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Unearthing the Long-Buried Whaley House Cistern

By Dean Glass

Dr. Seth Mallios discusses the excavation with visitors to the Whaley House Complex.

The team excavated the east half of the feature to a depth of 5 feet, and exposed an old brick path that was sealed by a more modern flower bed (top left corner).

Over 1,000 cumulative hours of fieldwork resulted in the recovery of over 30,000 artifacts, some of which date to the late 19th century. Pictured are Scott Mattingly and Hillary Sweeney.

Excavators troweled and shoveled each layer into buckets and screened 100% of the fill through 1/8" steel mesh. They saved all cultural material, then poured all of the screened soil into sandbags which were stored at the site.

In the summer of 2007 Dr. Seth Mallios, Anthropology professor at San Diego State University, brought a team of student and professional archaeologists to the Whaley House Museum to excavate the Whaley's long-buried rainwater cistern. A rainwater cistern is a receptacle for storing rainwater, in this case through a drainpipe from the roof of the Whaley House, as opposed to a well, which captures groundwater. Since the August 22, 1885 issue of the San Diego Sun referred to the structure as a "deep well," Dr. Mallios believes that the Whaley cistern did both.

The cistern played an important part in the dark history of the Whaley House, when Thomas Whaley's daughter Violet attempted suicide by jumping into it: "On July 5th, I was harnessing my horse and heard a scream, issuing from the cistern. Went there and found Violet holding to the pipe. Asked if she could hold on. She said yes. I ran to the house and told my wife Violet had jumped into the cistern."1 Although this suicide attempt was unsuccessful, on August 19, 1885 Violet Whaley fatally shot herself with her father's 32-calibre Smith & Wesson pistol in the backyard privy.

The location of the Whaley cistern was pinpointed using Thomas Whaley's 1872 map of the property in which the cistern was indicated by a circle inside of a square approximately 20' behind the house, and a slight sunken circular indentation in the brick walkway in the same location.

After twelve weeks of digging and over 1,000 cumulative hours of fieldwork, Dr. Mallios and his crew from SDSU's South Coastal Information Center, David Caterino, Destiny Larberg, Jaime Lennox, Scott Mattingly, and Hillary Sweeney, unearthed more than 30,000 artifacts including numerous complete bottles, pottery, animal bones, architectural debris, and tools, some dating to the late 19th century. Dr. Mallios's complete report on the 2007 dig as well as photographs is available in its entirety at, under What's New.

With its central location, public access, and rich history, the Whaley House site could become one of the primier programs for urban archaeology in the country." - Dr. Seth Mallios

Dr. Mallios and his team will be back in the summer of 2008, beginning the third week in July, to continue excavating the cistern. You will be able to watch the dig as it progresses via streaming media at Dr. Mallios believes that "with its central location, public access, and rich history, the Whaley House site could become one of the premier programs for urban archaeology in the country. It has remarkable potential for annual summer field schools and year-round research and teaching programs." When the excavation is complete, the cistern will be reconstructed as part of the ongoing restoration of the Whaley House and grounds.

Editor's note: This second year of excavation requires much more time and effort now that the extent of the project is known. In order to continue this important work, SOHO will be raising funds to help with some of the expenses. The University's program is donating thousands of hours and we are asking for donations to help us reach the goal of $5,000.

1Thomas Whaley, quoted in The San Diego Union, August 20, 1885.

2008 - Volume 39, Issue 1/2


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From the Editor

The Balboa Theatre - Anatomy of a Restoration
The Balboa Theatre - An 18-year redevelopment battle

Survivors of San Diego's Theatrical Past

Professional Theater Comes to San Diego

Googie: An Architectural Link to San Diego's Midcentury Culture

North Park's Neon

A General Plan of Destruction

Unearthing Long-Buried Whaley House Cistern

Preservation Community


Lost San Diego

Strength in Numbers

Donations 2007-2008


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