Presidio dig yields new treasures

Courtesy of Barbara Voss Rita Lomio

Rita Lomio, who graduated in 2004 with a degree in classics, excavates at the Presidio, where Assistant Professor Barbara Voss of the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropolgy is leading an archaeological dig.

A year after sifting through the first shovelful of dirt, an archaeological dig at the Presidio, in San Francisco, continues to reveal secrets about daily life at the former garrison.

According to project director Barbara Voss, key finds this summer include evidence of an intense fire in an adobe house near El Polin Spring, outside the main fort, and the discovery of two domestic trash dumps dating from the early 19th to early 20th centuries.

Voss, an assistant professor in the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology, said such discoveries are important because they provide clues about how people lived during the Spanish Colonial, Mexican and early American periods that are not recorded in historical documents.

From June 16 to July 21, Voss and a team of students from Stanford and other universities participated in the Tennessee Hollow Watershed Archaeological Project. The five-year dig, which is open to the public, is supported by Stanford, the Presidio Trust and the National Park Service. This season, archaeologists led tours and hosted up to 50 drop-in visitors daily while a corps of community volunteers screened, cleaned and sorted artifacts in a field lab nearby.

Rita Lomio, a 2004 Stanford graduate in classics, said the project has helped expand the public's awareness of archaeology. "Many people are interested in archaeology, but awareness usually comes only from stunning pictures in National Geographic," she said. "Because the dig at El Polin Spring is local to the Bay Area, we have the opportunity to expose the public to the nitty-gritty of archaeology. It's an excellent opportunity to share the history of the Presidio."

Stacey Camp, a first-year doctoral student and the project's mapping specialist, agreed that one of the best parts of the project was working with visitors. "It's quite uncommon for an excavation to be conducted in such an urban, public environment," she said.

Volunteer Michelle Touton, a co-term student who graduated in archaeology this year and will earn a master's in anthropology in 2005, said it was the discipline's hands-on nature that convinced her to switch from majoring in math. Touton, 21, said she got hooked on archaeology after excavating the Stanford mansion on campus in 2001. "I love working on [the Presidio] project because it connects me to the people who came before me," she said. "I love finding the details of their lives, things they never expected ­ and certainly never intended ­ to be seen and studied by scientists a hundred or more years after their deaths."

Summer 2004

This season, Voss's team narrowed the focus of the dig to an area in and around the foundation of the adobe building unearthed last summer ­ the first outlying building ever found beyond the colonial settlement of the Presidio. Based on historical evidence, Voss said it is likely the 19th-century adobe was inhabited by Marcos Briones and his adult daughters, Juana and Maria Guadalupe Briones, all of whom were linked to the founding of San Francisco.

Voss explained it is the first time an archaeological project has discovered and identified a house fire in an adobe building in Spanish-colonial California. Archaeologists discovered the blaze was so hot it fired the mud brick floor in place. "We're trying to pinpoint the relation between the fire and the period of occupation," Voss said. It is likely the blaze occurred after the building was abandoned, but it is not clear why it happened, she added.

This year's dig also revealed a trash deposit near the adobe containing shards of pottery, glass, buttons, nails and tool fragments dating from about 1810 to the late 1840s. The researchers plan to compare these findings with smaller artifacts discovered inside the house to understand the connection between what the inhabitants were using and throwing away, Voss said. Members of the Briones family were known to be traditional healers, or curanderas,and Voss said the team will look closely at microscopic deposits of botanical material and pollen. "We're really interested in finding archaeological evidence of medicines," Voss said.

In a surprising discovery, the team also unearthed remains of a turn-of-the-20th-century domestic trash dump that probably belonged to a U.S. military family stationed in the Presidio. The U.S. Army controlled the fort from the mid-19th century until 1994, when the 1,480-acre site became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Items found include a garter-belt clip, buttons, snaps, broken ceramics, children's toys and residue that might be lipstick or rouge, Voss said. "This is an unexpected find because trash was taken away by that time," she said. "This has the exciting potential to provide information about U.S. military family life at the turn of the century."

With the second season completed, volunteers will close the site by lining the excavated areas with landscape fabric and filling them with crushed granite. Work will then move into laboratories to continue analyzing the season's discoveries. "We're still finishing research," Voss said. "We need to step back and look at the big picture."

Voss will deliver a lecture on the results of the 2004 field season on campus during Autumn Quarter.