Merrie Way Excavation Methods

volunteers working brushing aside dirt at an archaeological dig

courtesy Tim Spillane


Planning for the large-scale public excavation

The archaeologists conducted the large-scale public excavations at Merrie Way between May and June of 2011. The National Park Service posted notices on their website, they posted fliers in neighborhood coffee shops and libraries, and news spread by word-of-mouth. A piece of San Francisco history was to be carefully unearthed at Land’s End, and not by a handful of scholars and professional explorers alone. Anyone wishing to see the City’s past come to life was encouraged to join in, anyone wishing to hold the past in their hand, to brush it off and help make sense of it. The ambitious project sought to uncover new stories about Merrie Way in the actual remains of the park itself, and to promote a sense of community-wide stewardship that would keep the stories, and the site, in the public memory.

Archaeologists needed to define the site that they would all be digging before the volunteers could join them. To the untrained eye, the ground where Merrie Way once stood was nothing but a decade-old, unpaved parking lot. Any sign of the amusement park rides and shops, or of the Victorian families who came to enjoy them, had vanished without a trace. Of course, the amusement park had not disappeared completely, as the methods of archaeology would soon prove. Pieces of Merrie Way were resting quietly in the ground, and after nearly 100 years, the first clue came in the form of a few small shells.

illustration of Merrie Way showing the shapes and layout of the rides
Merrie Way site map

courtesy of Tim Spillane

Archeological Compliance and the value of a Pedestrian Survey

Back in 2004, the National Park Service began to develop new plans for the Merrie Way area; in accordance to national historic preservation laws, the proposed development plans required an intensive archeological site survey. The proposed development plans included a redesign of the parking-lot where many of the Sutro Pleasure Ground rides once stood as well as the construction of a new Visitor’s Center over the area once occupied by the park’s stands. The goal of the archaeological survey was to identify any visible remnants of the amusement park and to determine whether development plans would negatively affect the site’s integrity.

Using site maps that drew upon historic photos, maps and other documents to predict where material remains might be found, the archeologist set out on foot, meticulously combing over the entire area. Reaching the southern part of the site, archaeologists spotted a single Pacific oyster shell, then another, and another. Up to this point in the pedestrian survey, the archaeologist had only found refuse, dated to the 1940s, in the extreme northeast corner of the site. However, the oyster shells, dated to the 1890s era of the amusement park, when vendors would hawk their wares at the stands. In addition, the location of the oyster shells coincided with information from old maps that suggested that the stands were in this spot. These unassuming pieces of the past gave archaeologists a reason to explore further, marking like pinpoints in the sand the location where that exploration should begin.

man standing in deep trench
Oyster deposits seen in trench sidewall.


Backhoe Trenching

Over the next few years, archaeologists would use an array of methods as they followed leads generated by the survey. The first of these methods would be backhoe trenching, which they carried out in the area where oyster shell was found. The archaeologist wanted to know what these shells were pointing to, how much of the Stands site remained intact and what the boundaries of that site actually were.

The archaeologist excavated a 250’ by 4’ long deep trench parallel to the sidewalk along Point Lobos. They also dug three additional trenches to the north, stretching out like limbs from the first. From these trenches, archaeologist found a number of large trash deposits and hundreds of artifacts from the amusement park period. They placed the northernmost trench in the jopes of locating part of the Firth Wheel; however that trench did not contain any of the Wheel’s remains.

So, archaeologists decided that the focus of future study would be at the site of the stands and not the rides. Through information gathered from the backhoe trenching, they had learned that a great part of the Stands site had indeed remained intact. However, the stand site was exactly in the same location as the proposed new Visitor Center. The Visitor Center construction, as well as parts of the parking lot renovation, would adversely affect the site’s integrity. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s cultural resource professionals devised a plan that allowed the archaeologists on site during the new construction so that the vestiges of the park’s history could be captured and shared with future generations.

illustration of archaeology grid
Excavation grid at Stands site

courtesy of Sonoma State, Anthropological Studies Center

Controlled Excavation

By 2008 the NPS had designed a strategy to dig part of the Stands site during parking-lot renovations. That spring archaeologists carefully excavated an area just north of the old Oyster and Chop House, where they expected to uncover a huge amount of refuse, forgotten pieces of the past that would help explain the site. They used a grid system to divide the area into even 5x5 foot squares, each square consisting of a single excavation unit. The archaeologists opened up each of the 42 units, excavated with shovels layer by layer. They sifted the sand in screens and recovered the artifacts for analysis. The archaeologists used this method of controlled excavation again in 2011.


Shovel Testing

For three years, the archaeologists studied the many thousands of artifacts that they excavated in 2008. In 2011, the archaeologists returned to the field when the new Visitor Center construction started. Because they had already acquired significant data behind the Chop House area, they shifted their examination focus further to the west, using a new method - shovel testing. The archaeologists employed the grid system again, dividing the western part of the site into a total of 28 circular pits, dug at even intervals. Each pit, 1’ across and 3’ deep, provided the archaeologists with a series of small windows into the entire study area. When the archaeologist found a concentration of historical materials within a pit, they flagged the location for more in-depth investigation. The archaeologist also learned from the shovel tests that the top layer of the site had been disturbed over the years by road work. Consequently, because much of the archaeological record at this level had been destroyed, the archaeologists employed a new method of digging at this site – mechanical scrapping.

yellow truck at dig site
Mechanical grader at the Stands site


Mechanical Scraping

After they conducted their shovel tests, the archaeologists knew where they wanted to dig further. At the bottom of one particular pit, there were a number of artifacts as well as a substantial amount of wood. The archaeologist thought that this wood may have been from an actual stand as its location suggested either Stand “O” or “P”. In order to gain better access, they needed to sift through the 2’ of sand and debris which had been jumbled up over time, losing most of its archaeological value.

The archaeologist used a mechanical grader that efficiently scraped away the disturbed soil and exposed the layer they wished to carefully study. They divided the site into 4 quadrants and scraped and piled up the soil from each quadrant individually. They intended to return to each of the four piles and screen them; for while that top soil had its their contextual information, it still contained countless isolated artifacts from the site.

colored graphic showing location of test pits
Merrie Way Stands site map

courtesy Tim Spillane

Confirming the location of concession Stand “P”

Following the mechanical scraping, archaeologists reemployed a number of methods already tested on site. They opened up 14 additional excavation units west of the Chop House. Ten of these units were at the shovel test location where they found wood, confirming that it was the site of the former concession Stand “P”. The foundation of Stand “P” had burned down, capturing its contents in time. Throughout the summer, archaeologist conducted controlled excavations at Stand “P” and at four other locations. Archeologist dug two more linear trenches, roughly parallel to the sidewalk, which provided more information about the location of structural foundations and other sprawling historical features. Finally, countless volunteers screened the four quadrant piles, resulting in the recovery of thousands of historical artifacts.


For More Information:

To learn more about the different aspects of archeological research at the Sutro Pleasure Grounds, please visit Merrie Way: An Archaeology Case Study.

Methods used at the Merrie Way excavation

Artifacts found at Merrie Way

Archaeology Feature Findings

Interpreting Merrie Way: Learning from the artifacts

Archeological Stewardship Program: The Role of the Volunteers

Learn More about Archaeology at Golden Gate National Recreation Area

To learn more history of the Sutro Pleasure Grounds at Merrie Way, please visit these pages:

Merrie Way: The Rides

Merrie Way: The Stands

"Merrie Way and the Lands End Street Railway Abbreviated Cultural Landscape Report" (pdf file, 4.0 MB)

To learn more about the history of Lands End and visitor information for this area, please visit the Lands End Plan Your Visit page.

Last updated: February 28, 2015

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