The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1976, Volume 22, Number 4
James E. Moss, Editor
Thomas L. Scharf, Assistant Editor

Images from the Article

This report is designed, in part at least, to answer some of the questions most frequently asked by visitors to the Serra Museum and the excavations, as well as a general summary progress report. Earlier reports in the Journal of San Diego History1 provided some of the information but, for a number of reasons, it has become desirable to provide an updated and more comprehensive one. The story is by no means complete, but a great deal has been learned since the last statement was published.


In 1964 the newly appointed director of the Serra Museum, Dr. Ray Brandes, proposed a research-and-training program in the ruins of the Presidio, to be carried out through the Department of Anthropology at San Diego State under the sponsorship of the San Diego History Center. An important reason for the proposal was that, although the site was one falling within the period thought of as “historic” in that some written records were being kept while people were living at the site, examination of those records had shown that very little was really known about the first San Diego. It is very rarely that people think a record of daily life is worth making at the time — record is usually made only for what, at the time, are regarded as “important” matters, which usually turn out to be either military/political or religious events. The passage of time often shows those affairs to have been of only transitory interest or importance; generations later the interests of posterity have a way of turning to the more ordinary lives led by the people of that earlier era. For example, the existing written information set down at the Presidio at the time of occupation was almost completely lacking such items as to what buildings had been where within the area known to have been that of the Presidio. In fact, had it not been for tradition and the ruins themselves, the contemporary records are not sufficiently detailed even to permit us now to state precisely where, “on a hill overlooking the harbor,” San Diego was founded although the date of formal founding of the mission, July 16, 1769, was recorded for the purposes of the Spanish claim to Alta California. And tradition has more often than not proved to be a feeble source. The greatest lack in the information has been any kind of plan of the Presidio such as exists for the other presidios in California. For years we thought one had to exist, but exhaustive search of possible repositories such as the archives in Seville, Madrid and Rome, in addition to those in Mexico has failed to reveal one, or even any reference to one. When the real history of the Presidio was worked out by Greta Ezell2, it was realized that most probably no plan was ever made. And, but for the public spirit and foresight of the late George White Marston, who was instrumental in including the ruins within Presidio Park and having them covered with a layer of topsoil and planted with grass, there might not even have been any ruins to be excavated, for erosion by man and the elements would long since have so much more obliterated them that it would have been impossible to trace them in the detail which has been possible to us.

After only the general policy kind of planning I had to depart for a year and my colleague then at San Diego State, Donald Brockington, kindly undertook the task of planning with Dr. Brandes the details of the program. A fundamental premise guiding them in the selection of the area within the Presidio in which to begin excavation was that the most information about the lives of the first San Diegans would be found in and around their homes. Since this was a fortified settlement — not a “fort,” as the word “presidio” is so often translated — on the frontier of the Spanish Empire, a corollary of that premise was that the quarters of the military component of the inhabitants would be the best place to start. Interpretation of a superbly detailed topographic map which, together with the notes on some test excavations, had been deposited in the Serra Museum by the City Engineer of the early 1930’s, Mr. Percy M. Broell, led to the conclusion that the entrance of the Presidio and the barracks were located in the southwest quarter of the present walled area where some prominent ridges in the lawn showed that ruins of some substantial structure or structures existed. Accordingly, those mounds were enclosed within a fence, as much to protect visitors as to protect the ruins and the workers, and excavation was begun in the spring of 1965. With the exception of only a few summers and the fall of 1967, when circumstances forced a temporary suspension of the excavations, work has been carried on continuously since then. That work has provided a series of surprises, in that almost all of our surmises, hence tradition, have been proved incorrect.

Nature of the Program

The excavation program has been made possible by a joint agreement between the City of San Diego, the San Diego History Center, and the Department of Anthropology at San Diego State University. The City issues a permit to the San Diego Historical Society for the work, since the ruins lie in a city park; an annual progress report must be filed, and the permit must be renewed every year. The San Diego History Center accepts responsibility for the custody of the materials recovered, and provides exhibition space for a small part of the collection; it also provides guide and lecture services to visitors, as well as the outdoor informational devices such as the signs and the scale plan of the principal structure mounted within the fenced area. San Diego State, through its instructional program, provides professional direction and supervision and the basic digging crew of the students. We have, over the years, been joined by classes from San Diego Mesa College for a time, by a summer class of high school students, and by volunteers both from other colleges and universities and from the dedicated citizenry.

A crew structure system has been worked out which provides the maximum of instruction and supervision of the personnel. Under the general direction of a qualified archaeologist is an excavation foreman, someone who has had approximately 1,000 hours of experience in archaeological excavation, most of it at this site. Under him or her — we are equal opportunity employers — are team supervisors, usually advanced students who have had approximately one hundred hours of experience. These team supervisors are responsible for from one to not more than three beginners, those who have had no previous experience in excavation. The team supervisors are required to instruct the beginners in the basic techniques of excavation — to oversee not only where they dig (which is assigned by the director and excavation foreman in consultation before the start of a new group of beginners) but how they dig, their note-keeping, and the cataloguing. Questions to which the team supervisors do not know the answers are referred to the assistant excavation foreman (men), then to the excavation foreman, finally to the director. Because one of the responsibilities of the archaeologist is to communicate the results of work to the public, the team supervisors are expected also to conduct tours; before the semester is over, the beginners are also expected to undertake such tasks.

Although interest has been expressed by several observers in the possibility of excavation being undertaken in other parts of the ruins, sometimes concurrently with the existing program, this has been rejected for a number of reasons. Most cogent of all is that the facilities for such concurrent work simply do not exist, in that adequate work forces in the form of excavators and supervisors are lacking. An additional reason is that, since this is to a great extent a pioneer program, by undertaking only one project at a time we have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and, hopefully, not be condemned to repeat them, an opportunity which would be diminished if not eliminated by concurrent programs. Another is an esthetic reason — this is, after all, now a city park, designed for the enjoyment of people. An excavation in a park is, by its very nature, a scar on that landscape from which there is no escape if the excavation is to be carried out — one cannot at the same time maintain a lawn, keeping it free from weeds, and excavate the earth covered by that lawn. All of us involved in the implementation of the program of research into San Diego’s beginnings have steadfastly adhered to the view that we could tolerate no more than one such scar at a time and the agreement stipulates that no new excavation shall be opened up until the present one is once more ready to be returned to its blanket of lawn.

Benefits of the Program

Set against the disadvantage of temporarily scarring the park are some substantial advantages in addition to the recovery of San Diego’s forgotten past. The City and the San Diego History Center get this expensive research carried out virtually cost free — in fact, the agreement stipulates that the City not be expected to invest funds in the program, nor is it necessary that it do so. The Historical Society contributes consumable supplies and equipment which cannot be provided by the instructional program at San Diego State. The University has, at equally little expense, a kind of training “laboratory” within minutes of the campus where, thanks to our climate, work can go on virtually without interruption the year round. Thus San Diego State is among only a half-dozen institutions in the United States enjoying such a research-and-training facility. And while the most expensive item in such a program, the time of the excavators, has been met principally by students taking courses for academic credit and thus laboring without monetary reward, students have benefitted in a variety of ways beyond simply that credit. Our graduates have gone on from here to graduate schools in other universities, sometimes continuing in the field of historical archaeology, sometimes using the program here as a kind of a springboard into other specialties. One has returned as a part-time instructor at San Diego State while finishing a doctorate at the University of California at Los Angeles; one is on a Fulbright Fellowship in Roumania while completing a doctorate at the University of Arizona; one is an archaeologist for the United States National Forest Service; one is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, where his wife is a docent; and two are employed as archaeologists by local consulting engineering firms, to give only a few examples.

Not that the benefitting has been a one-way street so far as the students are concerned, either. The system of supervision and training is an outgrowth of a student suggestion. The exploration of the uses of X-ray3, learning what it cannot, as well as what it can, do, is another benefit to the program contributed by a student. The device by means of which the cover picture was produced was constructed by students after hearing of a similar — but much more expensive — apparatus used in Sweden.4 And, while students have benefitted by the kind of training experience gained through public presentations both on the site and before audiences as diverse as elementary school classes and civic groups such as Kiwanis and Rotary, the program has benefitted by the wider knowledge among San Diego citizens of its aims and how those aims are pursued. Still another two-way benefit is the papers and master’s theses which have been or are being produced by students as a part of their educational program but which have contributed to our store of information.

What Has Been Learned

As was commented earlier, the years have brought many surprises as the earth covering was removed. To many, the greatest surprise was that the ruins were not those of the barracks and gateway to the Presidio, but those of a religious structure. Whether it be called a church or a chapel is a matter of administrative procedure rather than architecture; the same structure may be designated by either term, depending on how it is used, and it was referred to under both terms by writers who were there when it was still in use. To avoid confusion with buildings elsewhere currently designated as “churches” we generally refer to it as a chapel. The more important question is why we think it to have been a religious structure.

Among the clues first found were the tiled floor and the painted plaster on the walls. Both seemed unlikely to have been provided in ordinary structures on the frontier of the already dying Spanish Empire which had many other and more urgent demands for funds as represented in human time and labor as well as materials. The finding of fragments of gold leaf in the earth covering the eastern one-quarter of the single long room, and of the particular architectural details surviving in that area, made the identification as nearly certain as we achieve it in archaeology. In that end of the structure it was found that the floor was higher than for the rest of the building by the thickness of two floor tiles, set back from each other to provide a “step” from the lower floor level to the higher. On the raised portion of the floor was a platform, again two floor tiles high but not offset this time, extending westward from the east wall but not extending to the north or south walls. This platform was covered by a coat of white plaster, broken at the western side by an oblong approximately two and one-half by six feet, where only earth showed — no plaster or tile. Centered at the eastern edge against the east wall of the structure was a pile of flat tiles, some obviously slipped out of place, occupying the center third of the east-west extent of the plastered platform. Finally, at the right side and under the overhang of the pile of tiles, was a square hole in the floor with a shoulder at the top for the accommodation of a lid. These architectural details in this combination are only to be found in a Christian religious structure, a church or, chapel. The area raised above the rest of the floor was the sanctuary, in which was the pedrella (the raised and plastered platform), the altar (the pile of tile), and the ambry or piscinum (the square receptacle made in the floor at the time it was laid).

Although it may appear circuitous reasoning, nevertheless this identification of the building also helps explain and is supported by the identifications of some of the other things found. Gold leaf, in Spanish colonial times, was to be found most frequently adorning things in the sanctuary area of a chapel or church, never in such ordinary buildings as barracks. The same could be said of painted plaster on walls. The two “step” arrangement along the west side of the sanctuary represents the place where members of the congregation knelt to receive communion. This, in turn, helps identify something found in the fallen debris, but just above the floor tile, covering the steps — a fragment of a round bar of wood with a thin sheet of copper cut out in a scalloped design and held to the wood by copper nails, as well as other fragments of the copper sheeting found elsewhere scattered throughout the earth fill. That piece of wood and its copper sheathing represented the railing helping to distinguish the sanctuary from the nave. The plastering of the walls, sometimes showing as much as eleven different coats of painting, is understandable as the adornment of a religious building, something important to all the members of the community, whereas it would have been improbable as a feature of soldiers’ quarters.

That identification also helped us to understand, hence explain, some other features found. The small platforms of tile, with concrete mortar between them, occurring along the inside of the walls at regular intervals and opposite each other, had already been identified as the bases for pilasters (columns attached to walls, probably made of timber), an architectural device for helping a wall bear the weight of a roof. As a chapel, a more elaborate and hence heavier roof might be expected than would have been deemed necessary for a secular building such as a barracks. A smaller chapel on the north, with its own pedrella and altar, once thought to have been possibly the chapel for the barracks, now was seen as an adjunct to the main chapel, possibly a mortuary chapel.

The second and, to me, unhappy surprise was the discovery of burials — unhappy because human remains always cause special problems to the archaeologist. The time required to excavate them is not adequately rewarded in the information they provide, yet, because their emotional appeal is so much greater than architectural remains, they assume greater importance in the eyes of others than do the remains of walls or floors, to say nothing of broken pieces of pottery or of non-human bones. And yet, those burials have contributed certain information not otherwise obtainable about San Diego’s past.

In addition to the inhumation practices of the times, something on which history has been as silent as it has been about most of the rest of the daily lives of the first San Diegans, we have recovered information on such diverse aspects of life then as physical ailments and community status of some individuals, to say nothing of re-discovering the location of San Diego’s oldest surviving cemetery. Of great public interest has been the identification of the remains of individuals, some of whom are named in San Diego’s recorded history. Among these were the graves of Henry Delano Fitch, who established the literary theme of “handsome Yankee wins beautiful daughter of the Don,” his youngest daughter, Natalia, and his associate, Joseph Francis Snook.5 The break in the western side of the pedrella in the sanctuary was caused by the burial there of the remains probably of José Arroyo, the blacksmith who was one of the victims of the revolt of 1775 which destroyed the mission of San Diego de Alcalá.

Those identifications were made possible by the circumstance that one element of the burial pattern of the times was to put the initials of the deceased on the lid of the coffin, using copper tacks. Checking those initials against such sources as the names listed in the Pioneer Register,6 the early burial records now in copy form in the Serra Museum, and the birth listings in the Fitch family Bible, also now in the Serra Museum, was a simple task. By a brilliant piece of detective work one of the students7 identified the grave, in the mortuary chapel, of the two children of another blacksmith in early San Diego, Felipe Romero. We are still seeking, however, the identification of the woman who had a leg amputated.8

While the official cemetery was the area between the south side of the nave of the chapel and the south wall of the Presidio, an unknown — because we have not tried to excavate them all — number of burials were made within the chapel itself. This practice is strange to most people now unless they have visited in another country where the practice of burying socially prominent people in the church or cathedral has been carried on for centuries. At the San Diego Presidio the practice was started while the chapel was still in use, since some of the graves had had the floor tiles replaced, as in the case of the Romero children. Others, such as the Fitches, were buried there after the chapel was no longer being used, since the graves were dug by breaking through the floor tiles (rather than by removing them intact) and the floor tiles were not replaced. The grave for Fitch was even dug down through the surviving remnant of the north wall of the nave.

José Arroyo’s grave, then, presents still another puzzle to be solved. By not rebuilding the pedrella, the dating of that grave as after the abandonment of the chapel is established, yet the blacksmith had to have been first buried at the Presidio in 1775 before, in fact, the chapel was even completed. Thus far the only plausible conclusion is that the location of Arroyo’s grave was so well remembered that after the abandonment of the chapel someone, probably descendants of Arroyo, moved the coffin and remains to where we found them.

These post-abandonment burials demonstrate another characteristic of the hispanic culture of the New World, at least; once a place has acquired the aura of sacredness it continues to retain that standing in the eyes of the people of a community for generations. Thus we have historical evidence, in the form of newspaper accounts of burials continuing to be made “on Presidio Hill” as well as the burial record, and archaeological evidence corroborating each other yet again.

In the cemetery itself we have found abundant evidence of still another element of the burial pattern of past times, a practice best illustrated in Act V, Scene 1, in Hamlet. Repeatedly, throughout the area of the cemetery, we have found the remains of earlier burials which have been disturbed by later interments; the earlier bones have been treated as casually as were those being disturbed by the gravediggers preparing for Ophelia’s burial. Thus, although we have designated 118 burials as of July 1, 1976, we do not think that number absolutely accurate nor do we think we will ever be able to say exactly how many people were buried in San Diego’s presidial cemetery.

In this connection, great interest has been shown in the disposition of the human remains uncovered. Whenever possible they are uncovered, recorded without further disturbance, and then recovered. If circumstances, such as the possibility of vandalism on the part of souvenir hunters or the necessity to remove them in order to record something lying below them, require their removal, they are treated with a preservative to prevent further deterioration, and stored in a safe place until they can be reburied at the spot from whence they came.

One of the ironies of life is that the greater the efforts made at the time to insure the preservation of human physical remains, the more rapid was their destruction by the elements. Plants produce acid, and water carried that acid downward into the ground. A burial in a coffin receives a more concentrated solution of this acid than one not in a coffin, as the bottom and sides of the coffin prevent the groundwaters from trickling away into the surrounding soil. Most of the human remains we find in the San Diego Presidio are less well preserved than those of a Neanderthal man buried over 45,000 years ago,9 even though none have been there over 200 years.

Happier surprises were provided by other discoveries. Among these are the discovery that the chapel, with the sacristy and cemetery, constituted a self-contained unit within the Presidio. The north wall of the chapel was prolonged to the east to join a massive cross wall extending to the south where it was joined to the south wall of the Presidio, and the east wall of the chapel and the sacristy was extended to the south wall of the Presidio, enclosing an area which was evidently devoted to the secular side of life. Entrance to this area was evidently only through one doorway in the south wall of that room, into an open area which has been designated as a courtyard. Other rooms along the north side of this courtyard either had doorways providing for passage from one room to another or for access to the courtyard. Along the west side of the living quarters area, attached to the east wall of the sanctuary and the sacristy, was another row of much smaller rooms, probably storerooms or something of the sort. Patches of paving made by placing pebbles and cobbles to cover the ground showed that the courtyard had, at one time, possibly been entirely so paved. This, in turn, was probably what caused the construction of the drainage system made with floor and roof tiles and opening through the wall between the sacristy and the south wall of the Presidio, since a considerable catchment basin had been created by the enclosure of the area with runoff becoming inadequate as a result of the paving.

It is in this eastern portion of the chapel complex area that we have found some clues to the living facilities of the time. In the southeast corner, where the east wall of the complex joined the south wall of the Presidio, had been built an oven for the baking of bread. Similar ovens can be seen today in some of the Pueblo villages in Arizona and New Mexico, and in country towns in Mexico today. Reconstructions of them can be seen in the patios of the Estudillo and Machado-Stewart houses in Old Town State Park, as well as at some of the missions such as San Luis Rey for example. We found the remains of two “barbecue pits,” to give a commonly used name to an early fireless cooker, made by digging a hole in the ground, perhaps flooring or even lining it with rocks, building a fire in it and, when the fire had burned to embers, placing food in the pit and sealing the pit. In none of the “domestic” rooms which we excavated did we find any trace of the kind of stove which would have been expected and which also survives in use today in some of the settlements in Latin America and around the Mediterranean. This was simply a box made of mud and rocks, in which a fire was built with cooking vessels placed directly on the coals.

Directly east of the east wall of the sacristy, in a pit which was taken down to over five feet in an effort to locate the surface on to which the Spaniards moved in 1769, were found the possible evidences of one of the earliest structures to be erected, long since demolished and covered by the debris of succeeding years. In the yellowish clay and gravel of that sub-stratum were found two darker circles, approximately eight inches in diameter. That sort of thing is familiar to an archaeologist as evidence of a hole in the ground which has subsequently been filled. Upon excavation both proved to be not animal burrows, one of the possibilities, but postholes, since they were approximately vertical to the plane of the ground, cylindrical in shape, and bottom was reached in both at approximately six inches. In one was found a crushed crucifix of metal (silver?) and wood. Those two postholes might well represent all that is left of one of the earlier structures used for religious services. The search for more of them in order to attempt to determine the full outline of the structure could not be pursued without dismantling much of the sacristy and the information to be gained from it seemed likely to add so little to what we already knew that that destruction did not seem worth the reward.

In the southeast part of the courtyard were found the remains of cobble foundations which had been built on accumulated trash. These were incomplete, in that the entire rectangle was not so outlined, nor was there any evidence of flooring or any other interior arrangements. Evidently two or more small rooms had, late in the life of the settlement, once existed here but had been nearly completely demolished before the creation of the park at least, since no wall remnants above the foundations had been found by us. What their purpose had been is beyond even conjecture on the evidence which has survived.

Another pleasant surprise was the nearly complete floor (broken only by one post-abandonment grave) and foundations, although only small sections of the walls survived, of a structure on the south side of the nave which has been identified as the baptistry. Access to it was through an elaborate doorway in the south wall of the nave, the opening which Broell had thought might have been the gateway to the Presidio. Only complete excavation, for which Broell had not the funds, made possible the identification of that doorway. In the geographic center of the D-shaped floor can be seen the evidences of a construction of tiles, once covered by plaster extending down on to the floor, approximately two feet on a side. Among possible explanations of such an architectural feature were a column to support a roof or a shorter column — i.e., a pedestal — to support something else. We rejected the roof support idea because we had found no evidence of interior support columns in the nave where such support would have been more needed. As for the other, the one thing which is supported on a pedestal of that kind in a church or a chapel is a font for holy water. The font for the general use of the congregation is usually placed near the entrance to the nave and often built into one of the walls. Placed where it was, it thus seems probable that this was a font used for baptisms, and thus the identification of the D-shaped room as the baptistry. This, in turn, provides a possible explanation of something else found in the trash deposit south of the baptistry, fragments of a steatite bowl. It has been reported that in one of the missions still surviving the baptismal font is one of the Indian soapstone bowls which were a feature of the Indians of the Santa Barbara Channel area such as the Chumash.

Part of the fill covering the floor of the baptistry was the still intact portions of two fallen walls. It could be determined that one of the walls had fallen from the north, the other from the west. That portion fallen from the north still contained mud building blocks in position relative to each other which showed that the doorway between the nave and the baptistry had had, in addition to the elaboration of the sides near the floor level, an elaboration of the top of the doorway common in religious structures along the northwestern Spanish frontier at least. The blocks had been carved into ridges and grooves and this then plastered over, simulating the radial fluting of certain kinds of sea shells (think of the Shell Oil Company trademark). This ornamentation was used on the arched overhang of doors, windows, and saints’ niches, and the sculptured building blocks showed that they had formed such an arch. The fallen blocks of the west wall showed that it too had contained an arch, but one without that ornamentation. In the surviving remnant of the base of that wall, however, on the exterior of the west side of the baptistry just to the south of the south wall of the nave, was found the remains of a recess in the wall, which for a time, we referred to as the “outdoor bathtub” because of its shape. That feature was most probably a seat, built where the west wall of the baptistry was thinned to approximately half the thickness of the south wall of the nave.

The latest surprises, identified only this past season, are a construction adjacent to the baptistry on the south, and another adjacent to the front (the west end) of the nave. Lying some two feet below the floor level of the baptistry is a paving of pebbles bordered by cobbles, one of which is an Indian-style metate set up on edge. As the excavation of this feature is not yet complete we are not ready to attempt an explanation of it; it does, however, appear to have been a feature of the cemetery, perhaps a paved path.

On the west side and adjacent to the foundation stones marking the location of the west wall of the chapel has been found another wall. The foundation of this wall, of cobbles as is the case with all the other walls, lies several feet below the level of the floor of the nave — we have not yet had time to determine how deep it goes. On it are still some mud building blocks, showing that another wall, built just as were the surviving walls of the nave by laying the blocks at right angles to each other in alternating courses, but not bonded in any way to the foundations of the west wall of the nave, had been built. So far, the most acceptable explanation of this second wall is that it was a “false front,” a facade, an architectural device for lending greater dignity to the front of a building. At an average depth of two feet below the level of the nave floor is another tiled floor; the tiles in this floor, however, are smaller in size than those used in the floor of the nave. Extending to the west from the northwest and southwest corners of the chapel are the remains of two constructions of river cobbles and chunks of the poor sandstone which can be seen outcropping in Palm Canyon, which appeared on first discovery as remains of the foundations of walls. They, and the tiled floor, have been traced to their western edge thirty feet beyond the facade. The sides of the cobble and sandstone chunk features which border the lower tiled floor extend the line of the inside of the north and south walls of the nave, but the outsides lie outside the line of the outsides of the north and south walls of the nave. We now think the best explanation of this westernmost feature is that it formed the entryway to the chapel itself, with the constructions on the north and south sides forming buttresses to help support the facade and balustrades enclosing the lower tiled floor. The discovery, on the last two days of excavation during the spring semester of 1976 of iron fragments lying on the floor and against the north and south features, approximately eight feet west of the facade, leads to the possibility that that much space in front of the nave may actually have been an anteroom, that is, a space enclosed by walls and a roof, to the chapel proper-another feature seen occasionally in such religious structures.

From their Trash We Learn About them . .

One of the questions most frequently asked is, “What have you found?” An attempt to answer that question in detail would fill volumes. Brockington and Brandes,10 in their first progress report, illustrate examples of many of the kinds of artifacts which have been found. To that list we can add saint’s medals, crucifixes and Christ figures from crucifixes, “Phoenix”11 and ordinary buttons, musket and pistol balls, gun flints, fragments of a steatite bowl (an artifact from the Santa Barbara Channel Indian cultures), manos (the stone held in the hand to grind grain), and one metate (the “nether” millstone). The latter, however, was used as part of the pebble and cobble instruction in the cemetery, hence was probably not actually used by the Presidio inhabitants.

But we have learned a great deal more than that about the first San Diego and its people. We have learned that the builder’s manual used by them was written by the Roman, Vetruvius, two thousand years ago.12 They did, however, use one thing not known to the Romans — a magnetic compass. This conclusion was reached as a by-product of setting up the grid for the excavations. Usually this is laid out along the true compass directions which, in this area, are fifteen degrees west of the magnetic points. When it was found that the lines of the wall remains, visible as ridges in the turf, were more nearly aligned with the magnetic compass directions, the grid was accordingly laid out to those, rather than the true, compass points. Now it is fairly easy to establish the true compass directions without a compass, by reference to the north star, but determination of magnetic north would be impossible without a compass. We can only speculate as to whether the land party had its own compass or borrowed one of ship’s compasses for the purpose of laying out the chapel. Inspection of the maps of the excavated structures shows, however, that they do not line up exactly with the magnetic directions; they point three degrees west of them. Although further research would tell us how much, and in what direction, the magnetic pole has shifted during the past two centuries, we probably could not learn whether the difference in alignment is due to the drifting of the magnetic pole alone, or includes compass error and a mistake by the original surveyors.

The building techniques were described by Brockington and Brandes,13 but we have found that the buttressing of pebbles in clay along the base on the outside of the north wall of the nave was a later addition, provided in an attempt to counter the undercutting of the wall resulting from the scaling away of the earthen blocks. The outside of the building had been plastered and whitewashed, but not painted as had the inside. The tentative identification of the alcove on the north side as the mortuary chapel14 has been confirmed, but it has been found that it was added after the north wall of the nave had been raised to the height of at least three feet at which it now stands in that portion of its length. From the way in which plaster had been applied to some of the rectangular tiles found, we have concluded that the doors and windows had been bordered with tiles. Unlike many of the surviving missions, the chapel at the San Diego Presidio had few buttresses on the outside. Evidence for one has been found at the northeast corner and for another at the junction of the east wall of the baptistry and the south wall of the nave. It is probable that the two constructions on the front (west) end of the building were buttresses supporting the facade and were prolonged to form balustrades on the north and south sides of the terrace. The base of one pilaster on the outside of the south wall of the nave east of the baptistry, together with some floor tiles still in position, support the hypothesis that a roofed walk ran along that side of the chapel. If so, it, like the main structure, would have been roofed with the curved tiles characteristic of the Mediterranean architectural tradition, shaped over a form before firing. Their size and proportions should dispose of the myth that they were shaped on the thighs of the Indian women, but probably will not — it is such a good story!

As we worked, we became impressed with the ingenuity displayed by the builders of the chapel in solving problems of supply far out on the frontier of the dying Spanish empire. Lime which, mixed with sand, provided plaster, was obtained by burning the sea shells15 which were so abundant locally. Pigment for paint was made by grinding up locally available minerals such as hematite (“red ochre” for red, for example), ground to a powder and mixed with water. The forests of pine and oak lay too far away but, although perhaps not as good, beams could be fashioned from the cottonwoods available in the San Diego River Valley. The only materials surely imported would have been iron for the necessary hardware, the gold leaf, and the copper sheathing. And yet the structure was, for a time at least after Lt. José Zúñiga finished it,16 a much more attractive one than the drab, shabby building which the ruins now suggest.

From spot test excavations we have learned that the open area to the north of the chapel complex is almost completely lacking in fill or cultural debris such as fragments of tile and bone and potsherds, so that it was probably always such an open area, the plaza of Hispanic towns, the “square” of English towns. We have learned that, as they lived before the days of Lister and Pasteur, the people were unaware of the need for the antiseptics and garbage disposal of modern times and, like all the rest of humankind then, only about one person in three survived beyond the age of five to seven years, which is why Natalia Fitch died so young by modern standards. We have learned that the wealthier San Diegans of the time, at least, had Spode and Wedgewood and Cantonese Willow Ware, brought in by the Manila galleon and by the smugglers operating contrary to Spanish law, but that the poorer people cooked and ate with dishes made by the local Indians. And the baptismal font may well have been the Indian bowl of steatite, the fragments of which have been found in the trash we excavated. Just such a vessel was reported by Mason17 to have “stood in a niche beside the door of San Antonio Mission, containing holy water…. It is not impossible that it may have been brought from the Santa Barbara region, where similar vessels are more common.” It is equally possible, of course, that our steatite vessel may have been placed in a similar location for the same purpose, rather than having been the baptismal font.

Most — probably not all, since we can never achieve perfection — of the detailed evidence supporting that knowledge, is preserved in the collections stored by the San Diego History Center. Those collections include, in addition to the bits of material culture recovered during the excavations, the original notebooks kept b) the excavators. Typed duplicates of those notes are on file at the Department of Anthropology of SDSU and another collection of the notes, this time on edge-punched cards for coding, with me, all as insurance against the loss of one set of records. The Serra Museum has duplicate copies of the most informative slides, a collection which is periodically updated, fol the benefit of speakers as well m researchers. Worthwhile student papers are to be filed with the Serra Museum Library as copies can be obtained; the annual reports to the San Diego History Center and, through that body, to the City Council, and the articles published in the Journal of San Diego History all provide some preservation for posterity of the information gained.

Further Questions

There still remain questions often asked but not yet answered in this report. “Why are we backfilling (that is, covering agair with earth) the walls and floors and grave! excavated?” We do so because, were they to be left once more exposed to the elements, ruins would become even more ruined; the most economical way to preserve them is to bury them again.

“Will the chapel be rebuilt?” Only the future can answer that; we will try to leave a legacy of information adequate to the task should it ever be undertaken.

“Why was the chapel dug into the ground?” Achieving a level floor on a slope is often still done by digging into the hill for one end of the floor and building the other up above the slope of the hill by using an earth fill, as can be seen in many a housing development around San Diego today.

“Why was the Presidio located here?” At the time, this was the best spot for the military camp which was later to become the Presidio; its elevation permitted observation of any ships entering the bay, it was close enough to a supply of fresh water for drinking (the San Diego River once flowed around the point of Presidio Hill into San Diego Bay), and its position on this slope made it easy to defend it against the only possible attack from the land, that by the Indians.

“How deep do you dig?” The depth to which we dig is determined by the depth of trash-containing fill which overlies the sterile (in that it contains no cultural debris) substratum on to which the Spanish settlers first stepped in 1769. Thus we cannot say in advance how deep we will dig in any one spot-it may be inches or it may be feet; in some places, such as in the courtyard, it was only a few inches; in others we have had to go down as much as five feet.

“What tools do you use?” We fit the tools to the job represented by the specific excavation problem; in some cases we use picks and shovels, in others we use trowels and whisk brooms, in others requiring even more careful excavation we use such things as dental picks and small paint brushes, and in some we have even used water dripped on with a camel’s hair brush, or air squirted from a rubber syringe.

“Why was the Presidio not located where the Serra Museum is now?” To have placed the Presidio so far up the hill in 1769 would have meant that it would had to have been excessively far from fresh water, so much so that, in case of a siege, the inhabitants could have been in peril from thirst as well as from attackers.

“Why were the elite of Old Town married and buried through the chapel at the Presidio?” For years after people began moving out of the Presidio down to the area now called Old Town, the chapel in the Presidio continued not only to be regarded as the place for the religious ceremonies it had been, it was the only such place available to the people of what was then New San Diego, until another church could be built down there. Evidence for this is provided in the last recorded official use of the chapel in 1841. On December 18 of that year the newly appointed Bishop of Both Californias, Fr. Garcia Diego y Moreno, O. F. M., “administered the Sacrament of Confirmation to 125 persons in the presidio chapel.”18 On December 30 Fr. Francisco Sanchez, who had arrived with the Bishop as one of his assistants, “baptized ‘in the chapel of the port of San Diego,’ an Indian child of pagan parents.”19 Since there is no evidence that any other chapel existed to be identified as the chapel of the port of San Diego, in view of the confirmation ceremony held in the chapel of the presidio of San Diego earlier that month it seems reasonably certain it was “the chapel of the port of San Diego.”

“Can I volunteer to dig?” Since archaeology is among the very few-perhaps the only-research activities which destroys its own raw data (the site) in pursuing its research, we have learned to be very careful whom we accept as volunteers. The information represented by the site only survives in the records made while digging — the things found actually provide very little information themselves. With students enrolled in classes we always have the lever of the final grade in the class to insure that the best possible records are kept; with volunteers we have no such lever. Furthermore, in order to get their grade, the students must keep on digging, no matter how few things they find, thus coming to realize that, contrary to the popular impression of archaeology, a “treasure” is not found every few minutes. All too often we have had volunteers quit after we have spent time training them but before they had contributed anything to the project, and so our time and efforts have been wasted. Consequently, we have learned to be cautious; a would-be volunteer must undergo a probationary period during which an informal board of veteran excavators observes and gathers evidence on which to make a recommendation.

The Future

As it became apparent that someday the present excavation project would be completed people began to ask, “Where are you going to dig next?” That question shows how little understanding there still is of the real nature of archaeology. What is usually presented about archaeology is only the end result; what is left out, because it so often lacks popular appeal, is the immense amount of work which led up to the museum exhibit, the book or article or, for that matter, the excavation itself. Archaeology is like an iceberg in that what is generally seen is the smallest part of it; the greater part, in terms of time spent, goes on in laboratories and libraries where the report is being prepared. An archaeological project is not finished when the digging is ended-it is only completed when the report has been prepared for publication.

For that reason I have no intention of assuming responsibility for another archaeological report until the work already done has been reported, which is to say that I, personally, do not intend to begin another excavation project in the Presidio. That need not, however, prevent another qualified and interested archaeologist from opening another excavation there, subject, of course, to agreement by the San Diego History Center and the City of San Diego. Such a proposal has been under discussion for several months, and I have been asked to make recommendations as to where to dig and who should dig, and to serve as consultant on any such future excavation. No one has asked us whether we regard the present excavation program as a success or not, but it seems to me that such requests are clear evidence that we can judge it to have been so. Consequently, negotiations are under way with San Diego Mesa College as the institution to assume responsibility for a new excavation program, and I have recommended that it be done in the area across Presidio Drive from the chapel complex excavations and west of the statue of the Indian.

That recommendation has occasioned a certain amount of surprise, since the ruins there are much less obvious to the eye than are those in other parts of the Presidio. True, archaeology is a kind of treasure hunt, but it is also a detective story, and archaeologists like to claim that, for them, the detective story is the more important, although they phrase it as a search for information. It is for that reason that I have made that recommendation, and the reasons behind the reason deserve some explanation.

Since no plan of the San Diego Presidio has ever been found, nor is it thought likely that one will be found, and since contemporary accounts gave so little information on the identification of specific buildings within the Presidio, anything which helps in the identification of the different structures becomes of primary importance in re-creating the plan of the first San Diego. Among the hints left to us from diarists who visited the Presidio when it was San Diego are references to individual structures in terms of their locations relative to the entranceway to the Presidio — but none ever set down where the entrance itself was located! The location of the entranceway thus becomes crucial to the location of other features within the Presidio.

Working independently of each other with the same historical sources, three people — Greta Ezell, Richard Carrico, and myself — all developed the same hypotheses as to the probable location of the entranceway. Presentation of the evidence and the reasoning leading to those hypotheses requires a separate paper all to itself, so only the hypotheses can be presented here, together with the results of some preliminary archaeological testing which has been carried out. The details have been presented in a paper delivered at the 1976 Annual Meeting of the Society for California Archaeology held in San Diego, April 8-10.

Our hypotheses were — and are: (1) that the entranceway was the depression between the two mounds in the area south of the observation platform on the west side of Presidio Drive, (2) that the southernmost mound is where the stone cells once stood in which James Ohio Pattie and his father and party were held prisoner, (3) that evidence of that should be found in the form of a higher proportion of cobbles in the fill composing the southernmost mound, and (4) that no evidence of construction should be found in the depression between the mounds. The identification of the structure represented by the mound on the north side of the depression remains in doubt, but we do know that it was one of the three largest buildings in the Presidio, with a tiled floor. Preliminary testing confirmed the hypothesis about the southern mound, although it would require complete excavation of the structures there. Testing in the depression was not possible owing to the black-top walk which had been laid in that trough. If that excavation can be carried out we are confident that the hypothesis will be confirmed and we can then say with confidence where some of the other buildings mentioned by the early writers were located within the Presidio.



1. Donald L. Brockington and Ray Brandes, “The First Season’s Work at the ‘Silent City,'” Times Gone By: The Journal of San Diego History, XI (October, 1965):1-29; Paul Ezell, “Report on the Presidio Excavations,” The Journal of San Diego History, XIV (April, 1968):28-30; “A Landscape of the Past-The Story of the Royal Presidio Excavations,” The Journal of San Diego History, XIV (October, 1968):5-32; Paul H. Ezell, “A Chapter From the Logbook,” The Journal of San Diego History, XVI (Fall, 1970):20-24; Ellen Gooley Lennert, “X-Rays and Artifacts at the San Diego Presidio,” The Journal of San Diego History, XVIII (Summer, 1972):22-24; Richard L. Carrico, “The Identification of Two Burials at the San Diego Presidio,” The Journal of San Diego History, XIX (Fall, 1973):51-55.

2. Greta S. Ezell, “The Adobe Church of the Presidio of San Diego and its Predecessors,” MS (1976).

3. Ellen Gooley Lennert, “X-Rays and Artifacts at the San Diego Presidio Excavations,” The Journal of San Diego History, XVIII (Summer, 1972):22-24.

4. Edward Germeshausen and John Bumgarner, “Photographic Bipod,” paper read at the 69th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, San Diego (November 19-22, 1970).

5. Joseph Francis (José Francisco) Snook, an Englishman, was a grantee of Rancho Bernardo, where he died “suddenly in April ’47 or ’48. He talked of… forming a partnership with Fitch… [Henry Delano].” Hubert Howe Bancroft, Register of Pioneer Inhabitants of California 1542 to 1848 (Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1964), 725-726.

6. Ibid.

7. Richard L. Carrico, “”The Identification of Two Burials at the San Diego Presidio,” The Journal of San Diego History, XIX (Fall, 1973):51-55.

8. Paul H. Ezell, “A Chapter From the Logbook,” The Journal of San Diego History, XVI (Fall, 1970):20-24.

9. Ralph S. Solecki, “Shanidar Cave,” Scientific American (November, 1957):63, 64.

10. Brockington and Brandes, “The First Season’s Work at the ‘Silent City,'” 18-19.

11. Emory Strong, “The Enigma of the Phoenix Button,” Historical Archaeology, IX (1957):74-80.

12. Elisabeth L. Egenhoff(comp.), Fabricas: A Collection of Pictures and Statements on the Mineral Materials Used in Building in California Prior to 1850, California Department of Natural Resources, Division of Mines (April, 1952):10.

13. Brockington and Brandes, “The First Season’s Work at the ‘Silent City,”‘ 16-20.

14. Ibid., p. 20.

15. Alice Eastwood, “Menzies’ California Journal,” California Historical Society Quarterly, II (January, 1924):295.

16. Richard F. Pourade, The History of San Diego, Vol. 2: The Time of the Bells (1961):74.

17. J. Alden Mason, “The Ethnology of the Salinan Indians,” University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, X (December, 1912):139-140, 216-217, Plate 25, Fig. 2, Specimen 3.

18. Fr. Zephyrin Engelhardt, O. F. M., San Diego Mission (1920):243.

19. Ibid., p. 285.


Paul Ezell received his doctoral degree from the University of Arizona, Tucson, and is a Professor of Anthropology at San Diego State University. He has served as project superintendent at the Royal Presidio digs for the past eleven years. Dr. Ezell’s previous articles in the Journal of San Diego History have included: “Report on Presidio Excavations, 1967” (April, 1968) and “A Landscape of the Past-The Story of the Royal Presidio Excavations” (October, 1968).