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Digging Deeper

More than 200 years ago, Native Americans grew crops by cultivating the land at Mission Santa Clara de Asis. This summer, a dozen students worked the same soil in hopes of a different harvest.

Led by Lee Panich, SCU associate professor of anthropology, the students knelt in the dirt and used hand tools to unearth the historic evidence of earlier inhabitants. Their excavation site was on a section of University-owned property across Franklin Street near the Santa Clara Woman’s Club adobe meeting room.

Panich said the old adobe, built in 1792, was once part of an eight-room complex used to house Native Americans who lived and worked at the mission. “The Women’s Center area is kind of ground zero, but the whole campus is a giant archaeological site,” he said. “The mission was rebuilt several times and moved around a lot, so just about anywhere you go around here you can find ruins.”

The instructor and his students homed in on a patch of ground that had been a 20th century resident’s backyard and is now a parking area. His spring-quarter class had already scoped out the site using ground-penetrating radar equipment borrowed from Panich’s friends at UC Berkeley. “We had a good idea that something was there before we started digging,” he said.

Working with other SCU departments, Panich arranged for a section of pavement to be removed and for fencing to be installed around the 430-square-foot excavation site. Then, the students in his summer field class got to work. “It was a lot more fun than it sounds,” said Helga Afaghani, a senior. “Getting up early to spend eight hours in a dirt hole doesn't sound very exciting, but I really enjoyed it.”

Not surprisingly, the best part, according to both Panich and Afaghani, was finding relics from the past. The group’s early diggings turned up items from the last 100 years, “toys, marbles, bottles, nothing very old,” said Panich. But about 2 feet down, there were more interesting discoveries. “The first thing we found that keyed us into the fact that we were getting close was obsidian—volcanic glass used for making tools. Then we found shards of locally made pottery and animal bones that related to everyday life on the mission.”

For Afaghani, pay dirt came a little later. “Getting to the stone foundations of the building was great,” she said. “Experiencing this stuff firsthand is so exciting; it’s way better than just reading about it.”

As is often the case on archaeological digs, Panich said the most intriguing find came on the last day of the class. “At the very end, we found a pit with hundreds of shell beads in it, and ash, charcoal, and pottery.” Similar pits have been found on campus, he noted, but it isn’t clear what they were used for. “It’s kind of mysterious, but I think it must be some sort of fire pit,” he said. “We’ll need to analyze the material we took out of it and see what we come up with.”

Panich’s research specialty is the interaction between Native Americans and European colonists. His own recent archaeological experiences include excavating a Spanish mission site in Baja California and digs at the San Francisco Presidio and at Fort Ross.

Artifacts recovered from the SCU excavation site are stored on campus at the Archaeological Research Laboratory in Ricard Observatory, where other interesting remains – mostly found during construction projects – are housed.
Panich said SCU hasn’t offered many archaeological field classes in the past, but he hopes to “keep the momentum going” by teaching one every year or so.

“Field classes have always served as a kind of rite of passage for students who think they might want to pursue archaeology,” he explained. “They get experience in manual labor and find out if they’re really cut out for the work.”

The finale of the class was somewhat bittersweet for teacher and students, as university work crews paved over the hole they had painstakingly dug and returned the spot to a parking area. “It was a little tough to watch, but I think we got everything out of there,” said Panich.

“I felt kind of deflated,” said Afaghani. “I had spent six weeks sweating and bleeding and bruising to get it uncovered, and all that work could be undone in an afternoon.”

But, she consoled herself by thinking ahead. “There’s still a lot of work to be done in the lab; excavation is a big part of archaeology, but analysis of whatever gets dug up is probably just as important.”

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