Now Curating

The San Diego Archaeological Center houses many prehistoric and historic collections from the San Diego County and adjacent regions. The Center is equipped with over 5,000 square feet of vault space that allow us to provide long-term curation and care for a wide range of archaeological materials, including artifacts, ecofacts (unmodified bone & shell, and charcoal samples), maps, photographs, and site records. Partnering with local colleges and universities provides a setting for volunteers and students interested in archaeology to gain hands-on experience working with archaeological collections.

How Does the SDAC Acquire Collections?

Most of the collections that are curated at the Center come to us from Cultural Resource Management (CRM) firms who have done work for private companies, or federal, state and local government agencies. These CRM firms work with developers around the county to make sure that construction is done using ethical and sustainable methods and that archaeological sites are protected and documented. Once their work is complete, CRM firms curate collections at the Center for long-term preservation and care.

How is a Collection Curated?

Curating a collection involves many steps: reading the report, inventorying and organizing the artifacts/ecofacts, updating the catalog, printing labels and attaching them to the artifact/ecofacts bags, printing box labels and inventories, and creating collection documentation like the master catalog. An executive summary is filled out for each collection that documents the details of the project before it came to the Center and everything that happens to it after it arrives. Collections are curated by staff, volunteers, and interns.

Take a closer look at the collections currently being curated at the Center in this virtual exhibit, Now Curating.

Project Name: Celadon at Ninth and Broadway

This collection is currently in the curation process.

Overview of Site

Perfume Jar from Massachusetts

Statistical Research, Inc., conducted monitoring and artifact recovery from this site in San Diego’s East Village at the corner of Ninth Street and Broadway. The site consists of three historic features, a historic brick foundation, cistern, and well, plus three small trash deposits.

Glass perfume bottle

Background research indicated that the site had been in use as early as the 1870s as a residential area. Potable water was scarce in the new city, so citizens frequently turned to private wells and cisterns to obtain water. The late 1890s saw the gradual abandonment of private wells as the city began to provide an adequate water supply. The old wells and cisterns were then used as refuse dumps. The date of the abandonment of the cistern feature at the Ninth and Broadway site is not known. However, most downtown cisterns were constructed prior to 1906, before the municipal water system was extended to this area, and were abandoned before the 1920s.

The bottles and jars recovered at the site suggest a middle-class level of economic status that is typical for the period. The artifacts recovered from the site may reflect hygienic concerns in an environment with poor freshwater resources.

Perfume and Makeup

Milk glass perfume jar

The presence of six identifiable perfume bottles and four makeup jars indicates a higher level of disposable income on the part of the inhabitants. Three of the bottles come from the northern and eastern United States. These parts of the country were well industrialized and were involved in the production of many products of the period.

The importation of beauty products from places like New York, Illinois, and Maryland may show an attempt by the new residents to live as they did in their former communities. These products also demonstrate societal norms and trends in women’s beauty standards from the Northern and Eastern United States.

Vaseline, Hand Cream, and Scalp Tonic

Vaseline Jar from New York

In addition to mitigating the smell caused by a lack of bathing, the new residents of San Diego had to deal with skin conditions from the dry air and flea infestations. The presence of fleas in Southern California is well documented in the accounts of early Spanish explorers. Gaspar de Portola famously named the creek inside the modern Camp Pendleton Las Pulgas, or The Fleas. This flea problem persists to this day but was a well-known fact of life for early San Diegans.

Scalp Tonic from Minnesota

While flea bites and itchy skin were a problem for all inhabitants of the county, the people living on this site had the economic privilege to combat these issues with modern products that may have been available to the average citizen. Although not necessarily gender specific, the presence of hand cream and scalp tonic may be indicative of beauty standards for middle-class women intent on keeping up appearances in the under-developed city.


This collection demonstrates the changes taking place in San Diego society around the turn of the twentieth century. The new urban middle class constituted a significant portion of the peoples living and working in the developing city, and their needs and adaptations to life in San Diego are reflected in the presence of perfumes and beauty products.

by Kirk Staver, SDAC Intern

Further Reading

Cosmetics and Personal Care Products in the Medicine and Science Collections, National Museum of American History

General timeline of the Portola Expedition and Eighteenth-Century California History

Fleas as part of the ecology of San Diego

Project Name: Final Archaeological Data Recovery for a Portion of CA-SDI-48, San Diego
Site(s): CA-SDI-48
USGS Quad Location: Point Loma 7.5’
Year of Excavation: 1997 and 1998

Olivella beads

PL 04, a federal collection, is in the curation process. With inventory having been completed, the labeling of artifact bags is ongoing.

Overview of Site

Cultural resource data recovery at this site took place at two Loci, A and B. An early milling archaic component and shell midden yielded Olivella beads, bone tools, and otoliths. Historic resources were also recovered from this site. This collection consists of two boxes from a 1997 project and eleven boxes from a 1998 project.

Radiocarbon dates for several shellfish and charcoal samples from past projects verified a long-term human occupation at the site (circa 6,000-2,000 years ago). The report from the 1998 project states that the large set of dates makes CA-SDI-48 one of the best, if not the best, dated sites in southern California.

Additionally, a thorough analysis of shellfish remains, fish bone, and terrestrial faunal remains from the site has provided new insights into the life of the people of the La Jolla complex during this time.


Protothaca staminea (Common Littleneck clam)

A majority of the collection consists of unmodified shell (over 169,000 g/372 lbs.). There were 48+ types of shellfish identified from bivalves (clams/mussels/oysters) and gastropods (snails) to chitons and crustaceans (barnacles/crabs). They were procured from a variety of habitats: bays and estuaries, exposed rocky and non-rocky shores. The most prevalent recovered species, Protothaca staminea (Common Littleneck clam), Chitons (mollusk), and Ostrea lurida (Native Oyster), could be found in more than one of these habitats.

Chitons (mollusk)

Many of the small snail types represented in the collection were probably gathered incidentally; they were attached to eelgrass or kelp and accidentally brought to the site. As such, they were not considered to have been collected as food sources. However, they do provide an idea of what activities the inhabitants were participating in at the time of the site’s occupation.

As the report states, the “variation in shellfish species at the site reflects the occupants’ abilities to roam over a large area and exploit a variety of environmental niches. The diet of the occupants was varied both in nutritional value of the shellfish, the taste, and the availability or opportunity to capture a given species”.

Faunal Remains

Bone awls

The species of fish represented in the collection show that fishing was done in the adjacent bay, kelp beds, and offshore waters. The presence of bone awls may indicate the repair of fishing nets and fishing gear. Fish bone analysis showed a high occurrence of head and facial skeletal parts, along with terminal vertebrae, which indicates that the fishermen at the site decapitated and removed the fins from the fish. They then moved the processed fish to another area for storage or cooking. The lack of burnt fish bone also shows that the site served, in part, as a fish processing camp.

Otoliths (fish ear bones)

The most plentiful species of fish represented, by number of fragments, are White Croaker (485), Rockfish (307), California Sheepshead (230) and Perch (187). Studies of the otoliths (fish ear bones) found at the site indicated an abundance of fish caught in early to late summer.

The animal bone is of a much smaller quantity of the collection than the shellfish. There are 3,119 fragments, of which 82% were from small terrestrial mammals including black-tailed jackrabbit, desert cottontail rabbit, California ground squirrel, and pocket gopher. An analysis of past and current studies found that the frequency of burnt non-fish vertebrate remains on the site indicated minimal direct fire burning. This, along with little evidence of butchering, reveals a preference for cooking (probably in soups or stews) rather than roasting.


Ostrea lurida (Native Oyster)

The reports shows that the information recovered from the data recovery programs at this site can be used to address important research questions and to pose new ones.

by Suzanne Moramarco, Collections and Library Specialist

For Further Reading

For further exploration into the topics mentioned above, these titles are available for checkout from the SDAC Research Library.

California Bone Artifacts (Anthropological Records), E. W. Gifford
Californian Fish Spears and Harpoons (Anthropological Records), J. A. Bennyhoff
A Key to Some Southern California Fishes Based on Vertebral Characters: Fish Bulletin No. 79, Charles R. Clothier
Marine Fish Osteology: A Manual for Archaeologists, Debbi Yee Cannon
Seashore Life of Southern California, Sam Hinton
Shell Bead and Ornament Exchange Networks Between California and the Western Great Basin, James A. Bennyhoff and Richard E. Hughes

Funded in part by the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture and the County of San Diego

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Archaeology Lab Positions

Volunteers will prepare one or more archaeological collections for curation. Center staff will instruct the volunteer on archaeological laboratory procedures such as basic artifact analysis, manual and computer cataloging, storage requirements, and preventative conservation.


Exhibitions Volunteers assist with the design, construction, and installation of Center Museum exhibits.

Volunteers work in the Center’s Research Library, cataloguing materials and organizing on a computer-based system.

Marketing and Administrative Volunteers assist the Development Office or Administration Office with data entry, updating marketing materials and clerical tasks. Computer experience is a plus.

Docents welcome visitors and answer general questions regarding the Center and exhibits. Docents staff the gift shop and help out with administrative and curatorial tasks.

Volunteers support event activities at the Center, such as the Annual BBQ, lectures, workshops, and fundraising events. Be a part of the party!

Volunteer provide support for K-12 programs offered at the Center. These are fun, hands-on programs that kids really enjoy. Teaching experience is a plus, but not required. Background checks are required.

Collections Management

With the assistance of Center staff, the intern will prepare one or more archaeological collections for curation. During the course of the internship, the intern will learn to identify artifacts and ecofacts common to the San Diego region, including lithics, ceramics, historical objects, and faunal, botanical, and mineral specimens. Center staff will instruct the intern on archaeological laboratory procedures such as basic artifact analysis, manual and computer cataloguing, storage requirements, and preventative conservation. In addition, the intern will become familiar with historical trends in archaeological practice in the San Diego area and will be introduced to current legal and ethical issues in archaeological curation as well as the concerns and rights of culturally affiliated groups with regard to archaeological materials.