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Potter's Field Excavation and Artifacts


SANTA CLARA COUNTY, CALIF.--A wool jacket, a clay smoking pipe, various pocket knives and spectacles are just some of the artifacts uncovered during the excavation of the potter’s field on the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center campus. Unfortunately, no identifying marks or information has been found on the coffins or with the individuals buried in the potter’s field.

In addition to personal items, medical items have also been excavated from the site. Because the ability to sanitize syringes and other medical items was not as effective as it is today, it was a common practice to bury these kinds of items or simply throw them away.

As of June 11, 2013, a total of 631 remains have been excavated from the construction site. The majority of those buried in the potter’s field are men, ranging from the age of 23 years to those in their 60s. Women have been identified but they are a small percentage of the population. An even smaller percentage of the remains have been adolescents and infants.

The redwood coffins that have been excavated are of simple construction. Some have been found with handles and others with additional hardware or decorations. The majority of coffins have been hexagonal in shape, which suggests they were buried in the late 1800s through the 1920s. Rectangular coffins have also been uncovered and are considered the successor to the hexagonal shape.

Some remains have not been preserved well enough for age or sex analysis or testing. The teams and laboratory testing have been able to determine that a number of individuals died of syphilis and other infections. Many of those buried had amputations and may have died from complications of diabetes.smoking pipe

The excavation has been conducted by the Archaeology Division of URS and D&D Osteological Services. The excavation process begins with isolating each coffin and/or set of remains. Each coffin and/or remains is numbered. A team made up of an Osteologist and an Archeologist is assigned to each coffin.

Osteologists are trained in the study of bones, including the structure of bones, skeletal elements, teeth, disease, pathology, and ossification. Depending on the condition of the bones, Osteologists may be able to identify remains with regard to age, death, sex, growth, and development. Archaeologists scientifically study past human cultures and the wool jacketway people lived, based on the things they left behind. This study includes the recovery and analysis of artifacts, which are objects made, used, or changed by humans.

Once the lid of the coffin has been removed, the excavation takes place within the coffin. The skeleton is isolated and removed, as are any items around the remains. The removed bones are wrapped in paper, placed in a bag and archival boxes, and sent to San Francisco State University’s Bio-Anthropology Laboratory for tests and further analysis.

The area being worked now is expected to be completed in August. The remainder of the Services Building construction site should be excavated by the end of 2013. The remainder of coffins and remains on the property will be left in their current resting place.

Background:artifact display
A potter’s field, a graveyard reserved for burial of persons that were indigent, unknown or unclaimed, was discovered on the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center Campus in San Jose. The graveyard dates from between 1875 and 1935. The coffins were discovered in February when construction crews did grading work for the site. In a map dated 1932, the cemetery is marked; but on a later map dated 1958 there was no cemetery identified. By 1966, there was an employee parking lot on top of most of the cemetery. Initially, 15 coffins were unearthed.

While the County has some records of County hospital deaths from 1925 to 1940, the records do not indicate who may be buried in the SCVMC potter’s field or in the particular coffins that are being moved for current construction.

A potter's field is a term for a place of burial of unknown or indigent people. The County is addressing the disposition of unclaimed and unidentified remains through the Coroner’s procedure. This procedure includes cremation and holding of the ashes for a period of 30 days so that any relatives/heirs who desire to do so can claim ashes.


Potter's Field Excavation


Media Contact: Joy Alexiou, Santa Clara Valley Health & Hospital System, 408.885.4164,

Posted: June 13, 2013