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


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