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Lisa Trei, News Service: (650) 725-0224,

Discovering the origins of San Francisco in the Presidio's past

It took Barbara Voss's eagle eye to know that archaeology students on a dig in San Francisco's Presidio had hit pay dirt. Just a week after opening eight small excavation sites at El Polin Spring near the historic military garrison, volunteers last month discovered large chunks of greenish Serpentine stone packed together a few inches under the ground -- the undisputed foundation of a Spanish adobe colonial building.

"This is a bit like finding a needle in the haystack," said Voss, an assistant professor in the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology and the Stanford Archaeology Center. "We're really excited. This is the first outlying building that's ever been found outside the colonial settlement of El Presidio de San Francisco."

Based on information provided by a 19th-century map, Voss said it is likely the site was the home of Marcos Briones, father of Juana Briones, an early pioneer linked to the founding of the pueblo of Yerba Buena, which became San Francisco.

A dozen students, from Stanford and other universities, spent eight weeks this summer excavating a leafy residential area of the Presidio to learn more about the daily life of the fort's earliest residents. Community volunteers supported the project by cleaning, sorting and cataloguing findings in a nearby field lab. The archaeological dig, which is open to the public, just completed its first season and is part of a five-year project supported by Stanford, the Presidio Trust and the National Park Service.

"This is a national park -- it belongs to the people," Voss said. "That sounds really corny but, a lot of times, archaeology happens in areas where people can't see it. This is a really rare and important opportunity for us to share it."

Sannie Osborn, a Presidio Trust archaeologist, said the dig produced unexpected results early on. "This is just incredible," she said. "We knew there was something out there somewhere, but the passage of time could have destroyed any evidence."

The project, described by some of the volunteers as the "Mercedes Benz" of archaeological digs because it is located in a popular picnic spot close to everyday amenities, is a short walk from the Officers' Club at Moraga and Graham streets in the Presidio. While work was under way, students shared spacious bedrooms in nearby Pershing Hall, a former bachelor officer's quarters. A hired cook prepared evening meals. In addition to in-kind support from the Presidio Park Trust and the National Park Service, funding for the $60,000 project came from Urban Studies, Feminist Studies, the Office of Technology Licensing, the Institute for Women and Gender and the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education.

Voss, a soft-spoken anthropologist who wrote her doctoral thesis on the archaeology of the Presidio, said she organized the dig to try to learn how daily life changed when colonists and Native Americans first came into contact. The project focuses on the Spanish colonial and Mexican periods of the Presidio, which lasted from about 1776 to 1847.

"One of the things we find is that the historic record is pretty inadequate in addressing these questions," she said. "Only a few male officers in the Presidio company could read or write, so the documents we have are from very particular positions and very particular perspectives. Archaeology is one way we can broaden our historical understanding of that period."

During the period when Spain colonized California, the site of the Presidio -- which means "fort" in Spanish -- was chosen to defend San Francisco Bay. In 1776, about 40 families emigrated from northern Mexico, living alongside native Californians at the village-fortress commissioned by Captain Juan Bautista de Anza in what was the Spanish empire's most remote and isolated settlement.

According to Voss, fewer than 30 of the 200 settlers were military personnel -- the rest were family members. "There are no direct records of the women and children," she said. "There are some very spotty census, baptismal and marriage records that give us an idea of who was living out here, and who was born here. But for the most part, people didn't need to read or write. So we don't have any direct records of their experiences. Archaeology doesn't give us that either, but it gives us another line of evidence to compare against the known historical records."

In 1821, after Mexico gained independence from Spain, the Presidio became a Mexican frontier outpost. A fairly continuous cultural period lasted from 1776 until 1846, when the U.S. Army occupied the site. After the Mexican-American War in 1848, the U.S. military remained in control of the fort. It left the Presidio in 1994, when the 1,480-acre site became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Voss has been digging in the Presidio for more than a decade. In 1993, she, Osborn and other archaeologists discovered the remains of the Spanish colonial fort near Funston Avenue in the garrison. In 1997, Voss directed a survey of the valley floor -- the Tennessee Hollow Watershed that led to the discovery of the site under excavation this summer.


The dig and the lab

Despite Voss's "needle in a haystack" analogy, discovery of the Spanish colonial foundation didn't happen completely by chance. The team decided where to dig based on Voss's 1997 survey, augmenting information with computer modeling, historic maps and a surface collection of the work site. "We had students fan out an arm's width apart and walk in straight transects across the site and collect anything they saw on the surface," Voss said. "We brought [the findings] down to the lab, cleaned them up, and plotted the distribution of the historic materials onto a map of the site."

A computer-generated map made by Bryn Williams, 21, a Stanford archaeology graduate student, showed clear concentrations of historic remains -- mostly clay roof tiles -- around the sites selected for excavation. Starting with the entire valley, researchers narrowed their quest to three sites, including the area around El Polin Spring. Two-feet-deep "shovel tests" helped rule out unpromising areas before the final sites were chosen. "We didn't expect to hone in on things so quickly," Voss said.


Painstaking digging

Students were permitted to chip away at the hard earth only after they went through extensive field training. "Once you excavate something, you can't reexcavate it," Voss said, squinting in the bright sunlight at the dig site. "You have to get it right the first time." The digging undertaken with everything from shovels to dental picks -- was painstaking and slow. "It takes patience and stamina -- the ground is hard," said junior Erica Simmons. Sore muscles, blisters -- and gophers -- were common complaints this season, added Karis Eklund, an archaeology major hired through the Feminist Studies program to promote public outreach for the project. "[Gophers) are doing their best to dig more quickly than we can and it's kind of a race sometimes," she said, pointing to holes burrowed around the site.

During the dig, excavated dirt was dumped into buckets labeled with precise coordinates of its origins. Some artifacts were easy to spot on a balmy morning in July, Jonah Wajchman, a 2003 graduate from the University of California at Berkeley, discovered a fragment of blue and white porcelain that Voss said was probably British, circa 1820 to 1835. But other artifacts were so small it took a team of volunteers doing "wet-screening" at the field lab to identify them. Several times a day, buckets were loaded onto a truck and taken to the lab -- a cavernous wooden building near Crissy Field formerly used by the Army as a warehouse.

Outside the lab, volunteers wearing waterproof overalls used trowels to chop up dirt dumped into large, flat sieves placed on top of horse troughs. It was wet, dirty work. Liz Johnson, manager of the Art and Architecture Library in Cummings, said she heard about the project and wanted to help out. "I don't get to get dirty at work," she said. "This takes a lot of patience. It's fun, though."

After artifacts dried out, a second group of volunteers inside the lab quietly sorted everything from modern-day trash to broken cow bones, pottery, glass, beads and hand-wrought nails. "I enjoy sorting; it's pretty entertaining," said volunteer Alex Boodrookas, a 15-year-old student at Marin Academy in San Rafael. "It feels like you're doing something useful."

It is unusual for a dig to have the luxury of processing artifacts as they are unearthed, Eklund said. "Usually, you screen and sort the material but you don't analyze it until afterward," she said. "One of the good things about doing it on site is that it affects our decision of where to excavate."

After digging ended Aug. 15, the site was closed to protect it until fieldwork starts again in the summer of 2004. In only a few weeks, the project yielded valuable clues concerning how people once lived in the Presidio, and what happened when native and colonizing people first made contact. Until the foundation of Marcos Briones' house was discovered, Voss said researchers thought that families were leaving the garrison on their own. "What we're finding is that these people were being stationed out here by the military," she said. "This is the kind of building a family couldn't have built on its own. The foundation is massive; it was built to military specifications. Instead of being a breakaway community, it looks like people were stationed out here on purpose, perhaps to guard the water source or oversee work in the quarry."

Such insights give researchers a window on the past that can't be discovered through any other type of inquiry, Voss said. "Not just because the historic records aren't complete, but also because a lot of what we learn about the material aspects of people's lives and their relationship to the surrounding environment aren't documented in any culture. It's a very different perspective on how people lived than what you can get from reading a book or a document."


By Lisa Trei

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