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Botanical project partnership hits pay dirt

January 15, 2018 GMT

DEADWOOD — It’s all an archivist could ask for and more.

Hard evidence of a bygone era; Plant matter preserved in plastic bags and collected from the Chinatown dig site, formally processed by project principals from the Black Hills State University School of Natural Sciences, were ultimately identified as matches to existing historic records of the Chinatown district in Deadwood.

Thursday, project principals from the BHSU School of Natural Sciences and Herbarium, Mark Gabel, Justin Ramsey, and Tara Ramsey, held their culminating presentation on a three-year botanical project, commissioned by the city of Deadwood and the Historic Preservation Commission.

Titled “Plant Use in Deadwood’s Chinatown: Insights from Archaeological Specimens and Current Vegetation,” Deadwood Archivist Mike Runge, who spearheaded the project for the city, said the findings were all very interesting, but two, in particular, were extraordinary.

“The Dragon’s Eye (longan) and the Tanacetum (costmary),” Runge said. “You take the historic record and match it to his (Wong Fee Lee) supplier in San Francisco and have that in the archaeological record. That right there made this whole project.”

“Here’s our prize,” said Tara, of positively identifying the Dragon’s Eye seeds. “They’re mostly imported … We actually found a longan seed that wasn’t just on the list, it was actually brought in and consumed in Deadwood.”

Turning to what Tara referred to as above ground extant vegetation identified in an exploration of the steep hillside behind modern-day Deadwood Gulch on Main Street in Deadwood, a patch of Costmary, still thriving today in what once was the terraced Chinese gardens, dating back to 1899, was the second prize.

“It’s the same genus as tansy, used in Asian countries for digestive ailments,” Tara said, adding that the plant is not native to the area and likely brought in. “We think we have found a patch of this plant that goes back to the China garden.”

Just as plant roots intertwine with the soil in nurturing growth, so did history and the herbarium joining hands in growing the hard evidence.

As evidenced in Gabel’s portion of the presentation, a solid history of the Chinatown area, as well as why the Chinese might migrate to Deadwood, was integral in understanding and identifying plant specimens.

“We had three things to go on,” Gabel said. “Plant specimens, fragments, or seeds from sediments, including privy sites and ceremonial site-archaeological excavation 2001-2004, and the Sulentic papers showing what was shipped to Deadwood Chinatown from San Francisco Chinatown.”

Eight archaeological features of Deadwood’s former Chinatown were studied, including three privies, three burn areas, and a hearth.

Tara explained that the above-ground vegetation was explored a couple of years ago and while buckthorn, pines, and grasses typical for the area were identified, so were the remnants of a cast-iron pipe running up the hillside, further evidence of the historic terraced Chinese gardens.

The lion’s share of the botanical project involved analysis of archaeological samples, conducted at BHSU, which involved sorting of archaeological samples for plant fragments; organization, labeling, counting, and storage of fragments, microscopy, and taxonomic identification of seeds, and cross referencing to ethnobotanical literature.

In all, 60 extant plant species were identified from the site, and 50 plant species were identified from archaeological samples.

Justin’s portion of the presentation involved data demonstrating the presence or absence of plants and numbers, demonstrating abundance.

“What you will see is a lot of raspberry,” Justin said. “It occurred in many different features and in abundance.”

Also found was evidence of an abundance of seeds from native edible fruits, such as strawberry, wild plum, chokecherry, ground cherry, grape, raspberry, and sunflower.

Evidence of introduced plants include mustard, cannabis, watermelon, coffee, cardamom, longan, peach, and tomato.

In 2013, staff from the Deadwood Historic Preservation Office learned about the Black Hills State University’s Herbarium.

“When people ask me what a herbarium is, I just say, ‘A plant library,’” Gabel said.

The BHSU Herbarium, located on campus, has approximately 45,000 botanical and fossil plant specimens and is one of the two large herbaria in South Dakota.

The BHSU Herbarium also manages an online database of plant specimens from this region. Known as the Collaborative Database of the Plants from Western South Dakota and Eastern Wyoming, Including the Bear Lodge Mountains and Black Hills, preservation staff was interested in incorporating their small botanical collection unearthed during the 2001 to 2004 Chinatown Archaeological investigations in Deadwood into this database.

In 2015, staff from the Historic Preservation Office approached the BHSU Herbarium to see if they could help stabilize and preserve the city’s collection of botanical specimen and incorporate the Chinatown botanical collection into the BHSU Herbarium online database.

Both parties agreed to participate in the partnership and the products of the study are the fruits of their collaborative labor.

An open house following Thursday’s presentation revealed the post-script, or products of the study, which include: framed botanical specimens; hill slope mounted specimens; hill slope specimens in archival envelopes; glass vials of seeds arranged by feature, family, genus, and species; analyses of archaeological seeds; a database of specimens; and genetic analysis of selected specimens.

Justin added, that a publication of the findings is likely forthcoming.

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