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08.25.10

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Help Dig Sonoma's Past

By Jonah Raskin


All day long in the sun, he digs, sifts, sorts and wipes the sweat from his brow. Covered in fine dust, George McKale, Sonoma's official historian, wraps up an archeological dig he's led for five days just a half-block from the Sonoma Plaza. And while he's a fan of Indiana Jones, he has found adventure much closer to home than George Lucas' intrepid archeologist. Teenagers, grandparents, schoolteachers, park rangers and Jones-wannabes have joined McKale's mission, and, armed with shovels and handpicks, they've caught the archeological bug that bit him decades ago. His own son, Reed, who's five, is as ecstatic as anyone else on the site; excavating the past with Dad is his idea of a perfect summer vacation.

McKale couldn't be prouder of his son or happier about the relics that have turned up, including 19th-century Native American artifacts. "People come and look around this dry, dusty lot and at first they don't see anything," he says as he takes in the small, humdrum plot of land on Church Street that's now pockmarked with holes. In his hat and sunglasses there's an air of archeological mystery about him. "Folks dig down beneath the surface and discover history right under their own feet," he says.

The small army of amateur archeologists at "the Big Dig," as it's been called, have discovered a veritable treasure trove of Sonoma history: nails, pottery, chipped obsidian, buttons, a door handle, fragments of 19th-century railroad ties, and a woman's wedding ring without its stone that seems to speak a language that appeals to almost everyone who has ever dug for buried gold or dreamed about it.

"It's real fun to find stuff," says 13-year-old Sonoma native Christen Silkey. "In my dreams, I never thought there was so much rich history buried here."

At 63, Nick Tipon is the oldest member of the dig. A member of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and a Santa Rosa teacher for 33 years, he protects sites sacred to Native Americans. "I like exploring the past," he says. "I took classes in archeology and learned the lingo. My tribe wants people to understand that Indian culture was and is more than just an arrowhead or a basket—that a whole society existed here, with culture, morality and stories, not just a few artifacts."

Having completed phase one of the Big Dig, McKale is ready to begin phase two that will catalogue the artifacts that have been unearthed, and write a report about them. "We're looking for volunteers," he said. "We might not get to the bottom of Sonoma, but we'll learn about the Indians, the early Mexican settlers and about the Chinese who lived and worked here too."

Volunteers who want to work with Sonoma historian and archeologist George McKale on phase two of the Big Dig, which begins Aug. 30 and that will probably last six months, can reach him at 707.337.0788 or georgemckale@comcast.net.


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