Unearthing the Past

SCU archaeologists, anthropologists, and students probe a site near campus to learn about the area’s history.

I am tOn a sun-baked dirt lot near downtown Santa Clara ringed by turn-of-the-century houses, Santa Clara University archaeologists and anthropologists are quietly chipping away at the earth in search of Silicon Valley’s past.

Using shovels, small brushes, and their hands, the searchers are gently and meticulously probing layers of soil they hope will yield answers about who lived and died there in the shadow of Mission Santa Clara more than 200 years ago

The researchers started the project in the early summer using high-tech sensing devices above ground to pinpoint what possibly lies below: foundations of ancient structures, artifacts, and human remains. The site may be part of the mission cemetery dating to the late 18th century, the exact location of which has been obscured by time.

But in July, the scientists turned to a decidedly low-tech tool in their probe- bone-sniffing dogs.

Straining in 90-degree heat, four specially trained canines-a Doberman, a Belgian Malinois, and two border collies-lowered their snouts to the ground and went to work. Moments later, their handlers called them off after realizing the ground temperature was 110 degrees-too hot to do the job.

The heat dries out a dog’s nose and impairs its sense of smell.

Beating the heat

Trainers Adela Morris, Shirley Hammond, and Bev Peabody watered down a section of the lot to cool it, and several minutes later the dogs went at it again. They didn’t bark or sit down anywhere on the property, which usually signals the presence of human remains below. But Hammond, whose dogs have searched for human remains at the World Trade Center and at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing, said these dogs will be back.

”The summer is the worst time to do this,” Morris said, ”but this is such a great opportunity for them to learn how to find hundred-year-old bones. It’s just a very slow process.”

The dogs have been working only a short time at historic dig sites, so any experience is valuable, she said. On another part of the halfacre site, the human team, which included several SCU anthropology students, was rejoicing at finding what outsiders might view as a small discovery. But to them, it was significant-a horseshoe, a furnace brick, and some animal bones dating back to the early 1900s.

”When I look at that horseshoe I get a real visual of a draft horse plowing this land, which was probably an orchard,” said an excited Lorie Garcia, Santa Clara’s unofficial historian, who spent days at the site. ”This is like voices speaking to us from their time.”


Garcia, whose family settled in Santa Clara more than 200 years ago, was standing above a three-foot-deep pit where the horseshoe, brick, and bones were unearthed. A concrete form with the date ”1913” and the family name ”Day” on it gave her and project leaders Russell Skowronek and Linda Hylkema pause.

Skowronek and Hylkema, SCU anthropology professors and campus archaeologists, were hoping to find the foundation of a 200-year-old adobe at the spot. But the concrete-obviously not from the mission era-threw them. Garcia learned through city documents that the residents who lived there at the turn of the 20th century were the family of Samuel Day, listed in records as a laborer.

Discovering history

Other recent discoveries at the property point to the area’s rich history surrounding the local mission: ceramic roof tiles from an adobe that probably housed Ohlone Indians, shell beads from a necklace, an arrowhead, and a chunk of pottery that researchers say all date to the late 1700s.

The dig site is less than a city block away from one of the original mission sites at Franklin Street and El Camino Real, which also leads researchers to believe that part of the property could hold an extension of the mission’s 200-year-old cemetery, where the area’s native Ohlones, who lived around the mission, are buried.

Skowronek says the area around the dig site, which is about a block away from the edge of the SCU campus, probably has many old graves under homes. In 1997, in the center of the SCU campus, Skowronek and Hylkema led a team that unearthed the remains of 10 humans dating to 900 A.D.

Project beginnings

The archaeology project began with the aboveground mapping of the lot at Sherman and Benton streets using a magnetometer. The instrument, developed by a San Jose company called Geometrics, is a long pole guided by a searcher that resembles a metal detector. It looks for distortions in the Earth’s magnetic field to pinpoint underground areas that could yield large items or foundations of former structures.

A magnetometer search pointed Skowronek’s team to three spots in the middle of the lot where they began digging. The exploration is expected to continue for months.

”We are finding layers of history that has been untouched for years. It’s a very exciting thing to us, to uncover what others have left behind,” said Skowronek. ”Finding the tiles and the piece of pottery left me walking on clouds. We are looking at the true origins of Silicon Valley.”

Connie Skipitares is a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News.

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