University of Nevada, Reno archeologist to lead Virginia City hospital excavation

St. Mary Louise Hospital served mining community until the early 20th century

7/18/2012 - By: Claudene Wharton
Garter clasp This garter clasp from Virginia City's Barbary Coast, circa 1880, emerged from an earlier University of Nevada, Reno field school in archeology. It is typical of the gender-related artifacts that point to a diverse, vibrant community in Virginia City at that time.

The University of Nevada, Reno, in cooperation with the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office, is sending a team of archaeologists to excavate the site of one of Nevada's most important early hospitals. St. Mary Louise Hospital in Virginia City opened in 1876 and served the mining community until the early 20th century.

Sarah Cowie, assistant professor of anthropology in the University's College of Liberal Arts, will direct the excavation, which is part of a summer field school in archeology. Cowie's team consists of 12 undergraduate students, three graduate student field supervisors and volunteers.

"This site has enormous potential to answer questions about health care, gender roles, ethnicity and religion in the West," Cowie said.

The Daughters of Charity opened the hospital as a Catholic facility, although the institution accepted patrons of any faith. They wore a distinctive habit with a starched cornette on the head, made famous in the late-1960s television show, "The Flying Nun." The order had an active vocation that sought to administer to people in need. Opening an orphanage and school, and then operating a hospital in what was a remote mining community, fit nicely with the mission of the Daughters.

The excavation of the St. Mary Louise Hospital grounds continues a tradition dating back to 1990 of University of Nevada, Reno archaeologists working with support from the Historic Preservation Office and the Comstock Historic District Commission to examine resources in Virginia City. Previous excavations included work at Piper's Opera House, an African American saloon, Chinatown and a residential neighborhood known as Cornish Row. The discoveries of the archaeologists have been made available to the public through tours, exhibits, websites, lectures and publications.

"I am pleased to see another season of archaeology unfold within the Virginia City Historic Landmark District," said Ron James, state historic preservation officer. "This program has been extremely popular, and it has contributed indispensable information about Nevada's earliest past."

The State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service provided funding for the dig at the St. Mary Louise Hospital excavation site, located at the current St. Mary's Art and Retreat Center, 55 R St., Virginia City. The public is welcome to visit the site while the team is working there, Mondays through Fridays, 9:30 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3 p.m. They expect to conclude their work Aug.15.

Artifacts from the project will be brought back to the University's Historical Archeology Lab, where they will be analyzed, cleaned, conserved and entered into a database. Within about a year, they will be curated at the University's Anthropology Research Museum, located in Room 528 of the University's Ansari Business Building. The Museum places select items on exhibit and is open to the public. The Anthropology Department, (775) 784-6704, can provide information on current exhibits and Museum hours.


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