Cheney House Excavations

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Digging at the Cheney House is most interesting because of the obvious connection between past and present. The historical situation proves unique with the site being an integrated part of the contemporary UC Berkeley campus yet also existing as an area with a rich archeological record. Seeing the transformation that the house has made from a residence to a campus office building seems odd looking at the archaeological record. I would not go so far as to compare it to finding Roman ruins underneath a modern Italian office building, but the scenario shares something in common at a basic level. The same stairs that were used one hundred years ago, by someone current students and staff are entirely unfamiliar with, still provide a firm place to sit for lunch. And, all around that modern existing place is the archaeology of some place very different, but obviously the same… if that makes any sense.
The Cheney House provides a connection between past and present that doesn’t exist in most places on campus. While one can look around and see the old buildings and the pictures of South Hall when it was first built, that doesn’t compare to the rediscovery of the material culture that existed here one hundred years ago. One can literally touch Berkeley’s past at the Cheney House. That might, of course, go for all archaeology, but in local respects, on a campus that is constantly modifying itself to keep up with the modern world and changing identities, the direct connection to Berkeley’s century old legacy is vital.


What happens at the Cheney House? Frankly, we dig. Wheelbarrowing out a big pile of buckets, masons trowels, picks, and an assortment of other random tools that comprise an archaeologists tool kit, we set up camp on Tuesdays in front of the current office building called the Cheney House. Hidden behind Wurster, most people never really come into contact with the site. Who would? There is a giant concrete monster concealing it from most of campus. But there we are, digging away. Most people have been involved in two types of work this semester: shovel test pits and excavation units.
The shovel test pits are survey pits, designed to probe locales around the site for material remains. You can see them mostly in the ivy covered area. The pits are 50X50cm and most go down 30-60cm. All sorts of goodies pop up in these pits. We find glass, metal, nails, brick, mortar, and coal. All of this, great stuff to find thrown away into the bushes.
The other types of dig units are excavation units. These squares, 100X100cm, are dug down much more slowly to carefully reveal the archaeological record. In the case of the units this semester, they were right next to each other and exposed three fun filled features. First, a metal post, possibly a pipe or fence post was found in the SE of the three units. Second, a much more modern pipe was found going through the SW and N unit, revealing a modern trench that has basically obliterated the archaeological record there. Finally, a brick lining, likely of a path or garden was found running through the two south units. The bricks give us an idea of the orientation of the front yard from the house to the old street. Of course, any person could probably go take a look at these units while they are still being dug. At the end of the day, we cover them up with plywood and plastic, and there the evidence sits until next week when we can expose more.

Slightly Comical Lab Talk

I wash coal. It’s fun. It’s like when you had those hot wheel cars as a kid that would change color when you added water. Just add water and a tooth brush and hey, you go from brown to black in no time. Once the coal is black, you just add it to the five pound pile of coal you’re accumulating. This, of course, describes the slightly less glamorous side of archaeology. I mean, you can still show off your ass crack by bending over in lab just as you can leaning over your unit in the field, but you run into less boulders chasing you down a cave as angry natives hurl spears.
Lab work is an integral part of archaeology. It’s when we find out what we got. And, honestly, sometimes it’s just a rock. However, some times you strike gold. Well, not real gold, but really cool metal things. In my time in lab this semester, I’ve bagged or been in the presence of the bagging of a bone toothbrush, weird metal objects that have no obvious use, interesting buttons, and a dime. It wasn’t a special dime. I believe it was from the 60s. But it was bagged, FDR head and all. It’s the people who put in the long hours in the lab, bagging rusty nails, risking tetanus and legs falling asleep at their station who are the unsung heroes of archaeology. Without people cataloging all these artifacts that are dug up in the field, we would never really have evidence. All we would have are plastic bags of dirt covered junk. And the world doesn’t need any more plastic bags of dirt covered junk.

Brady Blasco

This semester is coming to an end and I am glad to have participated in this URAP project. It introduced me to new methodologies in anthropology that I had not encountered previously in my courses (mostly because they were more sociocultural than archaeological). I was also able to meet other fellow anthropology majors and learn about their areas of interests in relation to mine. Although I did enjoy my experience working on both the Cheney and Gage House projects, I really wished that we could have gotten more work done on the Cheney site, but of course we were occasionally restricted by weather conditions of which we have no control over. As for lab, even though we had guidelines for how to wash, label, and bag the materials, I noticed that there was a lack of uniformity. With labeling for instance, I noticed that sometimes objects were not completely dried and clear polish would be applied that smeared the labels making them hard to read. I think this is probably because so many different people were on one bag of artifacts that perhaps people lose neglect to pay attention to the steps of the process.
A suggestion that I think might be useful to employ and help speed up the task of bagging is if a binder was compiled with various pictures and descriptions of different types of common material that tend to show up in the finds. In this way when uncertainty occurs regarding the type of material found, one can just refer to the binder before asking Kim for help. This will save on time and if Kim is not around it will be useful. Of course I understand that there are limitations to this method, but I think generally it would be beneficial.

Lin WU

This week I spent all my time in the lab cleaning and bagging the remaining bags from the Gage House project. I remember early on in the semester when we were unloading the boxes brought back from the Gage site, there were so many bags to be washed and sorted. We have definitely worked through a good amount of it and now the problem is finding storage space. I remember my first day in lab, I was bagging some of the artifacts that were previously washed and had dried, I did not know that we did not have to count the number of pieces of coal. Thus, my lab partner, Brady, and I wasted a good amount of minutes that could have been better spent doing something more productive. Now I can see how silly and unpractical that was considering the vast amounts of coal that show up in almost every unit/STP bag.

Lin Wu

This week we opened up a new unit next to the two (unit 16 and 18) that I had been working on over the past few weeks. Kim said that she wanted to see whether the brick path continues off and also to check for further possible findings near the pipe trench. I started by helping lay out the grid dimensions then we proceeded to dig. I find working on the units much easier than the shovel test pits (STPs). The main reason is that the units are bigger than the STPs so there is more space to maneuver around and hence easier to dig through within a shorter period of time. There were three of us working on the new unit and so we were able to take it down relatively quick. As I expected from the findings of units 16 and 18, the new unit turned up similar artifacts like glass fragments and brick pieces. Due to rain from earlier in the week, the soil was softer than normal so that was another reason why we were able to work through this faster.
I have noticed that students passing by the site on their way to class occasionally take interest in what we are doing in the middle of campus digging at a seemingly insignificant place. However, most of the people just walk by without any concern. I think that the Cheney House project should be better publicized on campus so that students can be more aware of the history at Cal. It will also help to rally more support in maintaining and restoring the site if the need arises. I am also sure that much of the people walking by would like to know more of what we are currently doing and it would be a great way to better inform them. I am really looking forward when the project is more complete so that we can give tours and integrate the historical information with the physically tangible remains.

Lin Wu

I came into this field project feeling pretty confident about my digging. Even though I did not have much experience in the field, my summer field school left me feeling like I knew all I needed to know about digging. Therefore, I expected no surprises from the Cheney house. What I wasn’t so confident about was working in the lab. As far as I was concerned, it was one thing to dig up an artifact and it was another thing to preserve it. While I understood that both processes required a skilled hand, I was not sure that I could work as efficiently in the lab.
To my surprise, it was my work at the Cheney house that gave me a run for my money. Before the Cheney house I had no idea how good a deal I had at the Gage house. Looking back it felt like the soil was so much easier to work with at the Gage house. Of course this made sense since it rained a lot in Syracuse while we were digging. At the Gage house the need to use a shovel or a pick was rare. However, at the Cheney house they became our favored tools as we dug sample test pits or units of rocky/ compacted soil. While sifting at the Gage house could become tedious after a down pour, it seemed easier to sift through mud that it seemed to sift clumps of highly compacted soil. I feel like I grew a little from both experiences.
Digging in different soil types definitely allowed me to see how much more I have to learn about field work. Luckily, this is a task that I am eager to pursue as we close off this semester and get ready for an even better Spring semester.

Isabel Hernandez

Monday, December 03, 2007

What lies beneath

I may be paraphrasing, but I think it was Indiana Jones who said, “To dig, or not to dig, that is the question.” To answer that question we dig shovel test pits (STP). This is where all the fun begins. A STP is a hole, 50 centimeters square, placed at regular intervals all around the dig site. They tell us where to open up a unit and perform a more precise excavation. That’s what a STP is for, but that’s not why I enjoy working on them so much. They are the barbarian cousins of the delicate units. A day in a shovel test pit leaves your hands pitted and bloody, which I much prefer to the squeaky clean feeling you have after an afternoon spent carefully scraping one millimeter of dust off of the top of a full blown unit.
I believe it was Calvin and Hobbs who said, “Shovel test pits are nasty, brutish, and short.” I concur. If I may, fair reader, I will walk you through the steps involved in the production of a STP and explain why I like them so much.
Step 1—Intense deliberation. There are about 52 thousand flags all over the Cheney’s former property. Each one of these marks the site of a future STP. Before any digging can begin there must be at least 6 separate rounds of discussion as to what corner of the STP these flags are demarcating. Should the flag be in the southeast corner or the northwest—who knows?
Step 2—Edging a.k.a. the last fun part. After I have used the most rudimentary tools in my possession to properly calculate the angle of the sun on the Campanile so that I might outline a perfect square on the ground with my flag in the corner, I begin to edge around the borders. It feels great to plunge the shovel into such forgiving soil. Once the topsoil has been cleared away and the trash has been bagged for analysis in the lab the real work begins.
Step 3—Pickaxe. This step entails hours of banging away at rocks and clay (which is just as hard as rocks) with a pickaxe until your arms can’t take it anymore. Luckily, I learned my technique from Yukon Cornelius so I can actually last quite a while.
Step 4—Tending to your wounds. The problem with STPs is that they aren’t quite as wide as the units. After you get down in past your elbows the shards of rocks sticking out of the sides start to wear on you—literally. But that’s what’s so great about the STP. When the day is done and everyone has left the dig site, your blood remains, smattered on the walls of the holes. To serve as a last reminder that good men stood against dirt, in the face of intense hardship and clay, and they emerged from battle victorious.

Mike McCarron

Sunday, December 02, 2007

A day in the life...

Tuesday morning I leave Mayapan and its last Mayan inhabitants and head for a more recent history in Berkeley. I leave Kroeber contemplating the disappearance of this noble civilization. In the short time it takes me to get to the Cheney house I switch gears pushing aside the visuals of Mayan civilization in Mayapan and making way for the last image I have of the two units we have opened thus far at the site. At the Cheney house I am greeted by Kim, our graduate student advisor, and a couple other familiar faces that join me in this excavation project.
This semester the site has been open for weeks now. Once a week the site is open for Anthropology students to come and dig for a few hours between classes and other responsibilities. A sign at the site explains the history of the site and the work that has been done by Anthropology students and staff in the last couple years. I get a pick and some gloves out of the community tool bucket and get to work on one of the two units.
“We’re done with the shovel test pit units at the front of the house,” Kim exclaims excited at the progress that has been made thus far. Three students get to work on the two units that are open at this time. In the deeper unit the students meet another set back as they unearth another pipe. In my unit I work through the rocky first level before I reach the clay layer that lets me know that we are now in level two. I pick through the rocky earth hoping not to get too much dirt in my colleague’s eyes. At times I contemplate switching tools for something less hazardous but I know that a trowel will not help me get through the compacted dirt. The few artifacts I find in this layer I hand pick and save in the designated artifact bag. Screening the dirt yields a few more artifacts. At the end of our digging day, Kim rewards us with a much needed sugar boost.

Isabel Hernandez

As an Anthropology major I have lived my last two years in Kroeber. I have learned the locations of key classrooms. I have shopped around in the museum store during the ten minutes I have to walk to my next lecture or discussion section. Classes in the department have sent me to the Phoebe Hearst Museum countless times. During the last couple years I have even sat in on final review sessions in the lounge on the second floor. I have spent hours upon hours in the library. I have visited my professors. Like other Anthropology majors, I have made it part of my routine to visit Mary if only so that she can reassure me that I am on track.
But until this semester I had never had the need to go down to the basement of Kroeber. Now that I have spent so many hours in the laboratory, it amuses me to think back to those days when I thought that they were inhabited by artifact specialists. Now I regret not investigating these laboratories further. It has definitely been an experience to go in to the laboratory and handle the remains of the past. My experience has taught me that artifacts are treated with tremendous care. They are washed with care, dried naturally, identified, labeled, and bagged meticulously. With all the care that goes into the recovery and care of artifacts, you would think that specialized tools would be used. But that is not the case; we use worker gloves, picks, shovels, and trowels like various other manual workers. In the laboratory we use wash basins, trays, toothbrushes, nail polish, sharpies, scissors, and Ziploc bags. So it seems that in order to find the tools one needs to recover and maintain artifacts one only needs to know where to look.

Isabel Hernandez