The Dig

When the archaeological project began in 2004, there was little exposed in the potential site area except for waist-high weeds, an unruly rattlesnake, and a few stone cobbles.  Teams of archaeology students over the next decade and a half tirelessly excavated the area in 5.0’ squares, one 3.0” layer at a time.  They uncovered over 50,000 artifacts, five distinct activity areas, and countless insights into Harrison’s life and legend. 

On the basis of the uncovered architecture and artifacts, there is no doubt that this site was Harrison’s homestead.  The exposed landscape, stone structure, and numerous objects had extensive exact parallels in the historical photographs, maps, and narratives of Harrison.  Furthermore, the site’s 1865-1916 artifact date-range intersection was remarkably close to Harrison’s historically documented 1873-1919 time in the immediate vicinity.

Harrison’s activity areas at the site

Archaeologists have identified five distinct activity areas at the site.  The small cabin had fewer artifacts, but many of the items discovered from within seemed to hold special significance in terms of being complete, unique, or ornate.  The cabin’s extended patio to the west was clearly a high-intensity activity area; it contained the remains of many food-processing tasks, especially animal bones.  The area to the south and west of the patio was likely the primary trash dump; it teemed with cans, bottles, and other containers.  An extended area to the south was his orchard and garden; it contained few artifacts but many stone-fruit pits.  In addition, Harrison had an arrastra ore-grinding station 300’ south of his primary residence that was also uncovered archaeologically.

Site map with the five archaeologically identified activity-areas (cabin, patio, midden, orchard, and arrastra) and a close-up aerial photograph of the cabin, patio, and midden areas

The archaeological process

We excavate with trowels, dustpans, and buckets, and screen all of our dirt through 1/8” screens.  All artifacts (human-modified materials) are saved, and soil-chemistry and soil-archive samples are collected from each unit layer at the site.  Even though excavation thoroughly dismantles the site, we take copious notes, photographs, and samples in the hopes of recording all we learn and being able to reconstruct all that we have done to the site.

Archaeology is simultaneously exhilarating and meticulous.  Yes, the digging is slow, the artifacts are often fragile, and every month of digging requires a year in the lab of processing, cataloging, analysis, research, and report writing.  Regardless, the insights are remarkable, and the excitement of learning something new about the past based on a material discovery that has been buried for over a century is breath taking!

Since project members make a priority of engaging in public archaeology, they spend significant time and effort on archaeological open houses, public presentations, museum exhibits, and even websites.  Despite this attention to the numerous communities that are stakeholders in this history, Dr. Mallios and his team also produces annual technical reports and academically oriented conference papers, journal articles, and books.

two students in test pit
Certain areas of the site, especially the midden just to the south and west of the cabin’s patio, contained thousands of artifacts, challenging even the most skilled excavators

{Click on an image below to enlarge}

student in pit digging
Field-school students dig and map in the arrastra-area of the site.
another of students in pit
Excavators clean the finished cross-trench through the Harrison patio.
student screening
Screening artifacts is slow but often yields some of the site’s more surprising finds.
student with dust pan
An overwhelming majority of the site’s artifacts, like this sheep bone, are uncovered with a trowel.
student with cork screw
This 100-year-old corkscrew was the first of its kind found at the Harrison site.
student with Mallios
This Old English tobacco can was distinctive in the curved shape of the vessel.
two students examining artifacts
At the completion of each layer, students inventory the artifacts found, which in this case included a clock gear, silverware, glass, and dozens of nails.
student with boot
Preservation varies at the site, but this century-old boot held up well.
students in lab
Labwork begins with artifact washing.
students in period dress
A group of students tell the story of the site at a local festival - in period dress!

Field schools

The Nathan “Nate” Harrison site hosted annual archaeological field schools from 2004-08 and from 2017-now.  Students from across the nation enrolled in the San Diego State University program, which specialized in active archaeological field and laboratory methods.  Participants engaged in every stage of the archaeological process, including survey, digging, screening, paperwork, mapping, sampling, cleaning, labelling, cataloging, analysis, research, report writing, and presentation. 

While buzzwords for this sort of program come and go (“learning by doing,” “experiential learning,” “active engagement,” etc.), there is no substitute for a hands-on field experience.  Although archaeology is not for everyone, by the end of an archaeological field school, there should be no doubt remaining as to whether one truly loves to dig.

two students in test pit
Never has an old spoon brought so much joy…

{Click on an image below to enlarge}

2004 team
2004 field-school team pyramid.
2005 A team
2005 field-school A team pyramid.
2005 B team
2005 field-school B team pyramid
2006 team
2006 field-school team pyramid.
2007 team
2007 field-school team pyramid.
2008 team
2008 field-school team pyramid.
2017 A team
2017 field-school A team pyramid.
2017 B team
2017 field-school B team photo.
2018 team
2018 field-school team pyramid.
2019 team
2019 field-school team pyramid.

Recent media coverage

The media has featured the Harrison dig in multiple news stories.  The following links span 15 years of excavation at the site.

students at dig
San Diego State University students uncover a wide variety of 19th-century artifacts near the buried front door of the Harrison cabin, including an 1899 silver quarter, a skeleton key, and an ironstone pitcher