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Pleasanton: Cal State East Bay student archeologists dig up town's past

  • May 30, 2013

By Jeremy Thomas
Staff Writer, Bay Area News Group

PLEASANTON -- Albert Gonzalez digs the past -- especially the history hidden under the Alviso Adobe Community Park in Pleasanton.

Gonzalez, an anthropology lecturer, and 23 students in his Cal State East Bay archaeology class, are finishing a 10-week field study at the park west of Interstate 680, between Old Foothill and Foothill roads. Somewhere beneath the soil is evidence of 5,000 years of occupation by Native Americans, the Mexican and Gold Rush periods, the Spanish rancho era and a 20th century dairy operation, making it a prime location for research.

"We're literally just scratching the surface," Gonzalez said. "The work is so painfully precise; we take every centimeter seriously."

Each Saturday this spring, Gonzalez's students have painstakingly excavated four different sites -- cleaning, bagging and logging each recovered item. So far, most of their artifacts are from the American period, including contemporary garbage and rusted metal from the Meadowlark Dairy, active at the site until 1969.

Anthropology major Sophie Minnig, 23, has spent her time precisely surveying the park, and setting up each excavation unit. She's used the introductory class to learn more about field work and the methods employed in digging.

"It's been a slow process, but it's been really enjoyable and rewarding," Minnig said. "You have to record absolutely everything that you see."

Digging carefully with trowels and gently brushing out the loose dirt, the students have unearthed ceramics, bones, metal parts and possible stone tools under the watchful eyes of Gonzalez and trainers from UC Berkeley.

The class will put the best finds into an exhibit opening June 8 in the park's Milking Barn. Called "Unearthing the Past," the semi-permanent exhibit will show off recovered bones, glass, ceramics, and a "garbology" section with modern day trash found at the park. Admission is free.

This year's dig is the fourth that Cal State East Bay archaeology students have done at the park, but it's the first time the recovered artifacts will be exhibited, said Pleasanton city naturalist Eric Nicholas. He hopes the display will be part of an ongoing process.

"They'll be bringing (the exhibit) to a certain level," Nicholas said. "Each year when the class comes back, we'll be able to build onto that."

While the students have gained valuable real world experience, the park has benefitted too, Nicholas said, "I'm hoping that the archaeological evidence will eventually paint a picture of what life would have been like at the adobe, not only the recent history but the rancho history as well," Nicholas said. "We won't have a lot of that information until we find it underground."

In addition to his adjunct position at Cal State East Bay, Gonzalez is a Ph.D candidate at Southern Methodist University in Texas. His main interests lie in the Mexican period of the American Southwest. In Pleasanton, Gonzalez wants to dig far enough to reach the adobe period, to learn how the Alviso family interacted with their neighbors and the Ohlone people.

"It's kind of a blip (historically), but I'm trying to get at that blip and see how it connects with the cultures and ethnicities of that era," he said.

After the semester ends, Gonzalez plans to keep a few intro students and add some graduate students to to see if he can "break through that 19th century barrier."

The excavation will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Gonzalez said he would like to share what the students have found and ask for the public's help to interpret some of the recovered items. Over time, he wants to move closer to the adobe, as long as his team is allowed to stay.

"We'd like for it to be a project that goes on for years," Gonzalez said.


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