Geraldine Aron is a detective.
But you won’t find her tracking down bank robbers or serial killers. Instead, she looks for fossils and artifacts that might offer a window to the past. And those “windows” are often found in the midst of busy construction sites, along planned high-speed rail lines or in other areas of active development.
As president, CEO and principal paleontological investigator with Paelo Solutions in Monrovia, Aron coordinates on-site services for local governments, private developers, planning firms, public utilities, transportation agencies and other infrastructure entities throughout California and other western states.
When a developer or agency plans to build something — whether it’s a residential or commercial project — California laws requires environmental impact reports to be done. The EIR provides a detailed analysis of all the potential effects a development might have on the local environment. It touches on such issues as air quality, noise levels, traffic patterns, endangered species in the project area and archaeological artifacts that might be found.
A turtle dating back 12 million years
Paleo Solutions monitors activity at construction sites and assesses the significance of any fossils or artifacts that turn up.
And Aron has found some doozies.
“I found a 9-foot-by-10-foot leatherback turtle that dated back about 12 million years in San Clemente,” she said. “It was about four miles inland. That tells us that the climate was very different in coastal California back then. There was a lot more ocean and sediment. It would have been similar to how the environment is in Santa Barbara today.”
Workers also recently found the fossil of a Baleen whale in the Santa Cruz area that is also thought to be millions of years old.
Work along the high-speed rail corridor
The company is currently assessing the land along a segment of California’s planned high-speed rail line running from Palmdale to Burbank.
“We did some record searches for the area and also did some on-site surveys,” said Courtney Richards, a principal investigator with Paleo Solutions. “Some areas along there have the potential for formations. … But this is still ongoing and in the early phases.”
The company also is working on other segments of the high-speed rail corridor between San Francisco and San Jose and between San Jose and Merced.
Highly skilled experts in the field
Founded in 2004 by Aron and Scott Armstrong, Paleo Solutions employs 38 people, including archaeologists, paleontological/archaeological field technicians, a geologist/safety officer and a GIS (Geographic Information System) specialist, among others.
Sometimes, the work must be done in the middle of active construction.
“When that’s the case, we’ll have a safety meeting and let them know that we’ll be walking around the site,” Aron said. “Our employees will be equipped with hard hats and steel-toed shoes. There’s a lot of safety involved.”
Handle with care
When something of significance is found, it must be handled with care.
“We’re looking as they’re digging,” Aron said. “It takes a trained eye to see these things because sometimes it will be a tiny find. Earth movers are some of the best equipment to follow around because they take the ground down layer by layer. You also have to watch when they are trenching or drilling — you have to see what comes out.”
Depending on the size and fragility of a find, a variety of tools can be used to retrieve it without causing damage. Picks, rock hammers and even small dental-like brushes are used.
“If it’s not something we can pick up, we’ll encase it in a plaster-of-Paris type material to get it out of the ground without it falling apart,” Aron said. “And when we get it to the office, we’ll put a chemical on to harden it because these things can degrade pretty quickly once they get exposed to the air.”
Paleo Solutions also found the remains of a ground sloth in the Beaumont area that was determined to be anywhere from 1.3 million to 1.8 million years old. Another discovery in the San Clemente area yielded a Brontotheriidae, a rhinoceros-like animal that dated back about 40 million years.
Significant finds can delay construction work
Aron said the artifacts the company finds rarely disrupt work at construction sites.
“Usually they have a whole lot to do, so they can work around us or go work in another area,” she said. “But if we find human remains, that’s a different story. That will stop construction.”
Todd Bowden, a project manager for Bowden Development in Monrovia, said he’s never had to deal with that issue. But he knows of a situation that resulted in a total work stoppage.
“Someone was planning to build a project along Huntington Drive in Pasadena, about six or seven years ago, when some historic artifacts were found,” he said. “The whole procedure of dealing with that took two or three years and the land went into foreclosure, with the bank eventually selling it off. We ended up building three of the 15 homes that were later built there.”