Archaeology Exhibit in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

Traditional Cooking Pot and Ladle Made by Tirsa Flores Castro

CRITCA worked with state park staff to develop an exhibit that incorporates archaeological materials to explain how food was prepared in San Diego during the time it was a Mexican town. The project included original research by CRITCA on what foods were consumed and how they were prepared. It will be seen by thousands of visitors to the state park.

The goal of the exhibit is to inform and educate the public on what types of food were commonly prepared in Californio household kitchens by using data from the archaeological excavations at the Casa de Bandini (now the Cosmopolitan Hotel). The excavations were conducted as part of a restoration project. The focus is on the foods and their preparation rather than serving and dining. A small exhibit case will hold materials related to Californio food preparation:

–Archaeological examples of brownware cooking vessels from the Casa de Bandini kitchen excavations housed at San Diego Archaeological Center (SDAC)
–Archaeological specimens of butchered cow bone (from the Casa de Bandini kitchen excavations housed at SDAC)
–Period illustrations of people cooking during the Californio period
–Examples of commonly prepared foods:
Pinto beans
Corn (hominy and tortilla)
Sonora wheat (bread and tortilla)
Meat (beef) roasted on a skewer
–Period descriptions and archaeological information about the food that was prepared. For example, that meat was eaten roasted and most foods were prepared in liquid and cooked over an open fire in round-bottomed brownware cooking vessels sitting on stones.
–Period appropriate tools, such as a metal cleaver made by the Old Town blacksmiths

Labor to select the archaeological specimens and provide background research for the exhibit content and text was provided by Dr. Susan Hector and Mr. Michael Sampson, Center for Research in Traditional Cultures of the Americas. This effort included extensive research on historic brownware, foods prepared during the Californio period, and cooking methods.

The building now known as the Cosmopolitan Hotel was originally constructed between 1827 – 1829 by Don Juan Bandini for his family. The Bandini family lived in their single story adobe home for 30 years. The fortunes of the Bandinis declined after California became part of the United States and the building was purchased by Albert Seeley in 1859. He added a second wood frame story and turned the home into a hotel. The hotel operated until its sale in 1887 due to a decline in Seeley’s stagecoach business. The railroad had come to Old Town and big changes were underway in San Diego.

In 2004, the State began developing a plan to rehabilitate the building. Archaeological studies from 2007 – 2010 were part of the proposed work, and many important discoveries were made. Animal bone and pottery were found in what had been the kitchen of the Bandini family home. Analysis and interpretation of these discoveries enabled archaeologists to understand and explain how and what types of foods were prepared for the family. This information, in turn, tells us how people lived in Old Town when it was still part of the nation of Mexico.

Many of the people who lived and worked in Old Town were Natives of the area, representing the Kumeyaay and other tribes. The cooks who worked for the Bandini family were most likely Kumeyaay men and women. They adapted their traditional pottery cooking vessels to prepare a variety of new foods. These meals, which always included beans, were cooked in pots over an open fire, and meat was roasted on skewers and forks. Tortillas, made of corn and flour, were cooked on griddles. Peppers and onions were added to the beans as desired. Occasionally small chunks of leftover meat and bone were included in the stew.

In addition to donated research labor, the Center funded residue analysis on a selection of brownware sherds from the Bandini kitchen (Cosmopolitan Hotel excavations) and the Silvas-McCoy home to identify what types of foods were cooked in Californio kitchens. CRITCA submitted samples to the ethnobotany lab at University of California, Santa Barbara, for analysis. The lab was asked to look for evidence of the foods most commonly cooked in pots.

CRITCA commissioned a traditional style cooking vessel for the exhibit. The cooking pot and ladle were made for the exhibit by Tirsa Flores Castro and donated to State Parks by CRITCA.


We thank our CRITCA donors whose support made this project possible. Funding for this project was also provided by participating individuals and organizations:
Boosters of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park (BOOT)
Daughters of the American Revolution, San Diego Chapter
NWB Environmental Services
ASM Affiliates
Stephen Van Wormer

The project could not have been completed without assistance by:
San Diego Archaeological Center
Tirsa Flores Castro, Santa Catarina, Baja California, Mexico
Special thanks to Mike Wilken for facilitating acquisition of the pot and ladle

And of course thanks to California State Parks staff for encouraging and supporting this project, particularly Amy Lew and Nicole Turner. Your commitment inspires us.

%d bloggers like this: