Monday, December 12, 2011

Saloon Archaeology Museum in Reno

tickets from Piper's Opera House
On the fifth floor of the Ansari Business Building at the University of Nevada's Reno campus is a gem of a museum, currently showing a fascinating exhibition of Western Archaeology. The University of Nevada, Reno Anthropology Research Museum is part of the Anthropology Department. At the time of writing (December 2011) the exhibition called Archaeology of the Mining West features artifacts from saloon digs at Virginia City, the Silver Boom town featured in the 1960s TV show Bonanza and now in my new Western Mysteries series of books for kids aged 9+. (There is also a small case of items from one of the excavations of the ill-fated Donner Party, where pioneers had to resort to cannibalism to survive.)

Jessica Axsom with pictures of a dig
I first heard about the museum from Dr. Jessica Axsom (left), an archaeologist at the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office in Carson City. Every morning for a week in November of 2011, Jessica gave me access to their little reading room so I could do research. On the last day she showed me a whole box of artifacts from Battle Mountain, (where my great-grandmother Corinne Prince was born in the 1870s.) Jessica also showed me pictures of her dig in the Chinatown area of Virginia City, where my books are set. She didn't have any artifacts from Virginia City, but she told me I could see some at the small Anthropology museum in Reno.

Ansari Business Building
Jessica told me to ask for Sarah Heffner, a graduate student in charge of the Virginia City exhibition. A few hours before we were due to fly out of Reno, my sister and husband and I drove to the impressive campus, found the Ansari Business Building and went up to the 5th floor. We were lucky enough to ride up in the elevator with someone who knew Sarah and she kindly took us to the museum. Serendipity: Sarah was there! The museum is literally one room with about half a dozen cases and a research room tucked behind. It is manned by graduate students like Sarah, a "Museum Technician", and volunteers like Robert. (The exhibit itself was designed by a Museum Training for Anthropologists class.)

Sarah Heffner, Caroline & volunteer Robert

antique bottles
A glass case explained that Dr. Donald Hardesty is the recently retired professor of archaeology who was responsible for excavating sites of the Pony Express, the Donner Party and various saloons in Virginia City. In the four or five cases devoted to artefacts found in his digs, I was thrilled to see items from various saloons around Virginia City. The Boston Saloon is particularly fascinating because it is the first African-American Saloon ever excavated. As Dr. Hardesty says, "Archaeology is another way of travelling into the past." Entering the Boston Saloon you might have seen a gaslit space filled with pipe smoke, the smell of lamb chops and fine wine, and the sound of trombone music above the babble of happy voices. (To find out how they deduced this, have a look at this 2-part film clip.)

cases in the small museum

Also on display were artifacts found on the site of Piper's Corner Bar, (later Piper's Opera House), the Hibernia Brewery and O'Brien & Costello's Shooting Gallery & Saloon. It was thrilling to see tickets from the Opera House, poker chips charred by Virginia City's great fire of 1875 and gun shells from beneath the saloon shooting-gallery. There was even evidence of children found in some of the saloons: marbles and a doll's arm! Yes, Virginia City was a wild place, even for kids.

toys from Piper's Opera House Saloon

Artifacts from saloons included bottles, bungs, white and red clay pipes, dice, animal bones, oyster shells, buttons, bullets, coins and even a tooth powder box. A water filter made in London and a glazed earthenware spittoon were represented by photos. There was also a case devoted to the Chinese population of Virginia City, (Sarah Heffner's special subject), including Chinese coins, pottery, tiny medicine bottles, a bone toothbrush and an opium pipe. It was a delightful half hour travelling back in the past. If you have any interest in the archaeology of the Wild West – or Virginia City – and find yourself on the Reno campus, I urge you to go along to the University of Nevada, Reno Anthropology Research Museum. Just tell them Caroline Lawrence sent you!

P.S. You can see more about Saloon Archaeology HERE and you can find out about the Western Mysteries HERE.

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