Claire Sammons looks at a shard of glass in the sunlight
Trash to Treasure
Anthropology students discover that the surface is sometimes as deep as they need to dig
San Antonio, 2021

Carter Nicol ’25 leaves class with a heavy sigh. He’s pretty sure he just bombed a test, and he needs a place to relax and reset. He finds a quiet, shaded spot to walk and think, occasionally kicking at the dirt along the way.

When his foot meets a piece of ceramic, he sends it sailing forward a few yards. Crouching down on the path in front of him, Nicol wonders what the ceramic was and where it came from. He searches, dusts off another piece, and then another. Before he knows it, an entire pile of pottery has emerged.

More excited than confused, Nicol races back to the residence halls. He can’t wait to tell his girlfriend what he found.

North America, Mesazoic Era

Toward the end of the Cretaceous period, limestone deposits form while the San Antonio and Central Texas areas sit at the bottom of a shallow sea. Fast forward 70 to 80 million years, and this becomes rather relevant to Trinity’s campus setting.

Mexico, 1740

Acting for the King of Spain, Don Juan Antonio Perez de Almazan, alcade, grants the estate of Villa de San Fernando to the City of Bexar. This 8-league tract (about 28 square miles) encompassed much of what today is downtown San Antonio, and its northward expansion included parts of present-day Brackenridge Park and the southern portions of Trinity’s current campus.

Editor's Note: Long before the king granted this colonized land, and long before the Spanish settlements existed, the native Payaya peoples were its stewards. A group of Trinity students is working to ensure a voice for Indigenous peoples native to the San Antonio area, and you can read more about their work.

San Antonio, 1869

Limestone quarrying rises as a major industry, and quarry rights are being granted to the highest bidders. In addition to mortars, plasters, and other building materials, limestone is now a key ingredient in Portland cement, which will become the most common type of cement in general use around the world. Soon, Alamo Cement Company will be given sole rights to quarry the land on which Trinity University’s campus currently sits; the quarrying leaves permanent scarring and indentation on the land’s façade.

Tehuacana, 1869

Following the demise of three small Presbyterian colleges left decimated by the Civil War, a group of Cumberland Presbyterian ministers, who valued both experiential religion and higher education, sought to establish a “University of the Highest Order.” Trinity University, nestled serenely in the bucolic hills of Limestone County, opened its doors to five faculty members and seven students on Sept. 23, 1869.

San Antonio, 1908

The aforementioned limestone quarry is abandoned, and the City of San Antonio now holds a 193-acre tract of land bound on the north by Hildebrand Avenue, on the east by Brackenridge Park, on the south by Mulberry Avenue, and on the west by Shook Avenue.

Although the land is neglected, it is not void of human contact. With cleared and relatively smooth terrain, the abandoned quarry is the perfect locale for livestock shows. Roads running through the land become a popular place to escape watchful parental eyes, and a road on the north side of the property is dubbed “Lover’s Lane.” Eventually, a makeshift baseball diamond becomes semipermanent and draws large crowds on Sunday afternoons.

But perhaps the most high-traffic usage of a portion of this land is for a municipal garbage dump.

Described by the San Antonio Light as “an 80-acre dump heap perched on the hills above Brackenridge Park, with a magnificent view of San Antonio’s skyline,” the dumpsite becomes a repository for city trash. In addition to the typical trash in a municipal dump, the site also receives a significant amount of building and road construction debris. Its contents are profoundly affected by disastrous floods in 1913 and 1921. Burning happens frequently.

Despite the endless piles of trash, plans for a high school stadium in the area are being discussed, as well as beautification projects for the defunct quarry. Three decades later, Alamo Stadium will be erected, but the remainder of the quarry will lay neglected.

Waxahachie, 1941

Trinity University, having relocated to Waxahachie in 1902 after financial troubles in Tehuacana, is facing yet another tumultuous series of events and is again turning to relocation as a solution to its problems. On Dec. 8, 1941, Trinity accepts an invitation from the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce to establish a strong Protestant institution of higher learning in its city.

San Antonio, 1944

As Trinity University seeks to construct its permanent home in the Alamo City, its Trustees are hoping to acquire city property. On Nov. 2, 1944, the City of San Antonio trades 100 acres of the original Villa de San Fernando land grant (see Mexico, 1740) to Trinity University for 55 lots of its campus on Woodlawn Avenue. This land acquisition—an unlevel site partially home to an abandoned quarry, organic remnants of livestock grounds, and a municipal dump—and the additional purchase of city land northeast of the original tract make up the University’s Skyline Campus.

San Antonio, 1998

Fast-forward 50 years, and anthropology professor Mary Van Buren, Ph.D., wonders if her students know that Trinity Hill used to be a barren, rocky wasteland and a haphazard municipal dump. It’s late March, and the dense canopy of oak trees is deep green, the mountain laurels fill the air with their purple perfume, and the Bridgeport pink bricks look red-gold in the morning sun.

Van Buren takes students from her “Historical Archaeology” course to the site of the old dump; save errant candy wrappers and soda cans, trash has not been collected at this site for more than four decades. Using a map drawn by Trinity students 10 years prior, Van Buren and her students begin a systematic survey of the site and a surface collection of its artifacts.

For three days, student teams collect treasures from the trash. The resulting artifact assemblages contain ceramic, glass, metal, plastic, and organic materials; however, the teams determine that the scarcity of artifacts does not warrant any further surface collection. They conclude that, without a major geological or weather event to disrupt the current surface, the site will not yield any additional significant material that will contribute to the archaeological record of the area, and they wrap up their findings in a series of reports.

That's it⁠—right? 

San Antonio, 2022

Claire Sammons ’24 has a twinkle in her eye before she begins speaking—and no, it’s not from the reflection of the spring sunlight on the glass fragments beneath her boots. “It really is a beautiful day to be out here,” she says with a smile, stooping to pick up the broken neck of a sky-blue glass bottle. “When we find things like this, we’re looking for a pattern, an inscription, a maker’s mark—anything that would give us a clue to what the bottle would have been used for or where it would have come from.”

Together, parts and pieces of glass and ceramic artifacts help paint a larger picture of what items may have been dumped over the past century by the City of San Antonio and its residents.

She drops the bottle neck into a thick plastic bag and looks down at the ground again. No less than a dozen of these plastic bags sit atop a 2-by-2-meter area of land, and several hands are contributing to them. Classmate Olivia Cox ’23 is dusting off the handle of a broken ceramic tea cup; plink, it gets dropped into a bag. Anthropology professor Jen Mathews is admiring a nearly intact brick, branded with a maker’s mark; thump, it gets dropped into another bag. With melodious musicality and upbeat tempo, patterns, textures, and materials plink, thump, and clank into plastic bags for more than an hour on this brisk afternoon.

When Sammons shares how she found herself here, she laughs. “My boyfriend dragged me up here after he was blowing off some steam from a bad test,” she says. “When I saw what he’d found, I started freaking out. I kept saying, ‘We need to go get Dr. Mathews!’ So we just went to her office and dragged her out here, too.”

Sammons has been interested in archaeology for as long as she can remember, but never imagined she’d find herself doing hands-on excavation as a college sophomore, much less on her own college campus. The just-declared anthropology major from Spring, Texas, recalls being enamored with historical sites while on family vacations over the years. Now, she’s scouring the surface of the campus she calls home, eager to explore remnants of the past that have turned up in her own backyard.

Plink, thump, clank—and then, an exclamation: “Look! This piece has a date stamped on the bottom!” The plink with which this piece is set in the bag is a bit softer and more delicate.

Fully intact artifacts were rare finds during the surface collection, but occasionally a gem shone through the dirt.

The team has a special collection method for diagnostic pieces—anything with a clearly identifiable mark, date, word, or pattern that can distinguish the piece from an ordinary piece of glass or pottery. If Sammons is lucky, a clear maker’s mark can also lead her to a timeframe in which the piece was manufactured. “By looking at the brands on one of the pots, I was able to find which company manufactured it,” she explains. “I couldn’t exactly date the material, but I discovered the company was founded in 1835 and closed in 1947. At least we can narrow the production to about 100 years.”

Back at the lab, diagnostic pieces abound. Pieces of Pearl beer bottles lay next to bottles that simply say, “Alamo” in a calligraphic script. Chipped ceramics show kilned stamps of manufacturers and hotel names. A baby doll foot and a tiny doll ear lay juxtaposed next to a gold pocket watch, all a bit comical in their size and scale. A brick with a full maker’s mark, half covered in chipped-away paint, adds a gritty texture to the mix.

But Sammons’ favorite discovery is a “new discovery” of its own. A thick glass shard with the slightest pale blue tint, about 2 inches long, bears raised uppercase letters suggesting a label. An unbroken bottle would have revealed the full inscription: Dr. King’s New Discovery for Coughs and Colds. Sammons’s quick Google search reveals the bottle once contained a toxic combination of chloroform, morphine, and pine tar, jarred as a cure for tuberculosis in the late 19th century.

Artifacts found at the site include parts from porcelain dolls, broken glass bottles, and painted tile fragments.

“Finding these artifacts adds so much human energy to the site. With the baby doll foot, you think of a child. With the pocket watch, you think of how they were used for gifts for young men going into their adulthood,” Sammons says. “All of it makes you ask: ‘How old are these things? Who did they belong to? And why did they end up here?’ And doesn’t that make you want to go out and find more information?”

Jennifer Mathews, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, has been going out and finding more information for more than three decades. Mathews, a Z.T. Scott Faculty Fellow and Piper Professor, studies ancient and historical Maya archaeology and has conducted fieldwork and archival research in Mexico since 1993.

But with this project, Mathews says, she was happy to dive into fieldwork a little closer to home.

“A whole series of convergences took place for this project to happen,” Mathews says with a smile. “First, Claire walks into my lab with pictures of artifacts and says, ‘Dr. Mathews, I have to know what these are!’ In the back of my mind, I’m remembering these reports from Mary Van Buren’s class project some 20 years ago. I’d always been interested in taking a look at this stuff, but hadn’t had the time—or the excitement, really.”

Mathews addresses the toll COVID-19 has taken on student archaeology work, noting that students have had fewer hands-on experiences since the start of the pandemic. Digs and excavations—projects like these—that students had previously been a part of shifted online to virtual field schools and online internships. “Instead of working in an archaeology lab, they were looking at online demography resources,” Mathews says. “So when Claire came to me as a brand-new student who just declared her anthropology major, I thought, ‘If she’s really interested in this, right here on campus, then let’s go for it.’”

Mathews is just the right mentor for Sammons, having shifted the focus of her own research over the past dozen years. “My research has switched from prehistoric Maya archaeology to 19th century Maya archaeology, so I am looking at a lot of historic artifacts in Mexico,” Mathews says. “Similar kinds of artifacts are going to be showing up at the dump site, so this project has turned quite interesting for me, too!”

Claire Sammons washes and sorts collected fragments in the anthropology lab.

While Mathews and Sammons are putting together pieces of these artifacts in the anthropology lab, they’re also turning to Trinity’s Special Collections and Archives for materials that might help connect their artifacts with the land. When they came to the archives looking for information on the dump site, University archivist Abra Schnur led them to a faded copy of a tract map from 1917. From there, Schnur uncovered several more materials and resources to aid in the development of the project’s timeline.

“This project is going to help the University have a broader understanding of Trinity’s place within city,” Schnur says. “At the same time the city was tearing down so many buildings in downtown San Antonio and dumping the refuse at this site, the city was using the rock quarry to construct new buildings, new structures, and new roads. It’s been exciting to go back through newspaper archives to understand what the land was used for at the turn of the century.”

Schnur found old maps, newspaper articles, and uncaptioned photographs that paint a detailed but incomplete picture of the site. Maps show the forming and re-forming of roads and access points, before and after the limestone quarry. Articles from the San Antonio Express-News and the San Antonio Light quote conversations with former Monte Vista residents that impacted city policy. Complemented by Van Buren’s student reports from the late ’90s, Schnur says there’s a good chance Sammons can create a comprehensive history of the land in the century before it became the University’s campus.

left: A tract map, drawn in pencil, from 1917; right: A corroded pocket watch found during the surface dig.

“It’s been such a great experience,” says Sammons, who has plans to turn her semester of surface collection into her senior capstone project. “We’re uncovering a past, even if it’s just through a baby doll foot or a broken piece of glass. And this past reminds us that there’s so much history connected to this site; it wasn’t just a field that they put a school on.”

Sammons says it’s just as important to recognize what the land was, so we can help the next generation of inhabitants steward it into the future. “There’s history here,” Sammons says, gesturing broadly to the land around her, “with the battle of the Alamo, the Spanish missions, and before all that, Native American lands. This project makes these connections, so we can acknowledge the site that we are on.

“We hear so much about these grand events and these grand people in history that the ‘regular’ people are left out. This is the perfect opportunity to tell the story of the folks that lived normal lives in San Antonio in the 1800s to early 1900s,” Sammons continues. “It’s a mundane history, but it’s a human history. And it’s so incredibly important to learn about the everyday people that were alive here, that were living here, that were throwing away their garbage here. It tells us so much about the land that Trinity is on, about our ancestors, about the people we can learn from—and take those learnings into the future.”

Sammons is enthusiastic to share her work with anyone interested—“so we can all learn from one another!”—and she champions public information involving archeological and historical sites. She plans to make her capstone available to anyone who seeks access (and we hope to share it through Trinity magazine when she’s done). Additionally, with help from Schnur and others in Coates Library, the team hopes to create a searchable set of sources, including 3D scans of diagnostic artifacts, photographs, and research reports, as well as make the physical artifact collection itself available for study.

For now, though, Sammons is still outside collecting trash and treasure, chatting happily with her classmates, dust on her boots and dirt under her fingernails. “We’re a happy family,” she says, smiling, holding a piece of dirty green glass to the sky. “We go out, dig in the dirt, and have fun. We discover history, and we take it back to the lab to clean it. This is the field work I dreamed about doing when I came to Trinity, and I hope everybody has an opportunity like this, to do what they love.”

Do you have a historical Trinity University artifact that you want to share? Removal of historical artifacts from our campus site results in a loss of information. Anyone who would like to donate any historical objects previously collected from campus can contact Jennifer Mathews (no questions asked). She will gladly take them and curate them for permanent study—perhaps by another student in 2042!

Jeanna Goodrich Balreira '08 is the director for content strategy for Trinity University Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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