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San Diego's Un-Recovered Past Obliterated & Forever Lost

Archeology & Redevelopment

By Bruce Coons

To say that San Diego's approach to recovering our past through archeology is pathetic is a vast understatement. Currently, the only nod to this most important of historical scientific endeavors is to have a monitor review the destroyed remains after the bulldozers have passed through. In fact, the only reasonable way to conduct archeology is to have a research design prepared before the surface of the ground is ever touched. A research design establishes what knowledge is expected to be derived from an excavation. It is required because archaeology is a destructive science.

Once an archaeological dig has been completed there may be very little new information that is recoverable. Information derived from archaeological investigations is related to the artifacts in relation to each other as well as their relative positions in the soil. These positions are important for dating the site as well as for answering questions regarding lifestyle, diet, trade patterns, social status, and even the layout and uses of the various rooms and buildings.

Conducting an investigation in accordance with a properly prepared research design is the way in which validity of these kinds of information can be established and maintained. If a research design is not prepared, or is not followed once prepared, any artifacts recovered will be separated from their context and rendered as valueless as if they were recovered by bottle diggers and offered on eBay.

San Diego has a standard procedure to only require a monitor. Most cities have a comprehensive archeological program in which fabulously important finds and additions are made that add immeasurably to our knowledge of the past. I'm sure you have read about them in the newspaper or seen such stories on television. It is unconscionable that San Diego does not treat our history as important as cities do elsewhere.

One recent example of a major opportunity lost was the development of a parcel in the Gaslamp Quarter on the northwest corner of 5th and "K". This was the location of the barbershop established by Henry H. Brown, one of downtown San Diego's earliest black pioneers. What was lost was an unparalleled opportunity to recover information about early black American lifestyles and history in San Diego. This is a history that we have done such a poor job of documenting and preserving, so much so that the average citizen or visitor has no way of knowing that black Americans ever lived downtown and participated in its growth and development from downtown San Diego's earliest frontier days.

In spite of the fact that we have maps showing the footprints of the original buildings which would allow for the generation of an outstanding research design, and after pleas by SOHO and the Black Historical Society, no attempt was made to properly excavate this extraordinary site. This excavation should have been 100%. No artifacts have been brought to our attention from this site by following the bulldozers with a monitor.

Such shoddy archeological practices by the city have got to stop. When our past is handled so haphazardly, one must be reminded that there is no future without a past.

2004 - Volume 35, Issue 3

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