- Associated Press - Monday, May 30, 2016

DEADWOOD, S.D. (AP) - A 2001 discovery has become one of Deadwood’s Archive Department’s most telling artifacts from a special subculture who dwelled in the city during its earliest days.

What appeared at first glance 15 years ago to be merely a clump of dirt discovered during the Deadwood Chinatown archaeological investigation was actually century-old clothing, the Black Hills Pioneer (https://bit.ly/1s9yZfT ) reported.

“We have something that was actually worn by a Chinese person, who lived here in Deadwood 120 years ago,” said Deadwood City Archivist Mike Runge. “That is significant.”

The clothing was found in an area referred to by Deadwood Historic Preservation officials as “Feature 17,” a small, oval-shaped pit measuring 3-feet by 1.5-feet deep.

The pit was analyzed in a master’s thesis and identified as, most likely, a ceremonial feature for the Chinese mortuary ritual known as “shao hua,” or “burning the clothes.” The ceremony is conducted by the family a few hours after a person dies. All of the deceased person’s belongings are gathered together, wrapped into their clothing, placed in a circular pit or space, and incinerated. Burning the possessions eradicates items contaminated by death and converts them into a spiritual essence (smoke) that the departed use in the afterlife.

After more than a year of waiting and anticipation, Deadwood recently received the clothing, cleaned and stabilized. In January of 2015, the city of Deadwood hired the Midwest Art Conservation Center (MACC) located in the Minneapolis Institute of Art to hydrate, clean, and flatten the clothing that had been a large clump of fabric. During the course of the project, emails and digital photographs were periodically sent to city staff.

“One of the more fascinating discoveries during the conservation was the intricate floral embroidery on one of the garments,” Runge said.

In addition to the clothing, an assortment of personal possessions, food offerings, Chinese currency, and opium and smoking paraphernalia was found wrapped inside the textiles at the time of discovery by South Dakota archaeologists. The archaeological record of the Feature 17 pit indicate it was excavated by strata: The first stratum was a post-ritual layer consisting of residential trash deposits. Artifacts include construction materials (window glass and nails), cloth and buttons, ceramics and bottle glass, household items (flower pots, oil lamp parts, etc.), and many other materials.

The second stratum was a mixing of the materials from the base of the first stratum and top of the third stratums. Additional artifacts consist of animal hairs and chicken feathers, comb fragments, straight razor, an intact bottle from the Nathan Franklin Palace Pharmacy, and burnt pieces of wood and bark lining the wall of the feature.

Artifacts from the final layer include two Chinese coins, seeds from 13 types of fruits, bone of six animal species, over 100 spent matches, opium smoking paraphernalia (pipe bowls, tube, lamp, possible needle and tray) two Chinese water pipes, much of which was wrapped in a Chinese vest made of black felt with brown textile lining. The wall of this layer was lined with large wood fragments, the majority of which were burnt.

“The material unearthed in Feature 17 is consistent with offerings observed in the ‘shao hua’ ritual,” Runge said. “Ethnographic studies suggest that the Chinese used coins in funerals as talismans to protect the dead, and as symbols of wealth, while the food items were offerings to feed the deceased soul.”

A lack of burn marks on the bone suggests the meat offerings were not cooked. The first food offerings made for the deceased would not have been cooked, thus signifying the distant relationship between the living and the dead.

The opium and tobacco smoking paraphernalia were “unquestionably” the personal possessions of a single individual. The two Chinese water pipes were the only such artifacts found in the excavation of Deadwood’s Chinatown, suggesting they were items of a high-status person. All of the opium paraphernalia were intentionally destroyed before being placed into the pit, an act that is consistent with the ritual.

In all, nearly 6,000 artifacts and ecofacts were distributed among the three stratigraphic layers. Over half comprise the floral/faunal classification, including watermelon seeds, peach, olive, and chokecherry pits, ground cherry seeds, grape pods, and peach skin. Also found were marijuana seeds, acorn fragments, and charcoal. Animal bone included chicken, cow, pig, sheep, and wild turkey.

The classification of personal items make up more than a quarter of the artifacts and include more than 1,000 glass seed beads, buttons from Chinese garments, Chinese clothing items, personal hygiene related items, and tobacco and opium smoking paraphernalia. Other items include pencil and paper fragments, fragments of an ornamental hair comb, fragments of household ceramics (some Chinese manufactured), and wood and glass from a small framed opium bowl container.

“This project is just one of several conservation projects to be funded by the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission and city of Deadwood in recent years,” Runge said. “Upon completion of this project, the clothing and associated artifacts provide a unique glimpse into 19th-century traditional Chinese clothing and mortuary rituals. A detailed account of this project will be featured on Deadwood’s YouTube channel.”

“I think it’s super-cool that the Historic Preservation Commission is allowing us to do projects like these,” Runge added. “They have taken great initiative to preserve the history we have here. How many other communities have anything remotely close to what we have here? It’s more than just stories we’re telling; it’s more about who was here and who these people may have been connected to. We’re helping build the story of the Chinese with much more in-depth detail.”


Information from: Black Hills Pioneer, https://www.bhpioneer.com

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