“Anything we find here will fulfill an untold story,” said dig leader Sarah Cowie, assistant professor of historical archeology at the University of Nevada, Reno. “It helps us find a story.”
The physical work will only take five weeks, but artifacts left behind by miners and those who worked at St. Mary Louise Hospital, opened in 1876, will be taken back to a laboratory, examined and studied for the next year, Cowie said.
One of the most important early hospitals in Nevada history, St. Mary Louise was opened and operated by the Daughters of Charity as a Catholic facility, though it accepted patients of all faiths. The nuns wore habits with starched cornettes, made famous in the late-1960s television show “The Flying Nun.”
The order sought to help people in need, opening an orphanage and school, then operating the hospital in what was a remote mining community.
Interesting findings have cropped up in the first few weeks, such as what appears to be a barbecue site with leftover animal bones, broken bits of glass, tanbark and pottery, Cowie said. This may date back to when the area around what is now St. Mary’s Art and Retreat Center was a gathering place dating back centuries. The county also used the area for a dumping ground at one point, further complicating the team’s efforts.
“This has always been a gathering place in the community,” Cowie said, as she walked around St. Mary’s building to the back, where another dig site — thought to be an old garden — is covered by time beneath inches of dirt.
At one time, the area was a “biergarte,” or an outdoor area where beer and other drinks and local food was served. The community would gather for picnics and other events, she said. Some of the findings, such as the barbecue area, could come from that time period, Cowie said.
The school uses ground-penetrating radar that identifies anomalies prior to digging. This tells the teams where oddities in the earth may be.
“We dig in very square holes,” Cowie said. “Then, we locate everything in the squares and come up with artifacts.”
The team has a few weeks left to continue its outdoor work, Cowie said. So far, besides a few buttons and broken pottery, nothing substantial has been unearthed.
“We haven’t found anything diagnostic yet,” she said. “We’re not excavating anything of monetary value. The real value is in the data and what we learn from it.”
Not much was written down about the daily life of the ordinary people who lived in that time period. The diggers hope some of the research will reveal those missing pieces.
“The buttons and clothing people wore might reveal little details of the people’s lives they didn’t write down,” Cowie said. “This site has enormous potential to answer questions about health care, gender roles, ethnicity and religion in the west.”
The group deals in 10-centimeter layers, recording each and every finding.
“There’s a lot of paperwork involved,” she said. “We record it in such a way that we can learn from our paperwork.”
Although the team has designated volunteers with the proper knowledge of archeology, Cowie said she is willing to give the public site tours.
The excavation of the St. Mary Louise Hospital grounds continues a tradition dating back to 1990 of UNR archaeologists working with support from the Historic Preservation Office and the Comstock Historic District Commission to examine resources in Virginia City.
Previous excavations include work at Piper’s Opera House, an African American saloon, Chinatown and a residential neighborhood known as Cornish Row. The discoveries of the archaeologists have been made available to the public through tours, exhibits, websites, lectures and publications.
“I am pleased to see another season of archaeology unfold within the Virginia City Historic Landmark District,” said Ron James, state historic preservation officer. “This program has been extremely popular, and it has contributed indispensable information about Nevada’s earliest past.”