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College Is Short on Space for Mission History

Cal State Monterey Bay has no permanent home for findings from digs at two Spanish churches dating to the 1700s.

November 23, 2003|Irwin Speizer | Special to The Times

MONTEREY, Calif. — One day last month, Ruben Mendoza, an archeology professor at Cal State Monterey Bay, flipped the light switch in the former Army mail and recreation building that he uses to store thousands of artifacts from two Spanish missions.

Nothing happened.

The university cut electricity to the one-story building after a transformer blew, deciding that the entire circuit was too decayed to warrant repairs any time soon. That left Mendoza and his mission collection in the dark and surrounded by abandoned, three-story former Army dormitories, all ripe for vandalism.

Since he and his students started digging eight years ago, Mendoza has moved six times in his quest for space to house the thousands of bags and boxes of tiles, bricks, bones and other artifacts collected from Mission San Juan Bautista and Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel. This month, he got notice of move No. 7, to yet another old former Army building on campus.

"These are the first collections of their kind for these two missions," Mendoza said. "I've created a scientific collection that could be studied for years. But how long can I continue to do this before I find it necessary to rebury it all?"

The university and the Catholic Diocese of Monterey say Mendoza is doing important work in historical research and student instruction. But finding a permanent home for even a unique collection of historical artifacts is a struggle at the college, a campus carved out of the former Ft. Ord base in 1995.

The abandoned Army buildings scattered around the 1,365-acre campus have many structural and safety problems, including lead paint and asbestos.

"Space is really hard to come by on this campus," said Barbara Mossberg, dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, which includes Mendoza's archeology program.

As Mossberg tells it, the faculty is in a constant scramble to find room for its rapidly expanding student body, now at more than 3,600. Mendoza, she says, always has been one of the more creative faculty members -- landing grants for his digs and finding overlooked buildings to use for labs and storage.

But George Baldwin, chairman of the Division of Social, Behavioral and Global Studies, which includes the archeology department, says not all faculty members and academic sections are treated equally.

Money for operations is doled out according to a formula involving what is called full-time equivalent students, Baldwin said. Divisions with classes that attract a hundred students or more get more financial resources, he says. Mendoza's classes typically run 15 to 18 students.

"Our archeology program is always going to be one of the smallest groups of students on campus -- a small group providing remarkable service to the community," Baldwin said.

Mendoza says he suspects that his outspoken campus activism -- he has gotten involved in several faculty disputes over the years -- also may work against him.

University spokeswoman Holly White says the school holds no grudge against Mendoza, and in fact holds him in high esteem. "The university is very interested in supporting him," White said. "It is a question of how we do that. The problem we have is that we have an enormous amount of space and not a lot of it we can use without retrofitting."

Mendoza continues to dig, along with his students, and has won grants for high-tech equipment. Currently, he is excavating beside one wall of the Carmel mission; he believes he has found the entrance to a long-lost wine cellar from about 200 years ago. He has surveyed the area with ground-penetrating radar to map the likely site.

Each day of the dig, he and his students enter their findings into portable computer tablets hooked to an on-site wireless network complete with a portable satellite dish, which beams the information to a Web site (archaeology.csumb.edu/wireless), all made possible through another grant. Last week, he came upon a bayonet he believes may have belonged to one of the men commanded by Col. John C. Fremont, who arrived in 1846.

Most of what Mendoza collects are building materials used in the old missions and bones from animals slaughtered for meat. Each item is tagged and bagged, then cataloged and stored in whatever campus building he can find.

"I have given up the idea of hoping for anything better," Mendoza said. "I just want to make sure that, when we move, the collections are not moved haphazardly."

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