By CHUCK BINGAMAN
The cream-colored trio of interconnected two-story metal buildings sits in a remote, woodsy corner of the Sonoma State University campus in Rohnert Park, near Petaluma Hill Road. Apart from the “Anthro Studies” sign on one outside wall, building No. 29 resembles a maintenance building for rusting tractors and lawn mowers.
In fact, No. 29 houses a treasure trove of millions of collected artifacts from archaeological sites, mostly in northern and central California. SSU staff members and students work there to organize, study, label and store the items with a level of precision that would make an accountant proud.
The Archaeological Collections Facility, as it is called, was founded in 1967 and is overseen by professor Adrian Praetzellis and a staff of professionals and students dedicated to preserving the state’s history.
What’s it look like inside? “Visualize the scene from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ where Indiana Jones is putting the ark in a huge warehouse,” Praetzellis said. “In a sense, that’s what we do.”
The facility includes two floors and more than 6,500 shelved boxes of rocks, bones, buttons, crockery fragments, utensils, tools and much more. All are labeled with the date of acquisition and collection number, and all are neatly tucked into zip-close plastic bags in marked cardboard storage containers.
The inventory comprises tens of millions of objects from hundreds of collections. Each collection includes field notes that describe the overall site of origin and its significance and where each object was found, often with photographs. Documentation also includes catalogs of all collected objects and historic photographs of the people related to the objects, if possible.
The combination enables scholars to study what was found at the sites and what the discoveries mean.
“The facility accepts artifacts from archaeological field schools and research excavations — basically, from anywhere in northern and central California where archaeologists work,” Praetzellis said.
It does not accept items collected from private land, nor will it take collections that don’t have good archaeological field records.
“The facility isn’t a museum, so we don’t accept artifacts simply because they are old and/or nifty-looking,” Praetzellis said. “Without good documentation, artifacts don’t have any research value.”
Much of the SSU collection is from historic sites in and around the Bay Area. In most cases, the archaeological work has been based on written records of the sites, including old maps, government records and family recollections.
“The most dramatic collections have come from domestic refuse such as plates and bottles buried by their inhabitants in holes, wells, privies and so forth,” Praetzellis said. “We’ve got collections from people from every different nationality, ethnicity and wealth level, so it is possible to analyze them individually and compare among each other.”
Unfortunately for researchers, the advent of municipal garbage collection early in the 1900s brought an end to most on-site garbage pits and changed urban archaeology forever.
A typical example of Praetzellis’ work was the study of archaeological sites prior to Caltrans’ retrofitting of the Bay Bridge. In the area around the San Francisco bridge footings, teams examined housing and business sites pinpointed on old city maps and found, often beneath 20feet of 19th-century landfill, evidence of domestic living and lifestyles.
Once found, items are stored and cataloged in nearby repositories for ease of future research. Because many of the collections excavated in the 1960s and ’70s aren’t cataloged to current standards, SSU’s anthropology majors (there are 120 this year) work on the older collections.
“This may involve re-cataloging the artifacts and rebagging them in archivally stable bags and with acid-free tags,” Praetzellis said.
Grad students also study the collections for their masters’ theses.
“Any archaeologist can use the facility,” Praetzellis said. “That includes students and professionals, but they have to show that they are a legitimate researcher, not just a looky-loo.
“We don’t get any state funds — none, zero, zip — so we can’t afford to do tours.”
Examples of the knowledge pieced together through professor Adrian Praetzellis’ urban archaeology include:
* Lives of 19th-century maritime and railroad workers in San Francisco and Oakland. Archaeologists found uniform buttons, men’s footwear and other items.
* Women’s lives within their 19th-century homes. Archaeologists found baby shoes along with items used in washing and repairing clothes, crafts and home butchering in home trash pits in Bay Bridge neighborhoods.
* Consumerism in the 19th century. Facility reports cover 19th-century taxidermy, rabbits, a unique stone-lined privy, well construction, glass whimsies, tintype plates, and remains of a pet Chihuahua and a guinea pig.