An archaeological dig practically in my backyard. Really!

I love history and I like to consider life with a nod to historical context, so I’m doing my version of a happy dance (mostly in my head) at the latest happenings in my town– the City of San Gabriel.  We have very prominently been in the news for the last six weeks, and it would seem that all of a sudden I have a crowd of people enjoying what I’ve been appreciating since I was a child! Hang in there with me…I have to supply the background to my excitement!

There is a great deal of history connected to the City of San Gabriel, the City with a Mission, and the surrounding neighborhood, the Mission District, which includes the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse, Historical Museum and many other cultural sites. Heavily influenced by mission architecture, the charm and importance of the District is designated by the National Parks Service as an interpretive center for the De Anza National Historic Trail that runs from the Mexican border to San Francisco.

I have a deep appreciation for the San Gabriel Mission, one of the 21 Spanish Missions scattered along California’s El Camino Real, or “The Royal Highway.” The Mission San Gabriel Arcangel was the fourth established Mission, founded in 1771 by Father Junipero Serra.  The Spanish-Moorish style Mission is a large, particularly beautiful structure. Its bell tower and outside stairway is very different from the other Missions, and it is constructed from stone, brick and mortar instead of adobe. The Mission Cemetery is notable for the many pioneer families buried on the premises and it was from the San Gabriel Mission that 11 families left on September 4, 1781, to found El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles. Not medieval history, perhaps, but cool!

The high school I attended is also in the same district and I have felt a kinship with this great structure for most of my life, but I happen to know as a certainty that for many local residents the Mission has just “always been there” and it only gets fresh attention when we have an earthquake and it suffers a little damage–a California “shaker” brings out everyone’s concern.

Well, what do you know, but it is getting plenty of attention now! Ta-Da!  We have our very own high-profile archaeological dig taking place within walking distance of our home and adjacent the Mission. A 2.2-mile construction project to lower a little more than a mile of Union Pacific railroad track into a below street level trench has been temporarily put on hold.  Archaeologists were called in when remnants of early Mission life were uncovered.

Archaeologists have currently unearthed the remnants of a mill dating back to the 18th century as well as foundations and footholds of other buildings once associated with Mission property, including the remainder of an important and informative water route. Clay stones with animal paw prints, an 1816 gold piece depicting the likeness of Ferdinand of Italy, spiritual medallions, as well as animal bones are part of the 20,000 already retrieved, with the promise of more artifacts being sifted in the more than 300 containers of soil (daily!) providing clues into how people lived.

You can't see it well...but here's the site of all the flurry!

The dig is being monitored by representatives of the Gabrieleno Tongva Native American Tribe (a significant part of Mission history) to assure dignity and respectful handling of human remains–thus far, no human remains have been uncovered, but the dig is an ongoing and lively excavation.

Because the site is in a very high traffic area (they were lowering railroad track after all!) it is not at all convenient for the public to observe, even from a distance, however, educators have been given private tours of the site and school field trips have been carefully planned. A webcam (which works most of the time!) has been installed and I drive by every couple of days…my yoga class is across the street…and I’m excited just to know it’s there! I’m anticipating the final reports and the possibility of future museum exhibitions.

It’s not difficult to accept that our local economy is boosted by the combination of Disneyland, Pasadena Rose Bowl/Rose Parade revenues and the glamour and glitz of Hollywood, but I often wish Southern California historical sites were more of a tourist draw! This may be a good start to renewing interest in local history. I simply had to share my interest and enthusiasm. I frankly think it is VERY exciting!

I just can’t tell you how much this little journey has increased my historical knowledge and at the same time given a nice little boost to my sense of well-being! Should something incredible be unearthed, you’ll hear it from me!


31 thoughts on “An archaeological dig practically in my backyard. Really!

  1. Dear Debra,
    This posting excites me. I can remember fifth grade at St. Mary’s Grade School in Independence, Missouri. The Benedictine nun who wrote the readers for a large New York Publishing House–Sadlier maybe–loved history. (I met her later when I entered the convent that she had entered years before.) In the 5th grade book, we traveled from the beginning of European presence in the United States right up to the present. The reader contained a story about the El Camino Real–the Royal Highway. That story introduced us to Father Junipero Serra and the missions. Oh, what memories you have brought back.

    I so look forward to your sharing more of what is discovered in the dig. Wow! This is exciting!


    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the story, Dee. The story of the Missions is mandatory 4th grade state curriculum in California, and I’ve always wondered if school children in other states even touched on this aspect of history. You’ve answered my question 🙂 Your later exchange with the nun who wrote some of the readers was certainly an interesting acquaintance wasn’t it? You have a very good memory for history, however. I have noted that! I’ll be sure to share if anything interesting and unexpected shows up. Thank you so much for sharing your enthusiasm with me, Dee. Debra

    1. Thank you, Rita. It is beautiful, and the bells are very lovely. THey’ve had some serious earthquake damage in the past, but then the city rallies to raise funds and they are repaired. The whole Mission is a treasure! Debra

  2. I saw this on the news and immediately thought of you and JJ just around the corner. Very cool–wouldn’t it be nice if LA was seen as a place for history and not just glam history. Ah well, if that happened, we’d all be walking an biking — not driving! (maybe not such a bad idea after all??)

    1. If you’re ever interested, I’ll take you through the tour! I’d love to try out my docent skills 🙂 And then I can show you my high school, too. Ha! The Mission isn’t the only place with “ancient” history, huh? D

  3. How fantastic! If I lived nearby, I’d be spending part of every day just watching them. Thank goodness we live in an age where these sites are explored and not just paved over. I look forward to hearing of their findings.

    1. It is tempting for me to snoop around a bit more, but the location has made it tough! The lowering of the tracks was vetoed 25 years ago…I think it may have been a propitious move…25 years ago we weren’t nearly as careful. I hope they continue to find interesting remains…I’ll report back! Thank you for your interest, John! Debra

  4. Lovely pictures Debra! I loved reading about the history and the connection you have to this very special place! The bells of Mission Gabriel are so beautiful. I lived in Northern California my entire life and never saw this part of LA. Thanks for sharing. Keep us posted on the dig! -Deepali

    1. Thanks, Deepali. I’ll definitely be talking more about it if they continue to find some interesting artifacts. I think perhaps I can help give Southern California a little better press than we usually get 🙂 Debra

  5. How exciting this is! I love history, all kinds of history, and I would be beside myself trying to get looks, Debra.
    I’m doubly excited at reading this as I think I’ve been here with Katy when she was in Pasadena. She has a cross and some pottery I bought her and I’m almost certain it was right near here. We walked around the grounds and took some pictures. Whether or not it was San Gabrielle, you certainly stirred up as many memories for me as for Dee.

    1. Some of the little shops in the Mission District come and go, but there have been some nice little ones that would have been a good stop for some shopping. I’m glad I could share a few pictures! If there are any interesting “discoveries” I’ll re-visit! 🙂 Debra

      1. I forwarded you post on to Katy. I have some pictures, but, knew exactly where she had them; in a nice little photo album that she keeps on a shelf. She just wrote back to say, yes, indeed, that is where we were and has some photos to prove it. She was excited as well to hear about the dig and the discoveries made there. I would love to see it again – and hear more as you do, Debra.

        1. I’m so delighted, Penny! If only I had known you then 🙂 I’m glad Katy has fond memories of the time she was here at school, and that some of these little day-trips are indeed fun to look back on! I’ll have good incentive to share with you if this continues to hold the archaeologist’s attention! Thanks for getting back to me! D

  6. How fascinating! No wonder you’re so excited, Debra. Even from the other side of the Atlantic I’ve hear of El Camino Real and the missions, though not in much detail, I’m afraid. I will definitely follow your links when I have time, as I love history and archaeology, and your post and beautiful photos really bring this dig alive.

    1. It pleases me, Perpetua, to hear that something of our history of the Missions spreads that far…it is an interesting story that does pre-date the Revolution, so there are some ties somewhere 🙂 I took the WordPress options for some of the links and don’t think they are necessarily the best, but you may get a peek and if interested a better google search would provide something. And then, if something good appears, I’ll be sharing that, too! 🙂 D

  7. I think this is one of the coolest things! I love the idea of history and what can be found, and when you think of the people who maybe touched that coin or labored — absolutely awesome!

    1. Thank you, kevin. I’m glad you enjoyed this mention, and I think you’ve hit on what is most exciting to me, too. I love considering who these people were, and wondering what imprint they have left behind. I’m sure historians are going to fill in the backstory to the artifacts, so I’m eager to stay tuned myself! Glad you stopped by! Debra

  8. It is so important to learn and get to know about local history. It’s part of your identity. How nice to go out and explore an archaeological site in your backyard. The photos of the San Gabriel Mission are beautiful. What a place!

    1. Thank you for your interest, Otto. I really do appreciate the beauty and history of the mission, and I have found that this project has created a hunger to know even more. I hope that some of my local friends have read about the project and will be encouraged to come visit 🙂 Debra

  9. Debra, that is SO exciting! Cannot wait to hear more about this: uncovering the mill sounds fabulous….I love the sound of a dig. All those trowels scraping away. It gets a Pavlov’s Dog response in me and I get excited just hearing the sound…

    1. I definitely thought of you and your imaginative children as I posted this, Kate. Not exactly a castle, ha!, but this may be as ancient as we are going to get 🙂 I hope there will be an eventual exhibit of the findings! Have a good weekend…Debra

  10. I’d love to visit it someday as I missed my chance to do so with friends when I lived in Los Angeles. The area was part of my territory and I was there quite a bit… 🙂

  11. Pingback: A Santa Barbara fortress to keep France and England from knocking on California’s door? Now isn’t that something! | breathelighter

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