Q&A: Laura Jones on preserving Stanford’s archaeological sites and historic buildings

Oct. 16, 2018, 2:27 a.m.

Dr. Laura Jones is the Stanford Director of Heritage Services and University Archaeologist. Jones coordinates preservation efforts for areas of the University’s campus, including hundreds of historic buildings and more than 100 campus archaeological sites. She oversaw excavation of the former Men’s Gymnasium — which was destroyed during the Great Earthquake of 1906 — and the transformation of the Old Chemistry Building, among other historical archaeology projects.

In a conversation with The Daily, Jones discussed her approach to archaeology and preservation, the discoveries and transformations she’s seen on Stanford’s campus and the importance of preserving the deep history of the University.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Did your interest in archaeology and historic preservation begin at a young age, or was it something you discovered later at university?

Laura Jones (LJ): I wanted to be an anthropologist from a young age. One of my parent’s friends gave me Margaret Mead’s autobiography “Blackberry Winter” to read when I was in middle school. I was growing up in a fairly homogenous place, Iowa City, and I dreamed of traveling the world and living in exotic places. Looking back at old photos, I was also attracted to digging in the dirt from an even younger age — there are photos of me making mud pies and building cities out of clay on my grandparent’s farm before I even went to kindergarten.

TSD: You studied anthropology at UC San Diego and later again at Stanford University for your doctorate. Is there a particular reason or a project that you worked on that could lend insight on your interest in archaeology in particular?

LJ: I have a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology and did a fairly traditional ethnographic project for my dissertation here at Stanford — I studied with traditional women artists on small islands in French Polynesia. But while I was in grad school [at Stanford] for seven years, I also worked in the museum and on archaeological projects on the campus. Through that work I became connected to the local Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. My training as a cultural anthropologist has influenced my approach to archaeology, which I believe is as much about living communities as it is about the past. I chose to pursue a career in archaeology because the Muwekma Ohlone tribal members encouraged me to do it. They were seeking allies in their efforts to preserve sacred sites in the Bay Area and to control the treatment of their ancestors.

TSD: Could you speak a little more on what working with the Ohlone tribe looked like, and whether this experience influenced the way you approach your job as University Archaeologist at Stanford?

LJ: When I graduated in 1990, I was hired by the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe to work with them moving cemetery sites. They wanted to take control over the treatment of the graves of their ancestors, and sympathetic local governments were willing to give them that level of control if they had a qualified archaeologist on their team. This meant salvage excavation of human graves, and the reburial of those human remains at new, permanently-protected locations. In seven years at Stanford I may have seen a half dozen human graves; in three years of working for the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe we moved more than 400 of their ancestors. It was an honor to assist them in this sacred duty but also physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausting. I came back to Stanford in 1994 to work in the Campus Planning Office because I believed that preservation of sacred sites can only happen when those resources are identified as early as possible in the planning process.

TSD: Your work in Stanford’s Land, Buildings and Real Estate organization is very compelling. From what it seems, you’ve had to work a lot in the pretty difficult conjunction where preservation of historically important sites meets the university’s mission to continue improving its campus. Is there anything else that you have worked on more recently that has posed a similar challenge?

LJ: I celebrate the successes — I really love how Kingscote [Gardens] has been transformed, for example. What was once a private and secret sort of hideaway has opened its arms to the Stanford community in a lovely way. Personally, even though some people didn’t like it, I thought Meyer Library was a beautiful building. [There was an] amazing play of light and shadows on a sunny day, and even more interesting in the rain … But the campus cannot be a museum of buildings — they have to serve the academic mission — and a tower of book stacks with major structural problems just wasn’t important enough to save. So I’ve learned how to document what was important about a building while assisting the university in taking it down. And to my surprise, I like the landscape that replaced Meyer Library very much. It felt like a hole in the campus and then I let myself approach it and watch people enjoying it, and now I’m able to see that as a success as well. I give advice on which buildings and sites are historically important, and I know that advice is taken seriously and weighed with all the other factors that lead to a decision by people who have harder jobs than mine.  

TSD: Are there any particular moments in your career that you are proud of? Any specific sites that you are happy to have a hand in preserving?

LJ: In the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake — [during which] Stanford suffered more than $150 million in damage — there were many times when the costs looked too high to bear. I was on the team that negotiated the treatment of historic buildings so we could get some funding from FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]. Every time I walk through the Cantor Center and [the] Old Chem [building], I see the secret scars of 1906 and 1989 and am happy we were able to save them.

Of course, I’m happy that we’ve been able to protect so many archaeological sites as well, but that seems a greater challenge somehow. They are hidden beneath the ground in a place where land is worth obscene amounts of money. Stanford’s archaeological sites become even more important as other sites are destroyed every day in the Bay Area. Many of these sites are thousands of years old, and that I’ve been able to help protect them for 25 years seems like a small achievement. But it gives me hope that some of them will survive another thousand years.

TSD: Do you have any favorite excavation sites on [the] Stanford campus?

LJ: There are some ancestral Muwekma Ohlone sites at Jasper Ridge that have a sort of purity about them that I treasure: quiet, dignified, beautiful and alive. It’s hard to have that quality without the kind of careful management that Jasper Ridge is able to provide.

TSD: What about a favorite building?

LJ: I can’t choose one building. Every building has a story worth exploring. And it’s all tied up in memories for me, too. The smell of the books in the West Stacks of Green Library takes me back to my grad student years. I love the little corners that haven’t changed, like the book stacks, and the food court at Tresidder Union and the fountains.  

TSD: The Stanford University Archaeology Collections at the Cantor Center are really amazing. Do you have any favorite exhibitions or pieces, or suggestions for students to look for and learn more about?

LJ: Sometimes I like to go over and read the labels and see how many “gifts of Jane Stanford” I can find. The museum was Jane Stanford’s special project, and I am amazed by the scale of her ambition and her achievements. She also bought a lot of looted artifacts, and that’s something to reflect on — it’s an epic story with tentacles all over the world, and a lot of it is still untold. Thousands of objects, each with a story. I actually find it so overwhelming that I usually just find one charismatic object and sit with it quietly for a while, think about the hands that made it and the journey that brought it here.

TSD: In February of last year you were involved with the excavation of an old county jail that was discovered on campus, west of Page Mill Road. Do you have any updates on the site, whether it has been reburied in order to remain preserved, or if it has met another fate?

LJ: The old jail site has been preserved in place. It lies within a conservation easement created as part of Stanford’s Habitat Conservation Plan, so the only real threat to it is nature. It lies very close to the bank of Matadero Creek and could be damaged in the future in heavy storms. But it has survived for over a century, so we’re not worried about it at this point.

TSD: There is a class you teach — Archaeological Field Survey Methods — in spring quarter; will you be teaching it again next year? Is there anything interesting that you have discovered with your students?

LJ: I expect to teach [it] again in the spring, continuing [our class’s] work on the Asian American Heritage Sites survey. Our classes find and record new archaeological sites almost every year. We found the jail site in 2015 and an important Chinese immigrant labor site in 2016. There are sites we’re still looking for, of course, so I think I can keep doing the class for at least another ten years.

TSD: Is there any project you are currently working on that you can share details on?

LJ: I’m working with the Stanford Historical Society on a series of events commemorating the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. I was really inspired by the work of the Chinese Railroad Workers Project, and that launched both the Asian American Heritage Sites survey we’re doing and the events to mark the 150th anniversary of the completion of the railroad. Without the railroad, and the people who built it, there would be no Stanford University, so the Stanford Historical Society [SHS] is working with partners to examine that legacy in new ways. There will be details on the SHS website.

TSD: Lastly, is there anything that you would describe as the most surprising thing you have learned about the Stanford campus over the years?

LJ: I am frequently surprised by discoveries at places I’ve walked over 100 times. The ruin of the Men’s Gymnasium [dug up for Bing Concert Hall] was there right next to Palm Drive, and until I looked for it, I had no idea. We’re reviewing collections from excavations we did in the 1980s and ’90s, looking for signs of Asian Americans and finding them — just asking different questions brings out surprises.  


This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.


Contact Elena Shao at eshao98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.


Elena Shao '21 is from Suwanee, Georgia. At The Daily, she is a Managing Editor for News. Outside, she's studying political science. She also enjoys learning foreign languages and is hoping to pursue a career as an investigative and data journalist. Contact her at eshao98 'at' stanford.edu.

Login or create an account