UC Berkeley Dig Reveals Old Conservatory, Relics

Friday June 20, 2003

Laurie Wilkie’s UC Berkeley Summer Session class does not take place in a lecture hall. 

Instead, Wilkie, an associate professor of anthropology, is leading her students in a more hands-on project: an archaeological dig to uncover the remains of two historic campus buildings. 

The students set out in the beginning of June to excavate the remnants of the Students’ Observatory, which was built in the 1880s and demolished in 1973, and the University Conservatory, which was constructed in 1891 and destroyed in 1924. The two sites contain some of the oldest remains of institutional buildings in Berkeley. 

“We’re trying to recreate the architectural and social landscape between 1890 and 1925,” Wilkie said, noting that that data could help document the university’s history. 

The conservatory was similar to the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, and both were built by the same company. The students involved in the project visited the Golden Gate Park site, and park conservatory officials came on campus to inspect the students' dig. 

The observatory, which was torn down in order to build a more modern version with new equipment, was one of the first astronomy study centers on the west coast.  

The students’ project, which was sponsored by the Archaeological Research Facility and the Department of Capital Projects, marked the first time the foundations of the buildings have been exposed after remaining underground for as many as 120 years. 

Although the Department of Capital Projects is generally in charge of all demolition and construction projects on campus, the department sponsored the students’ project to contribute to the historical research. 

But the time that the students have to study the remains is very limited. 

Soon construction crews will begin building the Chang-Lin Tien East Asian Library on the site of the former buildings, completely covering any remains. So by Friday the team, which has been excavating the site for the past five weeks, will refill the gaping holes in the ground. 

The students will, however, have many artifacts left as historical remains of the former buildings. Aside from the cement foundations of the conservatory and the observatory, Wilkie and her students have found china plates, old Dr. Pepper bottles, piping, flower pots, a pen cap, and a cow bone. Some of these objects date as far back as 1900. 

“It looks like they would have had social events at the conservatory from the china and food remains,” Wilkie said. “It was probably a very beautiful place for something like that.”