Digging in the Dirt.

I’d been eagerly awaiting a spot on an archaeological dig that the NPS was running on Alcatraz, thanks to a connection through the store that put me close in with the historical archaeologist of the Presidio. After the expedition was cancelled a couple of times due to bad weather and ‘administrative injury’, the green-light call finally came a few weeks ago. Thanks to the city giving me a pass on that godforsaken, incessant, jury duty stand-by, I was able to join the team and a really interesting day was had.


On a beautiful June morning, our cadre of willing dirt-diggers, analysts, and volunteers got up far earlier than we should have and met up at the ferry launch to board the first boat of the day to Alcatraz. Couldn’t have asked for better weather, and after loading up the ferry with equipment and specialists, the lilting Bay waters carried us to our destination safely.



Stunning view of our pointy little city from the eastern edge of Alcatraz.


Offloading the myriad shovels, picks, metal-sniffing devices, and eager folks to operate it all.

Our charge: a cursory survey of the old 19th-century officers’ quarters (established during the era when the island was a military prison) which now consists of earth-covered foundations and garden blocks. We were given a cultural landscape report and some introductory priming on the area in which we were to survey, then we plotted off the terraces and coalesced into small dig teams. We were told to look for anything that might be of interest, including coal, bones, glass, seed pods, ceramic, or other sundries.


Carola Ashford shows us the area we are to survey and primes us on the garden project.


One of the garden plots where the central officer’s mansion once stood. This ground is off-limits to the public, and hidden well behind stone retaining walls and foliage.


Looking back on the western officers’ foundation, where our metal-detector team was searching for 150-year-old remnants. You can see how the terraced gardens provided for some interesting excavating space.


Danny was our guest archaeologist who operated the detector at the west end of the plot. The walls in front of him are exceedingly interesting, as they contain no less than three eras of built-up fortification, all blended together in a happy soup. Up close, you can actually see the different strata of brickwork, layered through the ages.


Our team’s sifting grid, trowel at the ready. We must have dug a dozen test holes to find a pretty good supply of bone, charcoal, and burnt wood. The latter might have been from the original structure when it was burned down in the early 1940s.


Eighteen inches was the order of the day, *ahem*. We were expecting a cement terrace around that depth, but mostly what we found was the natural bedrock of the island. In our last test pit, however, we came upon a shelf of some kind, so we dug a trench and followed it for a while. Nobody is sure quite what it is, but we’re guessing it may have been a strange foundation abutment, as it doesn’t match up to the shadow of the regular foundation still on the retaining walls above the plots.


Over in the western gardens, Danny and the crew had unearthed a treasure trove of interesting historical finds. This one, a prisoner’s handball lost from the recreation yard, was in excellent condition.


Arguably the finest find was this 19th-century officer’s uniform button, made of patinaed brass and smashed in around the middle. Because it was found with a key-ring-style loop instead of thread remnants, it was conjectured that perhaps the soldier who once owned it might have been unskilled in the art of sewing – or perhaps he was just a tad lazy.


This moment was the highlight of the trip for me, as Leo Barker, Carola, and the inimitable John Martini were discussing where the original foundations of the manses were, as well as the probable use of a converted storage shed that at one time most likely was a coal dump. Conjecturing about the physical context of historical variables is the pinnacle of the Humanities disciplines for me, and sitting in with this particular group of experts made my toes curl. Call me weird.


Leo’s son points out to John and his dad the test pit artifact we found on Officers’ Row. On more than one occasion I tripped in our holes. That’s professionalism for you.


The public were treated to a view as our teams played in the dirt overlooking the Bay. We fielded questions to the most inquisitive of passers by. A Red and White Fleet ferry cruises past in the background, headed from Tiburon to San Francisco.

After a long day digging and sifting in the sun, our team was treated to a special private tour of the sub-level of the Citadel, the remnants of a Civil War-era fortification that later became the basement of the main cell block on Alcatraz. Being a fan of John Martini’s work for so many years, it was fantastic to be able to work with him and hear some of his tales firsthand; the man is most certainly the world’s foremost expert on the island and most elements of Bay Area military history.


The dark entrance to the Citadel’s basement. We had to put on hardhats due to the reinforced beams of concrete laced throughout the structure, all of it holding up the massive cell block above.


John points out some prisoner’s graffiti in one of the storage bins of the Citadel’s underground. Unknown to most, poorly behaved inmates during the military penitentiary era were sent down into the holds as a form of solitary confinement. As moisture would collect and drip down the walls, prisoners would often believe they were actually being held underwater. I can’t imagine the claustrophobia that must have set in.



From the lowest point to the highest: after the Citadel tour, one of our advisory NPS rangers took a few of us up in the island’s 84-foot lighthouse. Since it’s still operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, it’s a rare occurrence that civilians are let in. I considered myself extremely lucky, and extremely freaked out. There’s nothing like confined, massively high places to get me chattering with fear.


It took me longer than it should have to climb the spiraling light, and once at the top, I made a vow NOT to leave the safety of the light head. This lasted precisely thirty seconds, as John the Ranger was having none of it. Using an ingenious blend of cajoling and coercion, he somehow got me out into the whipping wind. I gripped the rail with all five hands until he pried the camera away from me so I wouldn’t drop it on unsuspecting folk far below.


I managed to snap off a few shots before that, thankfully. The view was spectacular. This one is looking out to Angel Island over the Officers’ ‘Mission’ building and the partial roof of the cell block.


Looking eastward to the boat dock, over the reinforced ruins of the warden’s house. This was burned on more than one occasion, most recently during the American Indian occupation during the 1960s-70s.


Ever the good sport, Ranger John snapped a candid photo of me trying to hide my fear. You can just see the ruins of some other officers’ quarters in the bottom left of the picture. A good amount of the island’s structures are in ruins – a haunting reminder of its turbulent history.


There’s my lovely city, in one perfect, pocket-sized parcel. It was about the time I was marveling at this that I felt the lighthouse sway. Thinking it was a trick of the wind, I asked the ranger about it, who confirmed that there was give built into the tower. Right about then I lost my shit and ran inside the light.

Somehow he tempted me out again, and though I’ll never do it again, he dared me to climb the rickety aluminum ladder that crept up the side of the light itself. About halfway up, the protective ladder cage ended and all that was there separating me from an impressive plummet were two metal handrails. I couldn’t get all the way up to the airplane beacon on top, but I was close. I figured that was enough Fear Factor for one day.


The wonderful outing ended with me carting a 30-pound slab on the ferry back to San Francisco, for delivery to the Presidio Archaeology Lab. The cement-covered sandstone had broken off in the tide and was to be preserved by the Trust. On it was what seemed to be a grave marker for one Lt. Fennel, 21st Cavalry, but it later came out that Fennel was most likely commemorating himself as one of the builders of the tidal retaining wall to which the stone once belonged. Turns out he died in Honolulu twenty years later, so no dice there. The brilliant part of this was the funny looks I got from the ferry personnel and tourists as I carted away a piece of the Rock, right under their noses. I wonder if they were figuring where they could get their very own…

Another expedition is planned for the late summer or fall, centering on a sweep and survey of the island’s coastal path. I’m certainly looking forward to that, and I hope it will yield another close gander into a focused contextual history of one of the Bay Area’s most amazing sites. And this is what I did on my summer vacation.

3rd Grade

50 Responses to “Digging in the Dirt.”

  1. chicaboo25 Says:
    July 31st, 2006 at 2:24 am

    Wow how cool!!! I am so glad I found this post….I was just looking at an LJ images page and saw Alcatraz and I clicked on it and got to see this.
    How interesting. I am from Bath, England and I visited San Francisco in 1995….and my favourite part was visiting Alcatraz. I just found it such a dark, eerie place…I met a cool guy over there who was a prisoner for 10 years and he had written a book about life in the prison…..he was a nice guy…he signed my copy of the book but I have heard he is dead now 🙁
    Anyway you are so lucky to have done a dig over there….all the interesting things you found….so cool 🙂
    Take care

  2. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 11:33 am

    Hi Ellen! Thanks for reading through the post, and also for your comments. I'm glad you had a chance to visit the island when you were here – it's one of our pristine pieces of history that runs the gamut of time since people first settled here. How wonderful that you were able to meet one of the prisoners and get a signed book. As time goes on, more people who were directly witness to iconic historical events are dropping off, and it highlights for me the importance of catching them before it's too late – hearing the stories, documenting their recollections. This, a huge problem for historical memory, but one the discipline has been dealing with for centuries.

  3. chicaboo25 Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 3:27 pm

    Yeah it is such a great place. Jim's book is great because he was a prisoner there for 10 years….he even signed it…here is the autograph….
    <img src="http://www.webkin.co.uk/albums/books/jimquillen.jpg"&gt;
    He was such a nice friendly guy. I also visited San Quentin Prison Museum whilst I was there. My uncle lives in Larkspur 🙂

  4. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 3rd, 2006 at 12:19 am

    That's a treasure – thanks for showing us.

  5. bellybuttongirl Says:
    July 31st, 2006 at 3:24 am

    this would have been so cool to be involved with! thanks for sharing 😀

  6. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 11:33 am

    We were really lucky, I feel. Thanks for reading.

  7. hermiston Says:
    July 31st, 2006 at 3:25 am

    I'm glad you finally got out there to dig. Archaeology is as exciting as it gets and you were treated to some brilliant finds, how wonderful.I can imagine the enthusiasm and energy you must have brought to your company, surely you will be joining for more and more such digs. Great pictures too, thanks for this post.

  8. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 11:37 am

    Well, it wasn't a millennium-old cathedral, but it'll do. 🙂
    I'm still trying to figure out the conflict between History and Archaeology. Every time I do something like this, I'm baffled, and I actually had a chat with Leo about it in between spadefuls of earth. The disciplines are so useful to each other, but the former rarely gives the latter the time of day. Surely there's as much sensationalism in History as there is within Archaeology!

  9. hermiston Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 12:14 pm

    Yeah, it's weird. I canna mind the last time I saw a historian seriously credit archaeology and let it shape his/her theories. Maybe I'm reading the wrong things… One would expect much more of a relationship between the two, and particularly for all those interested in history to be excited by what the shape of the land, and the secrets it holds, can tell us. I don't understand it. Though I never have done any serious archaeology I would love to. Perhaps licking old paintings, books etc tastes less unpleasant than soil 😉

  10. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 12:20 pm

    Perhaps licking old paintings, books etc tastes less unpleasant than soil.
    As a skilled licker of old books, I can definitively say that you are correct. Though it depends on the soil, I suppose.

  11. catness Says:
    July 31st, 2006 at 4:25 am

    Awwww, man. I am a huge Alcatraz fan. I'm lucky I don't live in SF, or I'd find myself going out there every other weekend just to sit.
    Thanks for posting pictures of things we plebes aren't allowed to go near, and descriptions of your day.

  12. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 11:39 am

    Surely you know that they allow some volunteers to stay the night in the soldiers' barracks? If you knew the right people, I'm sure something could be arranged next time you're in town…
    Just sayin'. 🙂

  13. catness Says:
    August 20th, 2006 at 10:11 am

    Oooooh. Oooooooooooooooh.
    (Yes, I'm responding 20 days later. Yes, it took me that long to wrap my brain around the concept.)

  14. eskimolimon Says:
    July 31st, 2006 at 4:40 am

    Fascinating stuff, thanks for posting that. You look like you enjoyed yourself anyway despite the heights.

  15. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 11:40 am

    That's only because you didn't see the mess I made on the platform. 🙂

  16. xgreenjudasx Says:
    July 31st, 2006 at 5:33 am

    Coolest educational rock, ever!

  17. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 11:40 am

    Hehe. Thanks!
    Now we need a song, dontcha think?

  18. xgreenjudasx Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 11:51 am

    Taking away our national treasures, on block at a time /
    Hey Mr. Park Ranger, research ain't a crime /
    Just let us take the ferry, my slabby friend and me /
    Liberating cement in the name of his-to-ry
    *drum solo*

  19. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 3rd, 2006 at 12:21 am

    I'm impressed and a bit titillated. But 'slabby friend'? What exactly does that mean?

  20. xgreenjudasx Says:
    August 3rd, 2006 at 5:24 am

    Oh word play! Is it not a "slab" of rock/cement? And even though it's a slab of cement, don't hurt it's feelings by saying you aren't it's friend.
    Dude, rocks have feelings too. Stoney, weird, evil feelings.

  21. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 5th, 2006 at 10:49 am

    She talks to rocks, kids. I got what you meant, but I was afraid to admit and to acknowledge it.

  22. xgreenjudasx Says:
    August 10th, 2006 at 11:04 am

    Fuck the Lorax
    I am Baska, I speak for the rocks!

  23. handworn Says:
    July 31st, 2006 at 8:08 am

    Great stuff! Thanks for the story, and the photos.
    Call me weird.
    * clears throat * (Loudly) You're WEIRD!

  24. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 11:41 am

    Yeah, I guess I saw that coming.

  25. angledge Says:
    July 31st, 2006 at 8:23 am

    Superb photos, & what a great weather day you had! Congratulations on challenging your fear of heights, depths, & swaying towers.

  26. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 11:43 am

    We need that kind of thing in our lives, Ms. Triathlon, don't we?

  27. niddrie_edge Says:
    July 31st, 2006 at 8:39 am

    10/10 Darren!
    I recommend you now watch Vertigo!

  28. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 11:47 am

    Wow, that is the best website ever. I so love those comparison pictures – thanks for the link, Raymond!

  29. agntprovocateur Says:
    July 31st, 2006 at 8:52 am

    fantastic photos! at least you made it through that once in a lifetime climb!

  30. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 11:48 am

    Once-in-a-lifetime, bah! NEXT time, I'm touching that light!

  31. Anonymous Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 11:52 am

    that's the spirit!
    it's like me conquering my fear of heights by skiing downhill. i cried the entire way down the first time (it was a medium level course and i had just had my first skiing lesson). after that it was a piece of cake. 🙂

  32. dirtbaby Says:
    July 31st, 2006 at 9:33 am

    Nothing like digging into the skin of our mother to discover the layers of history. Have trowel, will travel.

  33. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 11:49 am

    Well said.
    Wait, what did you do to my mother?

  34. dirtbaby Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 4:22 pm

    Treated her with all the courtesy and respect due to a mother.

  35. dellaluna Says:
    July 31st, 2006 at 1:05 pm

    Fascinating. That looks like so much fun to participate in.

  36. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 11:49 am

    Truly. Next time, I hope we find some BONES.

  37. original_aj Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 2:37 am

    Interesting write-up.
    Re the button – Buttons with rings are also used when the garment will need laundering without the buttons, to avoid damaging them – you sew a small circular buttonhole the stalk of the button fits through & have a washer & ring on the back, so you can take the buttons on & off easily. It might also be because the owner had several uniforms but only one set of buttons, or possibly an everyday set and an expensive silver set for best. It could also be so the supplier can quickly fit the appropriate unit's buttons to a standard garment. If it was an officer's uniform it's unlikely he'd be doing his own sewing.

  38. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 12:00 pm

    Hiya, AJ. Yes, you raise good points here. Martini was the one who suggested what I related, and considering he's written books that touch on uniforms of the seacoast soldier, I went with his cursory notion. One thing we inferred was that the loops would have left the buttons dangling loosely, which hardly seems presentable for a military officer. I guess we'd have to consult with a local historical sartorial expert for more.
    I trust you've been well?

  39. original_aj Says:
    August 3rd, 2006 at 12:41 pm

    Been a bit busy – I'm only online intermittently at the moment. On the whole things are going well. I seem to have accidentally acquired a career, which is nice. Feeling old though – in two weeks my daughter goes up to high school on my 40th birthday!
    If he's researched the area he's likely right. In case he is just guessing:
    Assuming that the button has the usual stalk on the back, the loop would be flat on the back of the cloth, with the stalk sticking out slightly on the back, so the button shouldn't dangle. The uniform fabric is likely to be quite thick & stiff, especially if it's buttonholed & braided, so they don't move much. I can try & do a drawing if that's not clear.
    Another advantage would be avoiding getting metal polish on the coat when polishing the buttons – soldiers used to have special "button stick" slotted plates to slide behind them for this purpose.

  40. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 5th, 2006 at 10:53 am

    Again, good information here. Thank you. A sincere congrats also on the job and the big birthday!

  41. kittynitro Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 11:03 am

    This is so neat. What a lovely thing, doing what you love and then documenting it beautifully.

  42. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 11:22 am

    You're a sweetie.
    Well, you know the old adage: "If it wasn't documented on LJ, it didn't really happen."

  43. kittynitro Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 12:06 pm

    You mean I never really had that baby?

  44. kittynitro Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 12:09 pm

    D'oh! I guess now I just did have that baby.
    Stupid documentation.

  45. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 12:21 pm

    You're clever. I love you.
    And that's not just the cow talking.

  46. aureliasveil Says:
    August 1st, 2006 at 1:21 pm

    What an intriguing adventure. Did you meet any G h o s t s while there?

  47. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 3rd, 2006 at 12:23 am

    Sadly, the only ghost I met was that of my turkey sandwich, obnoxiously haunting my lower intestine during the climb to the light. More than you wanted to hear, I wonder?

  48. aureliasveil Says:
    August 3rd, 2006 at 6:37 pm

    TMI.Quite. But seriously, not a twinge of creepy resonance floating 'round?

  49. FunkyPlaid Says:
    August 5th, 2006 at 10:52 am

    Well, in the basement of the Citadel, perhaps. But really, it was hard to focus on ghosts with dirt in our teeth. I've heard that some of the overnight visitors have heard and seen uncommon things, however…

  50. scotis_man Says:
    August 8th, 2006 at 10:02 am

    Hey Darren,
    Thanks for sharing. We sometimes forget the wonders that are in our own back yard.

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