From the historic buildings to the diverse landscape, the Presidio's past is evident throughout the park. But much more of the story can be found by digging beneath the surface. Unknown to most visitors, a team of archaeologists at the Presidio have been unearthing artifacts and peeling back layers of historic buildings to piece together the park’s complex history for the public to experience.
"Once you start digging, once you start investigating the little pieces, the artifacts, it starts to speak to that history," says Eric Blind, an archaeologist with the Presidio Trust. He explains that being able to uncover the origins of a major city is a rare opportunity. "Most of the big cities, they devour those early sites. You think of a place like Manhattan, the original Dutch colony there, the archaeological aspects of it have been dug up and destroyed by the massive architecture of the skyscrapers. Here in the Presidio, because of this always being a military base, we still have the foundations. "Hoping to find the foundations of the original Spanish fort's chapel, Presidio archaeologists teamed up with Cabrillo College to excavate the site. Eric describes the one very small archaeological find that gave support to one particular excavation site as being the chapel's location. "This is where we found one of our more interesting artifacts," he says. "Below the plaster line here, just above the floor, a little silver crucifix. It was kind of that a-ha moment that, 'I think this is the chapel.'" The open site allows visitors to get a glimpse of one of the Presidio's original structures. Being able to share the history with the public and finding forgotten voices fuels Eric's desire for digging into the past.
"For a place like this, women, children, people of color, native laborers, the ground doesn’t have that same sort of bias that the historical documents have. So you’re able to get a record of what those people did, what they were about,” Eric says. "It's finding stories in the soil, finding stories in the ground," Doug says. "It's a different way to tell a great story," Eric agrees.
To find the pieces of the story, excavated matter is brought to the archaeology lab, where volunteers help spray, sift and sort through the material. As the collections specialist, Liz Clevenger interprets and preserves the artifacts. "There is an intact, phenomenally great, archaeological site, right under your feet. And you think, what am I going to find in this dirt, and beyond that, what story am I going to tell?"
Liz trains volunteers like Burt Myer and Shelly Burns, to help identify the hidden clues. Being able to participate in the Presidio’s excavation is a unique experience. "It's exciting," Shelly says enthusiastically. "I think that's what keeps us coming back every week and getting dirty. It's the discovery of it all. It is pretty thrilling when you find something in the dirt. Just like Indiana Jones, but in the Presidio." Echoing Shelly's enthusiasm, Burt says being here to uncover archaeological clues not only tells the story of the Presidio, but the story of San Francisco.
That story becomes clearer during wet screening, when the soil is washed away leaving larger objects behind. What was once just a mound of dirt where nothing was really obvious, all of a sudden, artifacts appear – a piece of ceramic with a pattern on it, glass, leather. Burt points out one piece, "Roof tile. The archaeologists would know for sure, but probably from the Spanish era." Sometimes when they make a find, Burt and Shelly's curiosity is so great they make it a special point to follow-up on that artifact with Liz later. "We actually have a pile called the 'Ask Liz' pile," Burt says.
The objects that remain after wet screening are sorted by size and type. What appears to be just a heap of rocks, upon closer inspection, is actually a treasure trove of artifacts. Park visitors can make an appointment to see some of the artifacts at the lab.
They are also on display in the Officer’s Club building, which also happens to be the site of another archaeology project.
Eric says the Officer's Club is another unique archaeological experience. "If you take the whole Presidio and boil it down to one building, that’s it. We kind of describe it as a layer cake - no one ever went in and gutted the building to put anything new in. They just added layer upon layer upon layer."
In 2005 archaeologists hoped to uncover the hidden layers inside the Officer's Club building. Working with Presidio carpenters Tim Boatwright and Ernesto Meraz, they began carefully removing the drywall. Underneath, they found stenciled wall fabric from the 1930's mission revival period. The next layer revealed 19th century woodwork.
"When the Americans came in, they tried to make this look like a wood frame building," Eric explains. "Now, it had unusually thick walls for a wood frame building." The thick walls were due to what lay beneath that wood frame - the adobe structure of the Spanish colonial fort, dating back to 1815.
As one of the carpenters working on the project, Ernesto was able to experience this discovery firsthand. "When we unveiled it, and you see the adobe back there, I just thought about the people who built the structure, what they were going through, thinking about why they were building it, who they were building it for, and just the blood and sweat that went into it. It's pretty surreal. You almost felt their presence as you were opening up the walls."
Ernesto felt a connection to the building that had changed hands from Spanish to Mexican, and then to U.S. control. His father was a mason in Mexico, and had built his own house out of adobe. "Knowing that it was all a part of Mexican history and then it became U.S. history but so, me being both, I felt really tied to it, you know, knowing that both my backgrounds are tied into this one place. It's fantastic."
"We're trying to make this everyone's playground," Eric says. "So everyone has a chance to experience the same excitement I feel when I see an artifact for the first time."
The Officer's Club is open for visitors to experience the layers of the Presidio's history for themselves. The Presidio Archaeology Lab is making sure that you won't be able to look at a wall, a pile of dirt, or even the ground you walk on, in the same way ever again.