Artifacts from mission, Chinatown eras uncovered during SLO dig

A weeklong archaeological dig in downtown San Luis Obispo has unearthed artifacts that give a glimpse into life during the city’s mission and Chinatown eras.

The dig was conducted last week in the 800 block of Palm Street as part of the Chinatown development project. It is likely to be a preview of more archaeological discoveries that will be made as the development progresses.

Unearthed were a layer of artifacts dating from the Chinatown era of the 1860s to 1890s as well as building remnants and artifacts from the mission era of 1772 to the 1820s, including Chumash Indian middens, said Erin Enright, field supervisor for the dig that was conducted by the archaeological firm Applied EarthWorks.

“Our goal was to identify what was there, determine how intact it was and collect what would be disturbed,” Enright said. “We are now sorting and analyzing it.”

The dig was prompted by the start of the first phase of the Copelands Chinatown development, which included the demolition of the Shanghai Low building in preparation for paving a temporary parking lot.

Monitors were on site who noticed that the soil contained dozens of undisturbed artifacts. Work was stopped while the archaeologists recovered those artifacts that would have been disturbed by the construction.

Mission-era artifacts recovered included flooring and possible wall foundations as well as a layer of roof tiles called tejas. Grinding pestles, marine shells, animal bones, fish bones and beads the Chumash used to make necklaces were also found.

Historical trash heaps, called middens, are a valuable source of clues about how people lived, what they ate and the work they did.

“This area was used by Indians living within the mission system, often called neophytes,” Enright said. “Indian men probably lived there, and it was also likely a special-use area for producing hides, weaving and wine.”

A variety of Chinatown artifacts were also discovered including fragments of ceramic bowls with Chinese markings, small drinking cups, opium vials, rings and distinctive Chinese metal coins with square holes in them. These artifacts are consistent with Chinatown artifacts uncovered when the Palm Street parking structure was built across the street, Enright said.

The artifacts are being analyzed by various specialists and a written report on the findings will be prepared. The report should be available a year from now.

Eventually, the artifacts will be stored in an accredited curation facility, either at UCSB or the San Luis Obispo County Archaeological Society offices at Camp San Luis Obispo, Enright said.

This project gives archaeologists an idea of what to expect as the Chinatown project moves forward. The entire block between Palm and Monterey streets is slated for extensive excavation that will surely turn up more artifacts, Enright said.

“If they (the Copelands) do what they are planning on doing, there is going to be a lot more archaeology that needs to be done in that area,” she said. “That whole block is potentially full of mission-era materials.”

More photos: Artifacts unearthed in the Palm Street excavation »