VIRGINIA CITY, Nev. (AP) — Virginia City is a place where people who study our past love to dig holes and uncover artifacts.

More than 150 years after silver boomed on the Comstock, much of the evidence of culture and livelihood left behind by the mining era inhabitants is covered over by the dirt, relentlessly moved around by wind and water. So, while the silver kings explored the mining camp ground from below, today's excavators dig from the top down.

Virginia City's newest archaeological site is the backyard of what once was a community hospital in the late 1800s and now is home to an arts center. The grounds of St. Mary's Art and Retreat Center, once St. Mary Louise Hospital, run by the Daughters of Charity from 1876 to 1897, could give up some valuable clues to the practice of medicine in the late 1880s, along with examples of everyday household items.

"It would be fun to find (medical) instruments," Elizabeth Bennett, a supervisor on the dig who will be a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno in the fall, told the Reno Gazette-Journal ( "We know there was a fire in the hospital, and they moved the debris out here. Sarah (Cowie) and the supervisors think things are 30 to 50 centimeters down, so maybe 12 to 20 inches."

Ron James, Nevada's historic preservation officer, approached the trustees of the art center about a possible dig around the property, which is owned by Storey County, said Mimi Patrick, president of the board of trustees.

Next, Cowie, assistant professor of historical archaeology at UNR, who was excited by the prospect of such a project, got in touch, Patrick said.

"It will expand the history of the building," Patrick said of the project, which began July 20 and will conclude in mid-August. "The building was abandoned for 25 years, so a lot of the area was never disturbed."

Even on the first day of the dig, some things were turning up as team members recruited from among UNR archaeology students scraped the ground with trowels and small brushes.

Students partially uncovered a piece of turquoise pottery that could be the bottom of a teacup. A piece of glass displayed writing of some sort.

"It's exciting that this appeared today," said team member Cavan Van Geem. "It's a nice surprise."

Zeb Stecker, an undergraduate archaeology student, was working a sifter that separates dirt and rocks from more interesting items. Already, he was finding pieces of ceramics and glass. Nearby, a couple feet of metal pipe, an inch or two in diameter, jutted horizontally out of the dirt, possibly indicating the remains of an outbuilding.

A week into the dig, some features were being uncovered in front of the building as well. A post hole could indicate a structure or a fence, Cowie said.

A stone circle could be a barbecue pit or one of several other possibilities, she said.

"Digging is difficult," she said in the dig's second week. "There's a lot of dried-out clay."

For the team members, the project is close to living history, undergrad Jeri Ho said on the first day.

"It's in context," she said. "It's not abstracted, like looking at things in a museum. That's what's exciting, rather than just facts. We can imagine what was here, as we uncover more stuff."

For the rest of us, there's value in the recovery of historical artifacts from places such as archaeological digs, said James, who works in the state cultural affairs office.

"The written record is always wonderful in illuminating the past," he said. "But people lie and so do documents, but artifacts never lie.

"And some people do not have a clear voice in the written record," he said. "So, understanding the poor and minorities and sometimes women is best when we look at artifacts."

Before the dig

To start the dig, the team first secured a permit from the county and a Nevada antiquities permit from the state, then alerted utility companies and devised a research design detailing what could be learned from the project and setting out questions to be answered, Cowie said.

Grant proposals went out to the State Historic Preservation office and the National Park Service to help cover a budget of about $60,000 to $70,000.

Before anyone stuck a shovel in the dirt, the team used ground-penetrating radar over the area to help determine where digging should take place. Some historic photos show several outbuildings behind the hospital, said Steven Holm, an archaeology graduate student and a project supervisor.

Evidence of such structures and other indications of buried artifacts showed up on the radar, giving the team some ideas of where to start.

The radar also showed the team where not to dig, disclosing such modern additions to the property as sprinkler systems.

"We set up grids, with two students per grid," Holm said. "The teams examine the anomalies that showed up. We do not know what (all of) the area was used for."

At the start, the team mapped out three grids in back of the building for exploration and two in front, Cowie said. The units are one meter by one meter in size — about 40 inches square — and are placed based on the anomalies that showed up on the radar and on some preliminary examination of the site.

The printouts of the radar scan resemble a weather radar map with bright red splotches where it's possible that artifacts are buried, Cowie said. Where soil appears to be compacted might indicate an old roadway that led to a mine behind the hospital.

The hospital operated during "a pivotal era of health care, a couple decades after the Civil War," Cowie said.

The Daughters of Charity work was pretty advanced for the time period, she said.

Daughters of Charity in California are very interested, and some will come to the site to help identify artifacts, Cowie said. Other experts in the area also are lending their help. In the bottom corner of the backyard lies what could be part of a building, she said. And there are indications the sisters kept animals on the property as well.

Team members also look for items related to gender and religion because of the hospital's connection to the Catholic women who operated it.

But because the backyard slopes downhill from the building, the actual depth of the dig will depend on how much soil has washed downhill over the years, Bennett said.


Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal,