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America's History in the Making

Contested Territories

In the Video

Edited Hands on History interview with Eric Blind.


Presidio Trust Archaeologist Eric Blind began his archaeological research at the San Francisco Presidio in 1997. He has since focused on Spanish colonization, which led him to co-author an article for the journal Historical archaeology. He also serves as a project advisor for the UC Berkeley and Stanford University archaeology departments, directing academic fieldwork at the Presidio. Employing a wide range of technologies, his own research has shed new light on the cultural exchange between the colonial Spanish and native Ohlone people of the Bay Area. He was interviewed inside the Presidio's historic Officers' Club.

Q: What was your first experience with archaeology?

Blind: I dug up this Nazi machine gun when I was a kid. I saw it poking out of a stream in my backyard, so I pulled it out and dragged it all the way to my house. My dad found it later and threw it back in the stream. We went through that process a couple of times before I realized it was an old jackhammer.

Q: What and where are you excavating now?

Blind: I'm working as an archaeologist in the Presidio of San Francisco. A presidio is a Spanish term for kind of a fortified village; it's more a fort than village, more village than fort. We're currently working on the Officers' Club, which was used up until 1994 just as an actual Officers' Club. Before that, it was officer's quarters for the U.S. army. Before that, it was soldiers' quarters for the Mexican army. Before that, it was the commandant's house for the Spanish army. Before that, the land was home to the native Ohlone people. So it's changed hands over and over throughout the years, and we're trying to study all those layers that have remained in this structure.

Q: There's the legend that the Officers' Club is the oldest building in California, is that true?

Blind: I'll get in trouble if I say "oldest building in California." the army sign out front says it was built in 1776, but the history doesn't exactly support that. You can safely say that this building is one of the oldest in all of California.

Q: What makes the Officers' Club unique as an archeological site?

Blind: I think it's very unusual to find a building with this much layering in it. It really surprised me that no one had come in this building, whether in the 1870s or the 1990s, and gutted it and stripped everything that had been there before and put up something new. That commonly happens in older buildings, and it really hurts their integrity. Here, all the layers were put on top of one another, and left intact. It seemed like it was almost done with purpose.

Q: What has been the focus of your work here?

Blind: Here at the Officers' Club, we wanted to get back to the elements of this historic building, which were colonial adobe elements built by Spanish colonists and native Ohlone laborers. In addition to that, subsequent people and time periods have left their marks. Because archaeology digs through certain layers of history to get to deeper or older layers, we tried to do this project in way where we actually deconstructed the building instead of demolishing those layers. We kept the building intact with a very talented group of carpenters, who actually disassembled it, and we can reassemble it just as it was.

Q: How do you begin a project like this? How would you determine that this would be a good location to study when all of those layers are hidden?

Blind: In the building, we started with very small steps. We pulled up little bits floorboard and felt our way behind the walls to see if there really was a mud wall back there. Once we felt there was a substantial mud wall, we formulated some more arguments for why we should be able to deconstruct the building a little bit further. Over the years, we've gotten more and more momentum, and we can now see the full expanse of these Spanish colonial walls, which have been hidden for at least the last 150 years.

Q: How do you approach disassembling a structure with so many layers? It seems like you'd be damaging the integrity of the building by studying it.

Blind: There a great deal of tension in archaeology, between preserving and to studying, and it's really hard to do both. One of the things archaeologists try to do is stick to a rules of halves. You never dig more than half of a feature. Say you find a hearth somewhere. You might dig half of it, research all you can down to the very smallest particle that you find in there. Then, you always leave at least half so that someone in 50 years, maybe with better technology, with more advanced research tools, can come back and look at that same thing and compare their findings to your findings.

Q: What new technologies are you using to study the Officers' Club?

Blind: It's really varied. We use optical thermometers to look at temperature. We've got instruments that help us measure humidity, and instruments that measure how much salinity is in the water that comes up into these walls. We've also begun to use 3D laser scanning technology which gives us a very accurate picture of where these walls are right now, so that we can come back in six months, do another 3D laser scan and see if the walls have moved or if there's any additional cracking going on.

Q: What can laser scanning tell us about the history of this place?

Blind: We have a very large timber, which was probably put in by the Spanish colonists. It was later cut off by the U.S. army in an alteration that they did to the building. Now, with a 3D laser scanner, we can record a high-resolution cross-section of that timber, which shows both the texture and the pattern of the tree rings. We send that off to Oxford University to be analyzed by a dendrochronologist. If we're lucky, he can tell us the date that the tree was cut down.

Q: How does this work differ from that of an historian?

Blind: Historians look mostly at the documents that people leave behind. An archaeologist looks at the wider scope of things that people leave behind, from arrowheads to an entire building.

Q: So do the two fields actually complement each other?

Blind: Often, you can verify a historical account through what you find in the ground or behind walls. In other cases, a gap in historical documentation can be filled in by the things you actually find in the ground.

You actually get into an interesting situation where are a lot of archaeologists are doing something called democratizing the past.

Q: Explain that concept a little more.

Blind: There are a lot of small players in the past that we know nothing about. We know very little about women, children and the laborers who built the Presidio. But because the ground has no bias, like history does (where you were required to be literate), there is an opportunity to give people from the past a voice that they would never have otherwise had. I feel like that's really my personal connection: giving people in the past a voice and telling their story.

Q: In what ways has archaeology changed the way we look at history?

Blind: archaeology has been very influential in altering our views of what happened, especially in the Colonial past. Much of history and early archaeology focused on how the colonists influenced the native people, and it was a very one-way interpretation. That research depicted the natives as a kind of a blank slate upon which the colonists wrote their culture. Now, through archaeology and through sifting through the minutiae of artifacts that come back, we realize that it's a two-way street. The colonists were influenced just as substantially by the natives as the natives were by the colonists. Half a century ago, a lot of people were thinking that it was much more of a one-way cultural contact.

Q: In what ways has your research at the Officers' Club suggested that it was actually a two-way cultural transaction?

Blind: One of the aspects is construction. The Spanish colonists who settled San Francisco didn't bring any architects with them. So the buildings here were built mostly using Native American slave labor, and you can see that by looking at the architecture. Some of the early houses that the colonists lived in were much more reflective of native Ohlone houses than of what you'd find in buildings from the same period in Mexico City. We also examine smaller artifacts such as seed remains. We're finding that many plants had health and hygiene uses among the Ohlone people. The fact that we're finding these plants in the homes of Spanish colonists tells us that the Spaniards' survival strategies were often learned from the natives.

There's very little history written from the Native American perspective, so archaeology can help balance that.

Q: It seems like a big component of your work here involves granting access to the public. Why is it important for people other than historians, archaeologists or academics in other fields to be exposed to history?

Blind: I think Winston Churchill said it well: "The further you can look back in time, the further you can look forward into the future," and I really believe that's quite true. There's no reason that history should be only in the realm of people in ivory towers: academics at universities. Everyone should be able to embrace their history, especially when it's a physical history, like an archeological site that you can visit; a place you can wander around in and get a sense of that past.

Q: How do you involve the public in your work here at the Presidio?

Blind: One of the ways we try to involve the public is through our academic partnerships. They do a great job of broadcasting the history to a wide variety of not just undergraduate students and graduate students, but other people that go their seminars and their symposiums and look at their Web sites.

Another way to involve the public in our work is through our own Web site, which lets people all over the world experience this place. Now, we're using new technology like 360-degree V.R.S., where you can actually view the inside of a room no matter whether you're sitting at a desk in Texas or you're in Denmark. You can be here in San Francisco for a virtual period of time.

Q: Can the public actually come to visit the site?

Blind: Usually lab work is done in a lab that's not open to the public. We try to flip that around to involve the public in that work. Next week, we have lab specialists from Stanford University coming to analyze some bones and burnt adobe, and we have members of the public coming to help those researchers. They can actually get their hands on the artifacts and understand how a question like, "what kind of bone is this?" gets answered by a professional archaeologist.

Q: What kind of personal connection to the past have you developed through your work here?

Blind: The thing that's most personally exciting to me is being able to interact with an artifact, and being the first person in a long time to pick up an artifact that has been hidden or buried for centuries; to know that I was the first person after the guy who broke it to touch it, to feel it, and to interact with it. I want the public to feel that same sort of interaction and that same excitement of discovery.


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