Chinatown dig shows life in Virginia City

VIRGINIA CITY - A dramatic new approach to archaeological excavations in the dig just outside Virginia City's Chinatown could reveal much about life during the Comstock era.

Conducted by Portland, Ore., archaeologist and Ph. D. candidate Julie Schablitsky, the excavation encompasses a whole neighborhood using a community-based rather than site-specific approach.

"Julie Schablitsky's work has the potential to radically change the way we view the Comstock," said Ron James, state historic preservation officer. "Most of what is written about Virginia City has focused on the few people who made fabulous wealth. This provides a wonderful opportunity to take a good look at the workers who made the mining district great."

Historical research on the area to be excavated is essential before any dig, and thus far the history books have coincided with the findings.

"Research into the archives told us there was a heterogeneous population here," Schablitsky said. "But it's always rewarding when archaeology bears that out. It's been a great site.

"Only 40 percent of the ethnicity (living in any community) will be concentrated in one area," Schablitsky said, noting that after the 1860s, people began to divide along class lines rather than ethnicity. "It was a diverse neighborhood that can tell us a great deal about how people adapted and lived together. We're (also) looking at the big picture, and how the neighborhood was integrated into the Comstock."

Spread over two city blocks, the community was bordered by the red light district to the west and Chinatown to the east. The neighborhood was definitely on the other side of the tracks, skirted on two sides by the Con Virginia mining works.

A heterogeneous immigrant population lived and worked there from about the late 1860s through the 1890s: Italian, Irish, Swiss and Germans. There were other ethnic intrusions into the neighborhood including an African- American presence. Chinese artifacts including bits of oriental pottery led to the conclusion that Asians live there too.

The community was a mix of homes and businesses: German immigrants Charles and Anna Baker and their two daughters moved to a house on F Street. Charles was a brewer.

On North G Street, Dr. E. Thiele, physician, surgeon and accoucheur, (obstetrician) owned and operated a private clinic.

The site of M. A. Andrew's dress shop gave up a myriad of straight pins, buttons, beads, thimbles, and a large porcelain dolls' head dating back to the 1850s. The shop burned in the fire of 1875, and Andrews was not listed in any Virginia City census after that.

Building posts and (probable) floorboards, gold earrings, and antique toys were found along with ornate garters and women's clothing.

The site lies on a moderately steep slope, so materials have been disturbed. Many artifacts have been lost with time because deposits here are close to the surface, but much can still be revealed.

Clues to ethnicity and socioeconomic status lie in the bones that were thrown away after dinner: larger bones point to a higher economic class, and a preponderance of pork and chicken bones point to an Asian population.

Schablitsky originally thought she would supervise an excavation at the site of Julia C. Bulette's brothel, but preliminary studies found the site had been pilfered.

"It's like ripping pages out of a history book," Schablitsky said.

The excavation will be ending in August, but Schablitsky said the work is far from done: primary limitations are time and money. She will be taking the artifacts back to Portland for about one year for analysis before returning them to the University of Nevada, Reno.


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