Arboretum Chinese Labor Quarters Project
Discovery: Science and History Work Together
The Arboretum Chinese Labor Quarters site (ACLQ) is located in the Stanford University Arboretum. The site housed Chinese employees who worked in the Stanford vineyards and winery operations, built and maintained the Stanfords’ orchards and gardens, and were instrumental in the creation and maintenance of the University’s iconic historic landscapes: the Arboretum, Palm Drive, the Oval, and the gardens of the Main Quadrangle. The site was occupied between 1883 and 1925 when the last resident left and the buildings were demolished.
There is a major advantage in researching the ACLQ— the residents were working in an area that has a substantial historical record. Research in the University Archives and in the campus Maps and Records archives yielded a series of historic maps, which showed buildings in this area of the campus. One important source was a 1908 fire insurance map, which clearly labelled these buildings as the “Chinese Labor Quarters.” While the historic maps were incorporated into a digital model of the site, few landmarks contemporary to the ACLQ have survived, which made the determination of a precise location difficult. Further, these historic maps were, unfortunately, not detailed or consistent in the number and arrangement of buildings at the site, or in the precise location of the Quarters.
The ACLQ site was first identified during the excavation of a utility trench in the 1980s and was later surveyed, in 2016, by Stanford alumnus Chris Lowman (Class of 2010), then a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. Beginning in 2017, Stanford University’s Campus Archaeology Program implemented a grid system for site investigations, which they laid over a search area determined by historic maps. The investigation used this grid in two ways: first, archaeologists conducted pedestrian survey, during which artifacts on the ground surface were observed, documented, and collected; second, they conducted systematic Shovel Test Pit (STP) excavations, in which they dug test pits at intersections of the net-like grid.
In the spring of 2017, work within the grid located a trash midden, likely associated with the Quarters’ kitchen. Archaeologists hand-excavated a small trench through the midden, which yielded Chinese ceramics and food remains that were typical of Chinese-style meals. This confirmed the historic records of a Chinese occupation site in the vicinity. The discovery of the ACLQ site shows how the study of historical documents, when combined with scientific survey methodology, can aid in location archaeological sites whose locations have been lost to time.
Excavations: An Opportunity for Research, Education, and Engagement
The Arboretum Chinese Labor Quarters presents a unique and important opportunity, as it is located on campus, to engage scholars, students, and members of the Chinese American community in the investigation of the role of Chinese employees in the operating of Stanford University. Research at the ACLQ also contributes to important themes in the history of the American West and U.S.-China relations. Located in an area of open space, the site is expected to be relatively intact, especially with regard to subsurface archaeological features, such as privies, building foundations or footings, and additional middens.
The archaeological information in these deposits is expected to yield crucial information on the lives of Chinese workers during this important historical period, which can be used in comparison to other archaeological sites to address larger questions about Chinese immigrant communities. The excavations at the ACLQ also creates an opportunity for community-based archaeology in collaboration with the local Chinese American community. Descendants of Chinese employees may be able to share information passed along in their families to supplement existing archival records. The perspectives of the Chinese American community will help shape research questions, interpretive approaches, and preservation strategies at the site.
- Barbara L. Voss, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology Faculty Advisor, Arboretum Chinese Labor Quarters Project
- Laura Jones, Director Of Heritage Services And University Archaeologist For Stanford University
- Christina J. Hodge, Academic Curator and Collections Manager, Stanford University Archaeology Collections
- Megan Rhodes Victor, Postdoctoral Scholar, Stanford Archaeology Center
- Veronica Peterson, Museum Registrar I, Department of Anthropology Research Assistant, Arboretum Chinese Labor Quarters Project
- Lauren Conway, Heritage Program Coordinator
- Garett Trask, Staff Archaeologist