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Old black and white photo of artifacts in a dig site


The first recorded archaeological excavation in Orange County was conducted by the American Museum of Natural History in 1912 around Newport Bay. After a hiatus because of World War II, efforts picked up in 1961 when local citizens formed an advocacy group, the Pacific Coast Archaeological Society, with the goal of preserving and understanding the cultural resources of this region.

The first paleontological study was in 1927 when a student at the California Institute of Technology discovered the first dinosaur fossil on the west coast, a 70 million-year-old hadrosaur. Over the next several decades, fossil collecting was largely left to amateur enthusiasts, though thankfully many of those finds were later donated to the County.

Systematic recovery began in the 1970s when there was a major shift in managing these resources. In 1970 the California Environmental Quality Act was passed which required state and local agencies “to identify the significant environmental impacts of their actions and to avoid or mitigate those impacts,” including fossils and artifacts. Two resolutions (No. 77-866 and No. 87-516) were later passed by the Orange County Board of Supervisors to require that all County-permitted projects be monitored for archaeological and paleontological materials and stipulated that finds must be donated to the County of Orange “for the purpose of promoting scientific study and for display for the education and enjoyment of the people of Orange County.”

Although these fossils and artifacts were being stored, curation of these finds only began in 1999 when OC Parks contracted with Cal State Fullerton to prepare and catalog the County’s collection; a collaboration that lasted nearly 20 years. Today, OC Parks has its own dedicated paleontologists and archaeologists who work exclusively with the County’s collection. As stewards of the County of Orange Paleontology and Archaeology (COPA) collection, our staff is committed to employing the highest standards of curation on the more than six million fossils and artifacts held in perpetuity with the County of Orange.

The Cooper Laboratory 

The Cooper Laboratory is a curation and preparation facility for Orange County's artifacts and fossils. The lab is named after Dr. John D. Cooper, a professor emeritus of geological sciences at California State University, Fullerton, who was instrumental in creating this facility for the County of Orange Paleontological and Archaeological collections. An advocate for the collection since the early 1970s, he obtained a grant that established a curatorial framework in 1999 and volunteered his time after the funding ended until he passed away in September 2007. His legacy continues with ongoing work to curate and research the collections, as well as share their world-class riches with the people of Orange County.