Cheney House Excavations

Friday, October 27, 2006

Student Thoughts

Hi, I am a freshman here at Berkeley and this is my first time doing anything with archaeology. It was initially a surprise to me that I really enjoy archaeology. I didn’t really think I’d enjoy it when I decided to take an anthropology class. But eight weeks later here I am working on an actual dig. I think the wonderful thing about archaeology is how it relates the present to past. With archaeology, it is possible to look at the past and see the steps a culture took to get to its current way of life. It is interesting to look at houses like the Cheney house and see what parts of their way of life still exist in my way of life.

The other I like about archaeology is that I can easily talk to people about it and get them excited. Whether I am talking to an elderly person or a six-year old, I can talk about what I am doing and studying. There a lot of things you cannot do that with. Now I must admit one thing. I quite commonly get asked “Well what have you found? Any dinosaur bones?” The people are being serious when they think archaeology is mainly about dinosaurs. I explain to them about how little things you find like a piece of ceramic can tell you a lot about someone’s life. Then they understand a little more about archaeology and are more interested than if I had just said I found a piece of glass.


The Cheney House is the first archaeological project I have worked on. I am learning a lot. It has been really interesting to see how have everything works in the field and in the lab. My favorite part is fieldwork. The ground in Berkeley has a lot of clay so it is very tough to dig. What makes fieldwork fun is that as you work; you are always looking out for things like soil changes and even an object like a piece of glass. Or in the case of some holes, you are on the look out for a pipe or a root from a tree. I also really enjoyed doing lab work. It was amazing to see how different the objects appeared after being cleaned. It made little pieces stand out a lot more. For example, in pit A2, a large circular screw was found. The screw was entirely covered in rust prior to washing, but after being washed it was possible to see the threads of it. I think some artifacts we found that are really interesting are the pieces of bone and the pieces of broken red glass.
- Gina, one of our illustrious undergraduate students

Watching from Afar

Office work has kept me away from the site more than I'd like, but I'm loving the proximity of the site. From my office window I can see when everyone trudges out to the site, and if it weren't for a scrubby bush at the corner of the 2243 building, I'd be able to see all the excavations in the side yard by the pear tree. So far I've resisted yelling out the window to folks. Its interesting, sitting here, looking out the window, to wonder what it may have been like with another building between this one (the old Zeta Psi fraternity house where my office is located) and the Cheney house. Was the Cheney house completely blocked from view? Or could the fraternity brothers get filtered glimpses of activities at the house, just as I can? What did they think of one another, the Cheneys and the frat brothers? The frat house predates the Cheney house. When the Zetes built their house on College Ave., they were mainly alone. The Cheneys would have known they were moving near a fraternity house when they build their home. That in itself says something about the way perceptions of fraternities have shifted in the last 100 years. Its interesting to think about the brothers and their neighbors. Did the brothers know the kids of the neighborhood? Did they talk to them, good naturedly tease them, or maybe even play games of catch with them? Its easy to get distracted, sitting here watching the excavations and trying to imagine the community that was once here, the lives once lived. I'm working through materials excavated from the fraternity house this semester while the Cheney house is being excavated...maybe, just maybe, the archaeology will provide us with some insights into not just the lives within these distinct houses, but a picture of how they related to the families and neighbors that surrounded them.
- Laurie
Laurie Wilkie is a Professor of Anthropology here at Cal, and is overseeing the Cheney House project.

Project is underway...

Well, excavations have been ongoing at the Cheney House for several weeks now and it’s definitely time to get this blog some regular content... We are a group of graduate and undergraduate students working with Professor Laurie Wilkie at the University of California Berkeley, brought together by the University’s Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program (URAP) and the impending removal of the Cheney House. The house is slated to be moved from University property to make way for the proposed expansion of the Law and Business schools within the next year, although the timetable is still uncertain. We are currently conducting archaeological, archival, and laboratory work to salvage what information we can about the Cheney family’s private and public home lives prior to the site’s destruction.

The house is the former residence of May and Warren Cheney, their four sons, various boarders, and domestic servants, who occupied the house between its construction in 1885 and its purchase by the University in 1939. May (Cal class of 1883) was the first Career Secretary for the University and, through her placement of teachers, was instrumental in the formation of the public school system in California. Warren (Cal class of 1878) was a local real estate developer and an aspiring novelist. The pair was known for entertaining a range of illuminati, including social progressives and literary giants, like Jack London, in their home. We know, for example, that the family car was used in the 1911 woman suffrage parade held locally, but so far we have only glimpses of the family’s sociopolitical involvements and daily life. This project will also help shed light on the nature of the former neighborhood of which the house was a part, which was only incorporated into the expanding University in the mid-20th century.

We’re currently excavating small test pits, spaced evenly across the property, in order to identify whatever archaeological deposits exist in the house’s yard. So far, we’ve found a variety of turn-of-the-century artifacts representing household garbage – broken ceramics, bottles, nails, animal bone, and our most surprising find so far – a denture tooth. We’ll be posting more updates as work progresses; for now, though, I’ll post a few musings from various project members…
- Kim

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Cheney House Comic

Here's a somewhat silly comic strip I made using Comic Life and some of the excavation photos. I hope you enjoy it!