Arts Listings

Books: Prof. Joseph Voyle’s Buried Ancient City Under UC Berkeley

By Richard Schwartz
Tuesday March 25, 2008
Professor Joseph Voyle using his psychic compass divining rod to reveal to the public his newly discovered buried city under the UC Berkeley campus. From the San Francisco Call, June 22, 1908.
Professor Joseph Voyle using his psychic compass divining rod to reveal to the public his newly discovered buried city under the UC Berkeley campus. From the San Francisco Call, June 22, 1908.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series featuring stories of forgotten Berkeley history excerpted from Richard Schwartz’s book Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley.  


The members of the Berkeley Society for Psychical Research were sure. Their president, Professor Joseph Voyle, and other officers were very sure. On June 21, 1908, the society announced that Voyle had discovered a huge prehistoric ceremonial site buried on the UC Berkeley campus. 

The members of the society were confident in their conclusions. It seemed perfectly logical to them that ancient people would have chosen to honor this place where Strawberry Creek was cloaked by bay, alder, sycamore, and oak trees, its lower banks shrouded in strawberry and watercress plants, where the ancient coast live oaks extended their gnarled limbs over the campus beneath the sheltering hills.  

Here, they would have enjoyed the commanding view of the Bay and Golden Gate, the mild weather, and the abundance of all forms of food. Indeed, many artifacts were found and graves uncovered during the construction of buildings in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; it is certain that Native Americans lived on and around the UC Berkeley campus.  

Most UC Berkeley professors considered the society’s claims to be a little too fanciful—and totally unsubstantiated. Voyle said that he had discovered a buried grid of an ancient habitation or ceremonial site, claiming that he and his students had used psychic magnetic compasses, or divining rods, to probe the invisible force fields of attractive matter under the ground.  

He claimed that this grid, measuring 1,200 feet in each direction, was one of a system of grids established around Berkeley. The grid under the UC campus, he said, was the only one that was subdivided into 120-foot square plots, making it, according to his thinking, a ceremonial site used during a certain time of year. He believed the smaller grids were privately owned by members of the ancient society. Voyle claimed to have seen similar markings all across the American continent, from Oregon to Florida.  

Voyle’s claims were wild. According to the Berkeley Daily Gazette: 


The ambition of the collectors of antiquities seemed to have been attained when a row of ordinary everyday rocks was reached and made by the fertile brains of the searchers to resemble the walls of a prehistoric North Hall. 

Towards the close of the day Voyle led his disciples back to the university grounds, where he proceeded to make a test that he said proved conclusively that the seat of learning of California today was the prized resort of sun worshipers ages ago. The test consisted of sticking up a pole in the ground at sundown and following the shadow as a base line for observations. In explanation of this, Voyle said: 

“From Arab and Oriental mystics versed in Egyptian lore, I have learned that it was an ancient custom to stick a rod in the ground at sundown of June 21st, the day on which the sun reaches its northernmost point, and that the shadow cast was used as a base line for the observations of the ancient engineers. My compass responds to certain markings I am convinced lie beneath these grounds.” 


Despite the outrageousness of his claims, there was something about this charismatic man Voyle that led a considerable number of people to accept his theories.  

By 1908 he had turned his focus to the Berkeley grid. Voyle contended that the center of the grid was located near UC Berkeley’s Bacon Library, built in 1888, which stood (until it was demolished in 1961) just east of Sather Tower. Voyle claimed that the corners of this buried site were the Harmon Gym, Hearst Hall, the Greek Theatre, and the Hearst Mining Building.  

He believed that the first two campus buildings, North and South Halls, were right within the area of this buried prehistoric square-shaped city. Voyle claimed that the grid was made of some kind of matter laid down by the ancients. He further maintained that disturbances of the “attractive matter” of this prehistoric work were noted in the recent 1908 construction work on the Doe Library and the southwest corner of the Hearst Mining Building. He was sure that the founders of the university were subliminally affected by the buried site.  

According to Voyle, everything in the site was laid out with mathematical accuracy, though its orientation was not in a north-south direction. Rather, the orientation was the same as the one that the Egyptian pyramid builders used-along the line created by the shadow of a pole when the sun set on the summer and winter solstices, when the sun sets at its northernmost point on the western horizon.  

Voyle believed, though he did not yet have exact proof, that these lines ran about thirty degrees north of west. If a pole was placed at the southwest corner of this ancient square on UC campus, which was west of South Hall, the shadow cast by the pole on June 21 would run directly on or very near to the edge of this buried ancient grid.  

While the professor did not claim to have solved the entire mystery of the site, he believed that his speculations could be supported by the location’s incontrovertible beauty:  


What the object of this particular subdivision of this prehistoric square was, I know of no way of deciding: that is purely a matter of speculation, but the natural beauty of the position, the grandeur of the view on all sides, but especially the view of the Golden Gate, the entrance to San Francisco bay where from this well marked prehistoric spot, at certain well known times of the year, the setting sun sinks to rest beyond the Pacific ocean, often in a grand halo of misty golden glory, that would thrill the soul of a sun worshipper to enthusiastic ecstasy, and make the spot, where now stands the University of California a sacred spot for semiannual pilgrimages where each family has its own abiding place on the national ceremonial site is probably as near truth as we can get, until further facts may be discovered.  


While it was fairly easy to poke holes in Voyle’s theories, his ideas about ceremonies occurring near that spot were not entirely unsupported. In fact, early European explorers observed sun ceremonies enacted by Bay Area Indians with much feeling and adoration. According to one explorer’s account of an event he witnessed in the Bay Area, a sun ceremony was performed every day by an entire village, whereby the members would gather and hold hands at sunrise to assist the sun in rising.  

This participation was part of the Indians’ belief in their ability and duty to partake and assist in balancing the forces of their world. To them, waking up together, joining hands, and singing as the sun rose to help it in its daily ascent was their duty and their concern. Indian solstice ceremonies were also recorded by local Spanish missions. The Indians, still performing the duties of their own culture after joining the church, would try to convince the sun to reverse its path northward and keep the world from going dark. Voyle’s speculations show at least some small degree of awareness of these cultural references.  

No University of California professor wanted to address the merits of Voyle’s theories. Voyle claimed to understand their distancing themselves from him. He said that classical truth always laughed at what it did not understand, but that one day they would understand the true nature of this site on UC Berkeley’s campus, and at that point they would give it another name.  

The Sacramento Bee had a field day with this story, poking fun at the students who believed Voyle’s claims The students, armed with divining rods, repeated the demonstration—supposedly finding the same energy lines in the same places, without prodding or instruction. To Voyle, his detractors were simply misguided; he believed they would come around to his way of thinking. The Sacramento Bee commented, “Still the doubters have one comfort. When Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravitation the people wouldn’t believe him, even when he showed them the apple.  

To prove his case, on Monday, June 20, 1908, Voyle took 150 people up into the hills four miles from the UC campus northeast of Vollmer Peak, where he showed them the lines of two long low rock walls. Like a preacher, Voyle boomed: “There lies before you the remnants of the building of a city of the ancients.” The crowd gasped. He then stated that the walls, according to his survey, showed “regularity.” The crowd gasped again, right on cue.  

The next day, Voyle met two hundred people at the north side of the Greek Theatre. The San Francisco Call mocked Voyle and his followers, saying that they were there to be led “away from the conventional archeology, away from the bondage of modern geology to the promised land pointed out by divining rod and psychical compass. Indeed, Voyle led them with the vigor of a mountain goat and the conviction of Moses, losing some of the less devout in the climb. One newspaper noted the division of labor that must have existed in the ancient civilization, as the women on Voyle’s trek were carrying the divining rods and the men the lunch baskets.  

Afterwards, the San Francisco Call satirized the event:  


The scientific world stands agape and palpitates with subdued expectation while Professor Voyle and the psychical society of Berkeley conduct their learned post mortem of the buried cities that underlie the University of California and its classic environs… The Call rejoices in the learned labors of Professor Voyle and his band of psychics. He has found not one defunct metropolis, but a whole covey of buried cities. With the eye of faith he finds them, scorning the vulgar pickax. It is a triumph of mind over matter. The plodding paleontologers and anthropologers of the university, their kitchen middens and their stuffy piles of undisturbed bones, are put to shame by the easy process of psychical divination.  


Voyle’s final address was 2226 Chapel Street in Berkeley. Following an operation at Berkeley’s Roosevelt Hospital in the spring of 1915, people concerned with Voyle’s health placed him in the Berkeley county infirmary. He had no relatives to help take care of him. 

Though Joseph Voyle never earned the recognition of the university or academic community, he was still acknowledged and sometimes touted highly by the greater public. The Oakland Tribune described him thus: “Never a recognized man among the recognized scientists, yet an original investigator of untiring industry, Professor Voyle continued his studies to the day when his illness bade him halt.” 


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series featuring stories of forgotten Berkeley history excerpted from Richard Schwartz’s new book Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley. (The first installment ran Dec. 14, 2007.) Schwartz has been writing California history books and giving talks for more than 20 years. His other books include The Circle of Stones: An Investigation of the Circle of Stones in Stampede Valley; Sierra County, California; Berkeley 1900: Daily Life at the Turn of the Century and Earthquake Exodus, 1906: Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees.  

Eccentrics, Heroes and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley is sold at local book stores, lumber yards, hardware stores, gift shops, movie theaters, and other local and online merchants. For a list of the locations where the book is available and information about Schwartz and his other books, see 

The Planet will publish the final installment of this series in an upcoming issue.