive Director of the museum recently stated while standing before a display case now dedicated to material from the discovery. “I assumed my position less than two years ago, and we now know that some 20 years ago research took place on the collection, but then it was all put in boxes and placed on a shelf. I know scholars from other museums have asked if it might exist. But our records were so poor that we didn’t know. We have no central catalog listing all the material in our archive. The boxes John discovered were simply marked ‘Glidden.’ We’re in the midst of updating and organizing everything, but this won’t be fully accomplished for years.”

In 1924 Glidden opened the first “museum” on Catalina Island: the Museum of the American Indian on the Channel Islands. It certainly lived up to Glidden’s expectation that it be “unlike anything else anywhere in this country.” He based its interior on a chapel on the island of Malta, whose walls were decorated with motifs formed from the bones of monks. Many of the recently discovered photographs provide views of the museum, and Glidden’s use of skeletal remains as a macabre form of decoration. But the photographs also reveal that the unsettling interior of his museum was a popular stop for tourists. In one photograph, Glidden holds a skull while talking to two women dressed in their Sunday best.

“I think this archive lends a more complex portrait of the man,” Boraggina said while scanning the photographs. “You have to acknowledge that Glidden exploited Native American remains in the most insensitive manner imaginable. He certainly did not honor the sanctity of these remains when he organized his museum. He resorted to crass sensationalism when trying to sell tickets. On the other hand, we now know that while excavating he attempted, at times, to subscribe to a standard of archaeology prevalent during his day.”

Glidden’s museum closed in 1950, and in 1962 Philip Wrigley purchased Glidden’s entire collection of remains, documents and artifacts and donated them to the Catalina Island Museum. The Native American Grave and Repatriation Act of 1990 granted Native Americans the right to reclaim the remains of their ancestors and other sacred objects. Today, museums in the United States no longer exhibit Native American remains. “We’re in the midst of building a new museum, which will allow us to store and study this collection with the respect it deserves,” De Marsche said. “I hope to exhibit as much of our archival material and artifacts as possible. It’s exciting to think that the day our new building opens, the Catalina Island Museum becomes a respected center of scholarship in this incredibly important area of our history.”

The Catalina Island Museum is Avalon’s sole institution devoted to art, culture and the rich history of Santa Catalina Island.

More information can be read in this Los Angeles Times article.

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