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The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.
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(Illustration: Magoz)

(Illustration: Magoz)

One day in the winter of 1981, a young archaeologist named E. Breck Parkman was prowling around the ruins of a burned out mansion north of San Francisco when, in a corner, he came upon a large mound of charred wood and other debris. Nothing much was recognizable, Parkman remembers. But poking out of the pile were a few scraps of tie-dyed fabric.

It was Parkman’s first day on the job. He had just been hired by the state of California to conduct a four-month archaeological survey of Olompali State Park, a 760-acre expanse of sloping meadows and scrub, dotted with a few man-made structures, in rural Marin County. For thousands of years, the area had been a Coast Miwok Indian village. Then, in the late 1800s, it became the estate of Galen Burdell, San Francisco’s first dentist and the purveyor of Burdell’s Oriental Tooth Wash. It was the wreckage of Burdell’s once elegant 26-room mansion, which caught fire in 1969, that Parkman was now nosing through. The archaeologist initially didn’t think much of the tie-dye-strewn junk pile. “I was looking for arrowheads, ceramics,” Parkman told me recently. “I was looking for old archaeology.”

Parkman is now California’s senior state archaeologist, and close to retirement—an amiable, wide-set guy with a white goatee and brown leather fedora. In recent years, he’s become more fixated on that pile of debris, which is nearly all that remains of a commune that occupied the Burdell Mansion between 1967 and 1969—a small, countercultural dimple in U.S. history.

The music collection reminds us that we never quite shed identities, but layer new ones over the old—in a flow of personal history.

The commune was founded by a Marin County developer named Donald McCoy, who, in 1967, decided to walk away from his businesses and drop out. McCoy was a divorcé raising three young daughters. After taking weekend trips with other single-parent friends and seeing the easy camaraderie their children developed, he decided they ought to fuse themselves into one collaborative household. The group rented the mansion at Olompali, as well as its outbuildings and Olympic-size swimming pool, for $700 a month. They called their commune the Chosen Family—a family they were assembling themselves.

For 600 days, from just after the Summer of Love to just before Woodstock, the commune was like a funnel that nearly the entirety of the counterculture seemed to pour through. Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, Timothy Leary, Neal Cassady, and Ken Kesey all hung out at the mansion. The Grateful Dead turned up to play shows. The children of the Chosen Family did beadwork and danced a lot.

But as the experiment entered its second year, the Chosen Family opened up membership to outsiders. Rules and etiquette slackened. Harder drugs came in. After the mansion caught fire one night in February 1969—probably the result of overloaded electrical circuits—the commune thinned out and diffused; people scattered into the outbuildings. Then, a few months later, two little girls, aged two and three, drowned in the pool. The Chosen Family experiment was over.

Initially, Parkman ignored the heap of fire-damaged flotsam on the mansion floor. For years, the stuff just sat there, being redistributed and slowly excavated by the occasional gopher. Archaeologists classify the strata of artifacts they find in the field into different, chronological “horizons”—early horizon, late horizon, et cetera. Parkman had begun to think of that layer of trash as “the Hippie Horizon,” and figured it wouldn’t be valuable, archaeologically speaking, until everyone who’d lived through the ’60s had died. That’s just the way a traditional archaeologist thinks, he told me.

But in 1997, during the 30th anniversary of the Summer of Love, Parkman met some of the surviving commune members and decided maybe it would be interesting to lead an excavation of that modern midden. He realized that the trajectory of modern California could be traced on this one site. “What I saw out here was what we now call the flow of history,” Parkman explained. The Chosen Family was part of it, just as much as the Coast Miwok and the Victorian dentist were.

In 2009, after years of delay due to a discovery of asbestos, the artifacts from the mound were finally excavated and laid out on big tarps for Parkman to examine. Because the house had burned suddenly, he found himself sifting through a kind of instantly-sealed time capsule—a hippie Pompeii.

There were toothbrushes and incense holders and jewelry and shoes. But it was the Chosen Family’s record collection that surprised and enthralled Parkman most. Most of the LPs he found were warped beyond recognition, but over the last four years he’s managed to identify 93 of them. There’s some of what you’d expect from a seminal late-’60s commune: Vanilla Fudge, Rubber Soul, Bob Dylan. But Parkman found many others that upended that stereotype: Judy Garland; My Fair Lady; Burl Ives; Dean Martin; and My Name Is Barbra, Two, by Barbra Streisand.

In a recent paper in the journal World Archaeology, Parkman argues that this odd variety challenges our clichéd image of ’60s hippies, “reminding us that people are a complex and diverse lot and that broad stereotypes are typically unfounded.” The Chosen Family was a collection of individuals, each with a different pre-hippie history. The music collection, Parkman told me, reminds us that we never quite shed identities, but layer new ones over the old—in a flow of personal history.

“I lived through that time,” Parkman explained. He was in high school then, in a very conservative suburb of Atlanta. Though he never identified with the counterculture, he could see the way its spirit was coloring people’s senses of themselves, even in his hometown. Parkman remembers his father—a straitlaced bookkeeper—coming down to breakfast one morning wearing a blue dress shirt, instead of a white one, and being incredibly anxious that he’d get in trouble at work for this divergent fashion statement. “My dad would roll over in his grave if I said he was a hippie,” Parkman explained, “but on that day, he was.”

Parkman led me around the mansion’s ground floor one more time. I watched as two lizards chased each other around the base of a destroyed window seat. Parkman showed me where the fire had raged through one exterior wall, revealing a cross-section. It turns out the stucco mansion had been built like a shell, by Burdell’s son, around the original Burdell mansion, made of wood. And Burdell’s wood mansion had similarly been built around the original adobe dwelling of a Coast Miwok chief.

From where we were standing, you could see all three walls, built one at a time over the course of 200 years—extravagantly different, but all nested tightly together. They seemed to be holding each other up.

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