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Archaeology students get a glimpse of history under Virginia City’s former St. Mary Louise Hospital.
Photo: Adam Robertson
A square hole in the ground may not seem all that interesting to most people, but to archaeologists and anthropologists it can be a window to a bygone era. A team of anthropology students has been looking through such windows to find a piece of lost and forgotten history of Virginia City.
The team, led by Sarah Cowie, an instructor at the University of Nevada, Reno and field director of the project, is engaged in a project to excavate around the former St. Mary Louise Hospital, now the St. Mary’s Art and Retreat Center.
They are trying to find clues about the Daughters of Charity—who founded the hospital in 1875—and information about who they were and what they were like. “People don’t really write down a lot of the details of daily life,” Cowie says. “What people were eating, [or] what kinds of clothing people were wearing, [etc.].”
The excavation is part of a larger series of university field projects, done in various locations throughout Virginia City, by UNR’s College of Liberal Arts and the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office. Since 1990, the college has worked with the preservation office on excavations at Piper’s Opera House, an African-American saloon, and the residents of Cornish Row. Wherever they are, the projects are extremely valuable in preserving Nevada’s history.
“[The hospital] site has enormous potential to answer questions about health care, gender roles, ethnicity, and religion in the West,” Cowie says. The St. Mary Louise Hospital began construction in 1875 and opened in 1876 as a Catholic hospital operated by the Daughters of Charity. The Daughters ran it until 1897, when the county took over. A fire on the hospital’s top floor forced it to close in the 1940s. The structure started its new life as the St. Mary’s Art Center in 1964 following extensive renovations.
According to Katherine Kindorf, an undergraduate from UNR who is working on the project, the dig has provided students with practical experience in teamwork, public relations, digging for artifacts, screening dirt, the proper handling of artifacts, and the ethics of such a dig. The excavation of the hospital started July 16 and concluded August 16, when the students and supervisors began analyzing the artifacts to discern their ages, compositions, and relevance to history.