San Francisco Bureau of Urban Secrets


So, yesterday I went to a walking tour put on by the Bureau of Urban Secrets out at Land’s End in the very west end of San Francisco near Sutro Baths. It was great to see how artists tackle the idea of emplaced landscape interpretation, something that’s a pretty big part of my dissertation. I got to meet the artists as well as watch a fire get put out on the beach by firefighters and shoot a lot of neat pines and graffiti. Unfortunately I set my ISO while shooting a shadowy brook under a tree and for some reason didn’t adjust it, nor did I check any of my photos as I was shooting. Consequently, the rest of the pictures are way blown out and are pretty much unfixable in photoshop. Just when I thought I was getting better at the whole photography thing. Oh well.

The tour was fun though, and I might get one of the artists to come speak to the class at the Presidio about presenting historic landscapes to the public. So many really incredible things are happening with ubicomp, geohacking and pervasive games right now that I almost wish that I was staying here this summer to work on my dissertation. Almost.

Finishing up at the Mission

Last Friday was my last day on site at the Mission.  All of the burials are out of the ground now, so the secrecy surrounding the dig can be relaxed a bit.  I still wish that I would have been allowed to have a camera on site, as there were some interesting bits in the round house feature that I would have liked to share, and the surrounding landscape was beautiful–all palm trees and rolling golden hills dotted with the dark green plumes of Monterey Cypress.  The PI also used a really complicated system to string up all the units, with built-in baulks that I would have liked to remember.  Should have drawn a picture.

Anyway, on one of the days I wasn’t there they found an abalone shell necklace in the unit to the East of mine. I made it to 40 cmbs on the last day, after pedestalling, drawing and pulling tons of rock from that 1×2.  No amazing finds–just some little bits of obsidian, a green chert core, and cut cow bone.  The project continues, but I had to quit because the logistics of getting down to the site without a ride was just too much and I really need to work on a few things before heading to Turkey.  I also feel like I learned pretty much all that I could learn from the site–a few new techniques, a taste of California methodology (I seriously can’t believe that they weren’t using tripod screens), and working in a culture-contact setting where sorting historic and prehistoric components by site number became utterly impossible.  I’m curious to see what else they find there, and they seemed eager to have me work for them again, this time on a coming neophyte cemetery.  We’ll see what the Fall brings.

On Sunday I made a whole bunch of gingerbread pancakes for my friends and colleagues, which was fun.  I’ll have to host more hangover breakfasts in the future.

But for now, I’m focused on finishing up the summer class that I’m helping teach, then getting to Turkey.

Dirt Sculpting

Still being somewhat vague:

On Monday I finished excavating my burial.  The internment was fairly shallow and therefore extremely truncated, with only the long bones of the legs, an arm, and a few ribs left.  Plows, an orchard, and groundhogs had taken the rest.  There was a small bird bone in it though, which looked like it had been shaped into a whistle.

The excavation technique for these kinds of burials is still very different though–not much contextual information is required.  The burials had been pedestaled by a backhoe so they were little islands on top of the sterile and there was no real way to associate them with horizons or soil changes.  The burial I was excavating was in the top of the midden, with burnt serpentine embedded all around it.  I carefully removed all of the rock, pedestalled the individual bones, dug a moat around it, then we took a photo, drew it, then lifted the bones.    We were unable to determine the age or sex of the burial, beyond that it was an adult.

So, after I finished with the burial, I moved on to more familiar territory–a very large round house feature.  My 1×2 is in the NW corner of the 7m diameter structure and I immediately started coming down onto large (<30cm) rocks (some with fossils!) and mission tile.  There’s a mixture of curved (roof) and flat (floor) tile, but the flat tile is apparently a little too thin, so that part is a mystery.  We’re trying to determine if the tile and rock and fragmented animal bone is historic fill brought in from somewhere else, or if it is the remains of the roundhouse, which would make it one of the only roundhouses to have mission tile.  I got to level within the first day, even though the soil is extremely hard in places–to the point where it the pickaxe and handaxe were just adding a sheen to the clay, not really breaking it up at all.  We’ve been dumping buckets of water into it at night, much to my dismay at having achieved lovely level walls and floors.

I was happy during the first level, as the 10cm depth started to define the clusters of tile and rock.  We’re leaving it all in situ though, and going down another 10cm, which I’m a little unsure about.  Pedestalling is just bizarre if you’re trying to dig stratigraphically, and I would have rather tried to expose the roundhouse with 2 2x2s, getting an areal view, and tried dig out the features as they were deposited.  I think that might be one of the best ways to figure out if the debris was carted in from elsewhere.  Also, there’s a sandy layer at about 16cm which I suspect is more than just groundhog burrows.  I’m also excited to get to sterile, to see if there are postholes or other storage features.

I don’t argue though, as I’m frightfully happy to be out in the sun again, injuries aside.  I’ll put all the artifacts on square dirt pillars if that’s what it takes.

Handaxe vs. Left Index Finger.

Handaxe WINS!


Tool Minutiae

It’s become a somewhat sad fact of life that I don’t sit still very well. In addition to the class that I’m helping teach two days a week, I started a second job working on a CRM project three days a week–the time that I’m really supposed to be working on my own research.

I couldn’t resist though, and it’s been gratifying to get my hands back in the dirt for pay. Like Jlowe (, I can’t really talk about it all that much, but I am digging burials and it’s been fascinating to see the politics and skill set involved.

It’s also introduced me to my new favorite tool: the Peach Pitter! A peach pitter is an elongated spoon with sharp edges and is just perfect for precision digging compacted clay. It also doubles as a regular spoon, so you can remove small amounts of dirt from tiny areas without too much trouble.

Also, to my horror, I’ve been using the WHS trowel more often. Marshalltowns cut through stratigraphy (which is important sometimes) but WHSs are blunt and you seem to be able to feel the dirt a bit better using them.

So, my toolkit for this job is:

Trusty rock axe
WHS trowel
Marshalltown pointer trowel (some undergraduate stole my square trowel)
Wooden sculpting tools
Sculpting tool with metal loop (for shaving off small amounts of dirt at one time)
Small paintbrush
Small whisk
Leaf trowel
Bamboo skewers
Peach pitter

This weekend I really want to find a puffer and maybe a couple more brushes.

%d bloggers like this: