"The View from a Trench" is kind of a standard title for archaeological papers, but that is all I can offer. I literally went into a trench at 11:00 am at the start of public day and (other than one hasty potty break) did not come out again until 4:00 pm. I have no idea what went on in the other trenches. I have no idea what went on anywhere. For me it was 5 hours of standing in a muddy 30-ft square pit and expounding on my three features to group after group after group. My three features were a robbed-out foundation trench for a Chinese tenement, a wood-lined sewer, and a later trench for a terracotta sewer-pipe.
I talked about the process of exposing feature stains, excavating sections to identify and date them, and I talked about the nature of backyards in the late 19th and early 20th century. I talked about sewer hookups and privies and trash disposal. I talked non-stop for 5 hours. At the end of the day my jaw ached and my lips were numb. I was hungry because I didn't get lunch AT ALL. Did I mention I only got one potty break?
It sounds bad but it wasn't bad. I really didn't notice that I hadn't had lunch, when normally I start citing union rules and labor law if lunch is called 5 minutes late. I can't speak for the audience but the public day was exciting for the archaeologists. The number of people was far more than we anticipated. Far more. It was gratifying and a bit unexpected to see that level of public interest in the archaeology and in the history of Heinlenville and Nihonmachi. I was near the end of the tour, and people still seemed alert and interested. Given that each tour was about 40 minutes and I was waxing eloquent on the significance of sewer pipes and trash pick-up, the visitors may have just been unusually polite. Or maybe they had used our on-site porta-johns and really understood the utility of a fully functioning sewer line. But I think it was more than that.
Sewer lines, porcelain bowls and spoons, a discarded reel of movie film—these are all incredibly mundane. But it is because they are so mundane that they have power. Archaeology is not about great events, famous people, and great architecture and art. It is about regular people getting by the best that they can, often under difficult circumstances. These are things with which most people can empathize. The importance of this site lies not only in the decency of John Heinlen, but in the lives the inhabitants of Heinlenville and Nihonmachi managed to create for themselves, even amidst the looming threat of mob violence and legislative repression.