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The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
April 1968, Volume 14, Number 2
Rita Larkin, Editor

By Dr. Paul Ezell

Images from the article

During 1967 only one semester of digging, three months, was possible at the Presidio, owing to administrative difficulties which prevented the relocation of the fence. This was necessary to make available new areas for excavation, since the area originally enclosed had been almost completely excavated.

The relocation of the fence at the end of the summer not only opened up new areas for excavation to the east of the complex of buildings already excavated, but it has provided almost complete protection against the vandalism which has plagued the project since its inception.

There are still, however, two possible accesses which should be stopped, since we had at least one certain trespass (for the purpose of using one of the deeper trenches as a concealment for smoking marijuana!) during this past season.

It is possible to swing into the branches of the olive tree on the south side of the fenced area and thus gain entrance over the fence there.

Similarly, it is possible to use the bracings of the gates for enough purchase to climb over the tops. Nevertheless, the removal of the fence from the wall on the south side has been of tremendous effect on cutting down trespass and vandalism.

Another gratifying circumstance is the success of the “Pencapsula” treatment of the walls. Some of the treated portions have now had as much as 15 months of exposure, including at least two heavy rains, with no sign of erosion at all. Our failures have been with the mud plaster and with the lime plaster, some patches of which have fallen. These have been few, however.

The suspension of the work-study program at San Diego State College deprived us of the services of John Weir, the student who had made the treatment of the walls with Pencapsula his special concern. Our success with it thus far encourages us to proceed with our plan of treating walls as they are exposed, making this part of the training program for the students, but Mr. Weir’s help (or that of someone equally skilled) will be necessary to deal with the backlog of preservation just described.

Excavation this past season concentrated on the area east of the sacristy, where test pits were put down in an effort to determine the depth of fill along the south side of the new area. The results were surprising; in one pit we have not yet found bottom at a depth of some 20 inches, where it was thought the occupation surface might lie very shallow.

All of the south row of pits revealed the cobble-and-boulder foundation of a rather thick wall lying along an east-west line-very possibly the remains of the former outer wall in this area. In two of the pits, evidences of contiguous walls were found, and evidences of considerable fire, but the season ended before excavation in those areas could be completed.

We also started carrying the face of the former excavations eastward in the area adjacent to the altar wall on the east, finding that the tiled floor which had previously been discovered in this area continues eastward in that area, but not in another closely adjacent to it on the south. In this latter area was found a very fine brass candlestick. Among the items recovered from the test pits along the south side of the area were two fragments of a large iron blade, possibly the remains of a sword, and an obsidian gun flint.

For part of the season work was carried on continuing the attempt to trace the north and south walls of the nave a little farther west. On the outside of the south wall were discovered brick and mortar pedestals for columns like those previously found on the inside of the nave, and a wall, built at right angles to the wall of the nave and extending south, well plastered on the east side.

No evidence of flooring, or even the old occupation surface was found in the trenching, although the cobble-and-clay buttressing of the wall was uncovered. Further exploration of this area where traditionally there was either a walk-way or, according to one report, an enclosed room which could be locked, awaits removal of the mound of backdirt from the previous excavations.

On the outside of the north wall there was finally found a patch of lime plaster still adhering to the wall. From the consistence with which we have picked up a stratum of fallen plaster fragments outside the walls we were sure that the church had been plastered outside as well as inside, but we had never found any of it in place. Now we can say with confidence that at one period at least the church bore on the outer surfaces of its walls a coat of plaster of a rather creamy white color.

The trench which was dug outside the south wall for the installation of the new sprinkler system cut through the foundation of an east-west wall in that area, previously unsuspected, and showed that there exists a rich deposit of trash extending some distance beyond the existing wall.

Among the items recovered in this trash was a “Phoenix” button in excellent condition. According to an article in WESTWAYS for October, 1953, page 21, these buttons were ordered by Napoleon for his troops on his return from Elba. A second one of these buttons was found in the trench along the outside of the south wall of the nave, and answering the question of how they came to San Diego would shed more light on the trade relationships of the time.

Holding the excavation class every semester has had the effect of reducing the number of students working in any one semester markedly from the first season, yet it is not deemed advisable to return to a schedule of every other semester. Consequently a cooperative arrangement has been worked out whereby students from Mesa College, under the supervision of Professor Michael Axeford of that institution, will join the San Diego State College students excavating at the Presidio next semester.

We regard this as rather a “trial run” but we are so confident of success with it that we are planning how the same facilities can be extended to students in other colleges within reach of the Presidio and eventually to students in the high schools.

Finally, for the first time and again as an experiment, the excavation class at San Diego State College will be offered as a part of the six-weeks summer session and, if it is successful, plans to repeat it during the following summer of 1969 will be made.


Dr. Paul Ezell is a professor of anthropology at San Diego State College, a member of the San Diego History Center, and for two years has served as project superintendent at the Royal Presidio Digs.