History of the Dead

A photographer's view of the unwanted graveyard under the Palace of the Legion of Honor

Museums are usually thought of as places where history is preserved and the past -- or at least the past chosen by the museum curator -- is displayed and explained.

But sometimes the museum's role within history is revealed, and that is the case with photographer Richard Barnes' exhibit "Still Rooms and Excavations," which documents the 1994 discovery of a long forgotten "potter's field," or pauper's graveyard, directly under the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.

The graveyard, which dates from the Gold Rush era, was unearthed as a result of seismic retrofitting to repair damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. To the consternation of museum officials, and the fascination of Barnes, contractors working on that refit began digging up the remains of between 750 and 800 of San Francisco's poor who had been interred between 1868 and 1898.

The excavation quickly became the largest post-Gold Rush archaeological site in Northern California.

Barnes, who has participated in archaeological excavations and photographically documented finds for museums, says the irony of finding the graves of hundreds of poor and working-class San Franciscans underneath a repository of upper-class culture and wealth was, for him, almost overwhelming: high European art above indigent local bodies. The absurdities noted by Barnes at the Legion of Honor excavation are, indeed, legion.

Directly under Rodin's The Thinker, for example, is a crypt designed for Alma Spreckels and her husband, Adolph Spreckels -- of California and Hawaii sugar wealth -- who founded and built the Palace of the Legion of Honor. The couple was not buried there, because of laws that prohibited burials within the city's boundaries, but Barnes speculates that they would not have liked this particular eternal resting place anyway. The crypt sits in the midst of 200 pauper graves.

"This building is imported. It is a 19th-century European building that represents civility, strength, and grandeur. The types of building that this one is modeled after are Greek temples. ... Banks are designed this way. Government buildings are designed this way. Museums are designed this way," Barnes says. "But the interesting thing about this is there is this whole community that lay underneath it for 70 years that was totally forgotten."

And when that community was rediscovered, he says, "there was no real interest from the museum in preserving it -- or even talking about it. They wanted to hide it. They wanted to get rid of it as quickly as possible."

When he heard about the find after returning to the United States from an archaeological dig in Egypt, Barnes volunteered to excavate the site, but soon realized its importance and began his photographic documentation. "It brought together all my interests: Here is the museum, archaeology, architecture, collecting," Barnes says.

The hundreds of burial sites were all anonymous. There were no monuments.
"There was no documentation of anybody at all. Eight hundred burials -- no documentation," notes Barnes. "That is a combination of things: Many of them were very poor. A lot of these people did not have next of kin. It could have been that a lot of the burials were unmarked. ... We did find a lot of Chinese shoes and artifacts."

The very mundanity of the objects found was noteworthy, especially when contrasted with the carefully preserved art upstairs (as it were) in the Legion of Honor. The burial sites held combs, buttons, revolvers, bottles, shoes, safety pins, and even false teeth. The skeletons themselves told stories.

"The archaeologists speculate that ... because of the injuries they had to their shins, a lot of these people worked on the docks, [because there would be] barrels coming off the docks there were a lot of contusions to lower legs," Barnes says.

The nature of the burial sites also suggests poverty. At that time, each nationality of significant population in the city had a separate graveyard; only the very poor ended up in mixed burial sites. Some of the findings at this mixed site were macabre; there were, for example, a lot of cadavers from medical schools. "Two heads in a box, body parts," Barnes notes. "We speculate that medical schools were burying their remains after they had finished an autopsy."

Another local archaeologist, Paula Frazer (who also happens to be the lead singer with local group Tarnation), says the experience was chilling. When the Legion of Honor was built -- from 1920 to 1924 -- the original contractors just plowed through burial sites, and plumbers laid pipes right through bodies and skeletons.

"It was one of the spookiest archaeologist jobs I have worked on. A lot of the burials had clothing, had hair. Some of the people were even mummified. It was a pretty intense dig. There were a lot of women and babies. There were a few Chinese, not many, it was mostly Scottish, Irish, French ... who worked on building all the brick buildings around S.F."

The atmosphere of the dig was odd enough, Barnes says, that some of the seismic contractors were quite unsettled at first. He says some security guards were reluctant to go back in the building after dark.

"One security guard was so freaked out he quit," Barnes says.

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