San Luis Obispo excavation's artifacts come together as project nears completion

Michael Lara, left, and Cathy Jacobs, both of San Luis Obispo, dig for century-old pottery in 1987 at the old Chinatown section of San Luis Obispo that is now a parking garage.
Michael Lara, left, and Cathy Jacobs, both of San Luis Obispo, dig for century-old pottery in 1987 at the old Chinatown section of San Luis Obispo that is now a parking garage.

The process of cleaning, bagging and organizing about 200 boxes of artifacts from San Luis Obispo’s historic Chinatown district is finally nearing an end — almost 30 years after the collection was excavated during construction of a downtown parking structure.

Five tons of material was removed from the earth during the excavation of the parking garage at 842 Palm St. in 1987.

The work uncovered artifacts from the Mission and Chinese periods in the 1820s and 1870s, respectively, ranging from pottery and ceramics to vases, bottles and glassware, San Luis Obispo principal analyst James David said.

“A lot of people in the community have been interested in seeing the collection written up because it’s a really important part of city and county history,” said Christina MacDonald, collections manager for San Luis Obispo County Archaeological Society’s Research and Collections Facility, where the artifacts will eventually be stored.

The artifacts were transported last year to the Anthropological Studies Center (ASC) at Sonoma State University, where work has been done to assess, clean, and reorganize the collection for curation, as well as prepare a basic excavation report.

The San Luis Obispo City Council on Tuesday will consider an agreement with ASC to continue its work. Funding for the $55,000 project was approved during the council’s midyear budget review on Feb. 17, David said.

Interpretive displays, signs and a website with information for the public are expected to be complete by 2018. The collection will be returned when that work is finished.

The work is being done by ASC staff archaeologists as well as Sonoma State students, according to a proposal from ASC Director Adrian Praetzellis.

A 1987 Telegram-Tribune article reported that goblets, rice bowls, opium pipes, clay soy jars and Indian arrowheads were found at the site. A guard had to be posted at the site after coins and a rare whiskey bottle disappeared.

A large amount of food bone was also found, David said.

“It’s unusual because there’s so much of it,” he said. “There’s not usually this much food bone in a collection. There are specialists interested in just that.”

The city worked with two consultants over the years: Archaeological Resource Services and John Parker, a longtime local archaeologist who moved to Northern California in 2008 and serves as vice president and collections manager for the Lake County Historical Society.

Parker worked on the collection with volunteers from 1997 to 2014, and estimates that more than 250 volunteers spent 14,324 hours on the project during that time — a value of nearly $500,000 worth of work, he said.

“I saw this as an opportunity for the public to be able to participate in sorting and cataloguing these materials so they can get appreciation of their local history,” Parker said. 

Parker submitted a proposal in January 2014 that estimated a cost of $117,120 to finish the work over 10 months, which the city rejected in favor of a less expensive proposal from ASC. 

“It was tough for us to part ways with him, but I am very confident about the direction we’re in now,” David said. 

An ASC status report from November 2014 states that some of the materials were stored in an unsuitable environment, with boxes contaminated by rodent feces. Some of the artifacts were stored in plastic bags that had been gnawed through by rodents. 

David said the city took steps to secure the Butron Adobe on Dana Street, where the artifacts were stored, but acknowledged that it wasn’t the best facility for them.

Both Parker and MacDonald said the collection will provide more information about past cultures and their role and impact on the community.

“The importance is what it will tell us about the early days of the Mission, the Native Americans who were living at the mission,” Parker said. 

Another example of how the collection could be used is a look at how nationwide historical events, such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, played out locally, MacDonald said.

“There are a lot of important research questions that this collection will hopefully be able to address,” she said. In addition, the community will have a chance to learn “important little stories that knit together the fabric of our common history.”