Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, August 16, 1999

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Archaeologist Kehaulani Souza shows the bottles
and fragments of plates at the dig location.

Downtown digs

Archaeologists get down and
dirty at Beretania Street and
Pali Highway, scooping up a
treasure trove of history

By Burl Burlingame


NO city is built in a day, although some may look like it. Honolulu was accreted, strata by strata, into its present form. If you slice into it like a layer cake, the past is uncovered.

But all those buildings and asphalt are in the way. Which is why it's fun to take a look at Honolulu history whenever things get dug up, as they were recently on the corner of Pali and Beretania.

A City parking lot for the last half-century, the parcel is being transformed into the home of a two-tower, 30-story apartment complex. And they're digging down as well, with five stories of underground parking, one of the deepest pits ever dug downtown.

Star-Bulletin File photo
A view of Beretania Street from Bishop Street taken in 1959.
The upper right side of the picture shows the area which is being
excavated once more in preparation for a 30-story
apartment complex.

A team of scientists from Cultural Surveys Hawaii have been studying the site. Archaeologist Matt McDermott explained a preliminary "inventory" survey was conducted in 1983, with holes bored into the ground looking for prehistoric artifacts. Virtually nothing turned up, indicating the area was little-used by pre-contact Hawaiians.

This spring, 12 40-foot trenches were dug with a backhoe, revealing the foundations of 19th-century structures identified as the Hee Fat family house, the French consulate inhabited by the Dudoit family and the Chinese YMCA.

Recent excavations focused on the building foundations. "The main thing we find is trash pits," said McDermott. "Broken bottles, rusted metal, pieces of cut bone -- here, this looks like a pig jaw, hey? -- your basic household 'midden,' or compacted trash layers."

More useful are the deeply dug toilets, because items were not only thrown away in them, some simply dropped in, never to be recovered. Until 1999.

"The white layers might be what's left of the lime, used on the waste material," pointed out McDermott. And in case you're wondering, deposits of No. 1 and No. 2 evaporated or decomposed a century ago, not even leaving an odor. All that's left is dirt and trash.

"We found things like plastic combs, a tiny gold cameo, a corroded old coin about the size of an Indian-head dime."

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Colleen Medeiros prepares to photograph old coral foundations.

The introduction of trash disposal and sewerage to municipal life brought an abrupt halt to such middens.

There's also a black layer, which is useful for absolute dating. "Tantalus blew up something like six- or seven-thousand years ago, covering most of Honolulu with this black, sugar-loaf cinder material," said McDermott. "When you hit this layer, you know you're predating even the ancient Hawaiians."

The cinder layer is only a couple of feet down at this site.

One set of foundations is made of hollow tile, the kind we think of as cinder-block, which is essentially a 20th-century invention. "Whatever it was, it supported a substantial structure," said McDermott.

What is believed to be the Dudoit home was built in 1842, where the French consul lived until he was murdered by his Chinese cook in the 1860s. The house was purchased by the Dickinson family and modified thereafter.

Nearby is a small foundation lined with rough-hewn coral blocks, perhaps liberated when the Honolulu fort was demolished in the mid-1800s.

"These are typical of construction in Honolulu during that period, but what was this?" wondered McDermott. "Too small for a house, too well-constructed for a privy. Maybe a wash house."

"It's a wonderful privy, if that's what it is," said Cultural Surveys trail boss Hallett Hammatt. "We generally find two styles of privies; high-class and standard."

Faded strips of 35mm film litter the soil as well. "Maybe there was a developing lab here during the war?" shrugged McDermott.

The asphalt parking lot has another layer of asphalt below it, indicating that parking was a time-honored tradition at the site. "There was supposedly a reservoir in this area, but nothing turned up that resembles one," said McDermott.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Archaeologist Mary Perzinski examines the ancient cinder layer,
probably from a Tantalus volcanic eruption.

There are no real signs of prehistoric activity, either. "We found an adze and the top of a poi pounder," said Hammatt. "That's it."

Excavated dirt is sifted, and mammal and bird bones are collected and weighed, creating another link in the data chain of the old Hawaiian biologic environment.

Such excavations have to be conducted quickly, in part because of developers itching to get started on building, and also because of bottle hunters sneaking onto the site in the dark of night. The bottle collectors feverishly rip through carefully excavated archaeological sites, destroying historic context in search for that old opium bottle.

Not only is archaeological data lost, the bottle hunters put themselves in danger. "Look at this," said McDermott, showing a tunnel crudely dug into the side of a slit trench.

"It could have collapsed on them. We'd have come here in the morning and just found his legs sticking out. Someday a bottle hunter is going to seriously hurt himself."

For the time being, the excavated dirt has been pushed back into the holes. Soon, giant earth-moving machinery will begin scooping out mountains of soil and rock.

Will there be an archaeologist watching, just in case something turns up?

"That would be ideal, but the fact of the matter is, in that situation the soil is dug up so fast you can't keep track," said McDermott. "That's why we do it carefully, ahead of time."

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