Recreating Context

Alida Bray of History San Jose and Bill Roop of Archaeological Resource Service discuss the collection. Photo couretsy of ARS.

Working with a collection that was excavated nearly 18 years ago poses certain challenges. This week, many of our class activities were focused on reconstructing the original archaeological context of the artifacts we are analyzing. Since beginning work on this collection, we have been in close contact with the archaeological firm, Archaeological Resource Service, that conducted the excavation at the site of the Market Street Chinatown. In December 2003, we traveled to their office in Petaluma, where we meet with Bill Roop and Katherine Flynn and their staff and talked with them about the methods they used to conduct the excavation. This week, Bill and Katherine came to visit our lab at Stanford, along with one of their staff, Lisa Pefnichak. They brought two file boxes of original project records with them for us to use in our analysis of the collection.

1884 Sanborn Insurance map of the Market Street Chinatown

Stanford graduate students Bryn Williams and Gina Michaels have also been working on developing a spatial context for the artifacts by developing an overlay of two maps: first, an 1884 Sanborn map of the Market Street Chinatown site, and second, a 1985 map of the location of the archaeological features that were excavated by Archaeological Resource Services. Sanborn maps were made for insurance companies to help them assess the risks of damage by fires and floods, so they often include very detailed information about how buildings were used what materials they were built from. For example, the 1884 Sanborn notes that the Chinese theater had “6 skylights, 2 protected by wire screens.” It also shows buildings like a furnace for roasting pork, a restaurant, and the locations of several stores. By overlaying the archaeological feature map, Bryn and Gina have been able to show that certain features were adjacent to certain buildings (Feature 28, for example, was a wood-lined cistern located right next to the Kong Family Store).

Artifact of the Week

A few artifacts from Feature 28.

As cataloging progresses, and more artifacts are entered into our database, we are able to rebuild a third kind of context: the associations between artifacts that were discovered in the same feature. Our artifacts of the week are several objects that were found together in Feature 28 and were presumably used by the owners and customers of the Kong Family Store. On the top row, from left to right, are a fragment of a cathedral-style glass bottle, often used for storing liquors (cat#85-31:28-32); a rim sherd of a medium-sized celadon porcelain bowl (cat#85-31:28-69); and a rim fragment from a hexagonal porcelain dish (cat#85-31:28-44). The middle row shows a clay marble (cat#85-31:28-12) and a fragment of a very small porcelain cup, decorated in the Four Seasons style (cat#85-31:28-107), that was probably used for drinking rice wine or liquor. The bottom row includes a bone toothbrush handle (cat#85-31:28-11) and a fragment from a porcelain bowl decorated in the bamboo style (cat#85-31:28-17).

A Sneak Preview of Student Projects

85-31/2-1 Condiment Dish with Pecked Chinese Character.

After several weeks of becoming more familiar with the Market Street Chinatown collection, and training in artifact identification and analysis, we are now turning our efforts to individual student projects. The students enrolled in this class are required to complete a research project utilizing artifacts recovered from the Market Street Chinatown, using the skills they have learned and a mix of their own research interests and the great questions that have been posed by members of the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project as well as visitors to the Open House. Earlier this week, students turned in their research designs, which detailed their plans for research. The photo on the right is of a Four Flowers condiment dish that has had a Chinese character pecked into it. One of the students in this class is working together with members of the Bay Area Chinese community and with a Stanford student to translate these characters. She is interested in understanding what part of the site ceramics with pecked characters on them came from, in order to consider why characters were pecked into vessels – were these marks of ownership, wishes for good luck, or what? Vessels with pecked characters are not uncommon at overseas Chinese sites, but the Market Street collection has a rather high number of such vessels – at least 15 in the part of the collection we are currently working with. The pecked character shown here translates as “Drunk”, and was found in a wood-lined pit associated with a single story tenement building.

85-31/18-2 Opium Pipe Bowl

Another project will address questions about the quality of life in the Market Street Chinatown, in comparison to the Woolen Mills Chinatown. The student undertaking this project will be looking at different designs and patterns on Chinese export porcelain bowls in order to make an index of the relative economic values of the ceramics at each site. Another student plans to expand questions about quality of life issues to a consideration of medicines and health practices at the Market Street and Woolen Mills Chinatowns. Both of these students will be relying on the excavation reports from the Woolen Mills Chinatown in order to make these comparisons. This is exciting in that it ties the two sites together, and helps build toward an understanding of the Chinese Community in San Jose over time and at multiple sites. These projects will shed light on some of the differences between a bachelor community and one with a more mixed population. Another student intends to look at activities and practices related to pleasure at the Market Street Chinatown. He will begin with the opium pipe bowl pictured here, and then will expand his analysis from this single object to other artifacts associated with pleasure that were found in the same archaeological feature, and then from this feature to the site as a whole. Please check back in about a month, as the student projects will be posted on this website.

Artifact of the Week

85-31/28-44 and 85-31/13-18: Ceramics with unidentified decoration.

This week’s artifacts of the week are more examples of artifacts that have us stumped. First, let us share with you what we do know. The artifact on the left (85-31/28-44) is a rim fragment of a hexagonal dish, decorated with a hand-painted blue-on-white pattern. The artifact on the right (85-31/13-18) is a body sherd from a large bowl, also hand-painted in a blue-on-white pattern. While we have been able to identify the vessel forms and fabrics, we are unsure about the patterns of the decoration. The decoration on these two artifacts strongly resembles the decoration on Chinese export porcelains, porcelains made in China primarily for markets outside the country, particularly in Europe, North America, and their colonies. However, a search of sources on Chinese export porcelains did not lead to a positive identification of the decorative pattern on either artifact. We are hoping that a visitor to this website may be able to help us! If you recognize either pattern, or could suggest resources for us to check or patterns which are similar, we would greatly appreciate it!

What a Great Open House!

Members of the CHCP and Stanford University meeting at the Open House. From left to right, Anita Kwock, Barb Voss, Gina Michaels, Lillian Gong-Guy, Ezra Erb, and Ken Jue.

The Open House on February 8th was a great success! Thank you to all who attended for coming. There was a great mix of Chinese Historical and Cultural Project members, History San Jose personnel, Stanford University students, and interested members of the public, many of whom mentioned the great article in the February 7th San Jose Mercury News as piquing their interest in the project. Thanks are also due to the San Jose Redevelopment Agency, which is providing the funding for the project as a whole, which makes both our work in general and events such as the Open House possible. We don’t have an exact count of visitors – we were too busy talking with everyone who came! We estimate the attendance to have been between 40 and 60, which was a great turnout.

Visitors examining ceramic and glass displays at the Open House.

There were a variety of artifact displays at the Open House, including a table laid out with the typical varieties of Chinese export porcelains recovered at archaeological sites in California. In the picture to the right, Gina Michaels is discussing these wares with two visitors to the Open House. We had three rooms open for visitors. The room in which this photo was taken is our lab workspace, where we also had displays of stoneware vessels and also examples of the sort of documentation that we are using to study this collection. In the adjoining room, we had displays of glass artifacts, small finds, leather, and textiles. We also had our database entry system running to display to visitors. Finally, we had the storage room open, where visitors could see the artifacts that have not yet been processed. In this room it was quite clear that we are still at an early stage of the project! It was really great to have visitors at this early stage, as everyone shared great ideas, and some offered translation help (thank you!). The greatest success of the Open House was in seeing how many people are interested in this site. One of the biggest motivations for this project is to get it out of the warehouse and into contact with researchers and members of the Bay Area community. The great turnout at the Open House demonstrated that there is a real interest in this collection.

Artifact of the Week

Unidentified ferrous artifact, and an iron horse or mule shoe.

After the excitement of the Open House, we returned to the classroom. This past week we discussed the manufacture and identification of metal artifacts commonly encountered on historical archaeological sites. Some of these artifacts, such as nails or “tin” cans – which are very seldom actually made of tin – can be used to establish an approximate date for a site. However, metal artifacts often pose a challenge for identification and analysis, because in most soils they corrode, often quite extensively. The pictures of the artifacts of the week illustrate this. On the right is an identifiable hand-forged iron horse or mule shoe, recovered from feature 19. Such shoes are fairly common on 19th century sites, because animals were still quite important in transportation, agricultural activity, and the transport of goods. Indeed, in the southeast part of the Market Street Chinatown, maps indicate the Dexter Livery, which suggests the presence of a number of horses and perhaps other animals in and around the site. Metal artifacts such as the one on the left in the photograph are also quite commonly encountered. This artifact has corroded so much that its original form is unidentifiable with the naked eye. The process of corrosion has led to the embedding of small stones and dirt within the rust of this artifact, and the original surface of the artifact cannot be observed. In such cases, for artifacts that might yield significant information other techniques might be used to identify them, such as X-rays or the removal of corrosion through mechanical or chemical treatments. For less significant artifacts, they may simply be recorded according to the material from which they are made.