Historic photos of the Whaley House and Whaley family members
save our heritage organisation

Discovery of the Cistern

Site of the excavation, which began in 2007

By Seth Mallios

San Diego State University Anthropology Professor Seth Mallios and a team of student and professional archaeologists recently uncovered the historical Whaley House cistern, located just behind the Whaley House museum in Old Town on San Diego Avenue. During August, September, and October of 2007, Dr. Mallios and his crew from SDSU's South Coastal Information Center, David Caterino, Destiny Larberg, Jaime Lennox, Scott Mattingly, and Hillary Sweeney, spent 12 weeks unearthing this archaeological feature, which was originally used by inhabitants of the Whaley to collect and store drinking water. The archaeological team recovered over 30,000 artifacts in a large subterranean cylindrical pit that marked where the cistern once stood. The rich deposit includes numerous complete bottles and a stunning display of pottery, animal bones, architectural debris, and tools.

Bruce Coons, Executive Director of the Save Our Heritage Organisation (which operates the County-owned museum), and Dr. Lynne Newell Christenson, County Historian, contacted Dr. Mallios in the late fall of 2006 about conducting an excavation to find and unearth this 19th-century feature on the historic Whaley property. Coons and Christenson have extensive archaeological experience and repeatedly accommodated Mallios's team in the logistics of orchestrating the excavation. Once a Memorandum of Agreement was signed by San Diego State University and the County of San Diego in the spring of 2007, preparations for survey and excavation began.

An 1872 map of the Whaley House identified a feature, marked by a circle inside of a square, approximately 20' behind the house. It was directly in line with the eastern wall of the structure. On the basis of its size, shape, proximity to the main structure, and alignment with the drainage gutters that currently run down the edge of the house, Mallios, Coons, and Christenson deduced this figure to be the cistern to the Whaley House.

The cistern played a role in the dark history of the Whaley House. Violet Whaley, Thomas Whaley's second eldest daughter, attempted to commit suicide in late July of 1885 by throwing herself into the well. Violet was rescued; but she eventually shot and killed herself three weeks later. In addition to the old map, there are two historical references that suggest that the well was within close proximity to the back of the Whaley House. Both are 19th-century newspaper obituaries for Violet Whaley, and both describe her unsuccessful suicide attempt. The August 20, 1885, San Diego Union mentioned that Violet jumped into the cistern.

It stated:

On July 5th, I was harnessing my horse and heard a scream, issuing from the cistern. Went there and found Violet holding to the pipe. Asked if she could hold on. She said yes. I ran to the house and told my wife Violet had jumped into the cistern.

The August 22, 1885, San Diego Sun also mentioned the previous suicide attempt and gave details of the Whaley well, reporting:

However, in addition, it was testified that the deceased [Violet Whaley] had attempted to take her life about three weeks ago by throwing herself into a deep well, from which she was rescued.

These articles indicate that the cistern/well was nearly adjacent to the back of the house. They also intimate that the terms "cistern" and "deep well" refer to the same structure. Cisterns were used to capture rainwater that was drained from the roof of a building; wells accessed groundwater. Therefore, it is likely that the Whaley water source did both. The close proximity of the feature to the building indicates that it was likely a cistern. If the bottom excavation of the feature ultimately reaches groundwater, then it will also be well.

At the start of the project in the summer of 2007, the back yard of the Whaley House contained a long linear brick-paved walkway and various plants. This walkway connected the eastern edge of the Whaley-House Museum with exterior bathrooms. Other than the brick path, the concrete pads at each end of the path, and isolated plants, the immediate area behind the Whaley House seemed to have few modern intrusions into the proposed excavation area.

Even before excavations began and before Mallios had seen the 1872 Whaley-House map, he noticed a striking above-ground archaeological clue in the brick pathway that hinted at the nearby location of the historical well. This "palimpsest," an object, place, or area that reflects its history, took the form of a slight sunken circular indentation in the brick walkway. Since deep historical holes, like wells and cisterns, are nearly impossible to keep filled flush to the ground, circular depressions often reveal the hidden location of past water sources. Drawing on first-hand experience in excavating multiple 17th-century wells in Virginia during the 1990s, Mallios was confident that the small brown oval of silted-in dirt that rested in the circular indentation in the brick pathway was resting above the old cistern/well (Mallios and Fesler 1999, Mallios 2000).

Since the historical map and the above-ground clue so distinctly pinpointed the apparent location of the feature, Mallios decided to use this excavation as a test case for the effectiveness of ground-penetrating radar (GPR) technologies on archaeological features. In order to conduct a GPR survey, first the immediate area had to be cleared of brick, concrete, plants, and other above-ground items that would distort the readings. County workers cleared the excavation area of these items, enabling GPR specialist Mark Becker of ASM Affiliates, Inc. to survey the area.

Results from the GPR survey indicated two areas of potentially significant anomalies. The map denotes underground hot-spots as yellow and areas with minimal readings in blue. On the left side, the GPR identified the location of known modern pipes. On the right side, it pinpointed a large three-circled feature. Mallios and his team dubbed this anomaly "Mickey Mouse" because it resembled a face with two large circular ears protruding out from the top.

The image to the right on the left shows the confluence of information from the historical map, the above-ground palimpsest, and the results of the GPR survey. Each of these different lines of evidence pinpointed the exact same spot as the site of the cistern/well. In addition, this also demonstrates that the GPR survey accurately determined the location of the archaeological feature uncovered in the consequent excavations. The "Mickey Mouse" anomaly successfully identified the location of the cistern/well.

With such clear indicators as to the likely locus of the cistern/well, grid placement for the archaeological excavation became a relatively simple task. Mallios sought to minimize excavation-area size while exposing the full extent of the historical feature. Since the 1872 map apparently depicted an 8.0' box around a 5.0' circle, the archaeological grid was placed over the center of the map's circle. A 10.0' square formed the basis of the excavation area and was divided into four 5.0' by 5.0' units. These units were aligned with the historical map and the edge of the Whaley House's eastern wall. In order to ensure accurate recordation of site stratigraphy, the crew left a set of 1.0' wide north/south and east/west balks that criss-crossed the four excavation units. The standing balks were split in half by each grid line and reduced the size of initial active excavation in each of the four units to 4.5' by 4.5'.

These balks immediately served their purpose as the first scoops of excavated dirt revealed complex strata within the overall 10.0' excavation area; each of the four units contained different horizontal and vertical layers. Between modern flowerbeds, historical brick paths, large empty holes from one of the concrete pads, and trenches containing modern PVC pipes and older pipes as well, the units were very diverse and distinct from one another. shows how one of these units contained an older brick path that was sealed by a more modern flowerbed (on the basis of the wire nails that held the wooden corner together), both of which were next to a large quarter circle of feature fill (the cistern/well) that cut the natural red clay subsoil.

At the outset of excavation, Mallios insisted that the crew piece-plot every artifact and the boundaries of every distinct natural layer that they found with the total station laser theodolite. In addition, the archaeological team also completed traditional paper maps using stick-rulers and line-levels. Excavators troweled and shoveled each layer into buckets and screened 100% of the fill through 1/8" steel mesh. They saved all cultural material. All of the screened soil was then poured into sandbags and stored at the site. This soil archive strategy served multiple purposes. It prevented the site from having a back-dirt pile, which Mallios hoped would deter looters from violating the public site. In addition, it provided a wealth of soil samples. Furthermore, the dirt was still at the site for protection, shoring, and backfilling considerations.

Once the four square 4.5' units each had clear soil-stain evidence of the large historical feature, the balks were mapped and removed. Excavation of the balks revealed a large circular feature where the 1872 map, the palimpsest, and the GPR had predicted. However, the feature did not exactly match the 1872 map. Instead of a large square around a smaller circle, the archaeological feature was a large 8.5' circle around a smaller 4.0' square. In addition, the square part of the archaeological feature was not centered within the circle; it was adjacent with the northern and western walls of the feature. They shared an edge, not a center.

Mallios and his team then bi-sected the feature and excavated it by natural layer. At its interface with subsoil, the feature had multiple bulls-eye layers that titled in from the south (the direction of the Whaley House). In an effort to prevent the mixing of archaeological contexts, the archaeological crew started excavation with the top natural layer even if it shared the same elevation with other natural layers that it in part sealed. The diagonal profile line was chosen to respect the direction from which the inner refuse was deposited and to maximize sunlight for profile photographs.

The initial feature excavation quickly revealed distinct natural layers. Ash layers, charcoal layers, and loam layers, were entirely different from various clay and sand strata. Many roots from nearby trees followed the edges of the feature and separated fill layers from subsoil. In addition, water slowly percolated in from the edges of the intrusive modern flowerbed feature.

After a few layers of excavation were completed, the crew hit a layer of dark organic fill that teemed with thousands of artifacts. The sheer quantity of these items forced Mallios and his team to reconsider their piece-plotting mapping strategy. As a tactical compromise, the crew would digitally map the extent of each natural layer with the transit but would no longer piece-plot each individual artifact in the feature.

The feature's layers dove down at the north edge of the probable cistern/well. The fill was extremely loose and contained many complete bottles. This fill was strikingly different from the clayey dirt on the south side that appeared to be sealed by these loamy and ashy layers. In addition, this fill in the northern part of the feature contained many artifacts from the first half of the 20th century, including a car axle and a distinctive San Diego Soda Works bottle from the 1920s. Although the loose organic layers to the north continued to dive down, Mallios and his crew stopped their excavation in that part of the feature at 5.0', respecting OSHA safety laws. They then began to excavate the clay strata to the south, natural layer by natural layer.

The more southerly layers in the feature had far fewer artifacts and overall, the fill seemed to date to an earlier time frame. Although the artifact assemblage has not been fully cataloged or analyzed, preliminary in-field observations hint that these strata reflect a late 19th-century deposition. For example, a late 1800s spice bottle-from Dr. Price's Flavoring Extract Co.-surfaced during the excavation of these layers.

Once the entire east half of the feature was excavated to a depth of 5.0', it became clear that a square box with four vertical corner posts separated the two fill areas. In fact, the fill in this box was the square that was evident at the top of the feature. The loose fill inside of the box was the later fill, and the compact earlier fill was outside of the box. The box did not appear to be tossed into the hole as refuse. It rested squarely and flatly against the north edge of the feature. Therefore, it is probable that this box is related to the structure of the feature. The box continues down below the 5.0' mark where excavation stopped.

Once half of the entire feature was completely excavated and photographed, the profile map was mapped both digitally and traditionally. Then, the crew dug the other half of the feature, natural layer by natural layer. As was the case with the east half, the west half contained two distinct sets of fill. The northerly fill was loose and contained later artifacts, including numerous complete bottles; and the southerly fill was compact and contained earlier artifacts. Crew members uncovered a complete automobile wheel at the bottom of their excavation area in the later fill.

Once the cistern/well feature was excavated to a complete depth of 5.0' below subsoil, the excavation field season came to a close. The archaeological team is currently developing a shoring system to brace the side walls of the feature for when they re-open the site and excavate further in the coming year. At the end of the 2007 field season, the feature consisted of a large cylindrical hole, flared at the top. The diameter ranged from over 8.0' at the top to approximately 6.0' at the bottom. It was 5.0' deep. The box at the northern edge was flush with the northern and western edges of the feature. It was approximately 3.0' square. Both the feature fill and the box continued below into unexcavated strata.

The archaeological crew lined the feature with black plastic and then filled it with the sandbags that contained the screened dirt. A sandbag from each stratum was taken back to the SDSU North American Archaeology Laboratory for archival purposes and later soil chemical analyses.

Although all of the interpretations presented here are preliminary and may be contradicted by ongoing and future analyses at the archaeological laboratory, it is clear that the archaeological team successfully located and uncovered the Whaley House cistern/well. The dual fill of the feature offers insight into the construction and destruction of the feature. Perhaps the fill in the box is destruction fill, and perhaps the fill outside of the wooden box is part of a large builder's trench. Or conversely, all of the fill in the feature may represent destruction rubble. Over 11,000 cumulative person/hours of fieldwork resulted in the recovery of over 72,000 artifacts, some of which date to the late 19th century.

The cistern/well is time capsule that includes a range of materials which can pinpoint when it was built, when it fell into disuse, and when it was ultimately sealed. With its central location, public access, and rich history, the Whaley-House site could become one of the premier programs for urban archaeology in the country. It has remarkable potential for annual summer field schools and year-round research and teaching programs.

Mallios, Seth
2000 - At the Edge of the Precipice: Frontier Ventures, Jamestown's Hinterland, and the Archaeology of 44JC802. The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, Richmond, VA http://www.apva.org/resource/other/sandy.html

Mallios, Seth, and Garrett Fesler
1999 - Archaeological Excavations at 44JC568, the Reverend Richard Buck Site. The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, Richmond, VA


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