Mai Wah Society

Digging Butte's Chinatown


The lot at Mercury and Colorado Streets had been vacant for nearly 70 years when the city-county of Butte-Silver Bow sold part of it for development. The 2007 Butte Chinatown archaeological dig was conducted to document a long-gone part of Butte's history.

The work was led by Renewable Technologies, Inc. (RTI) of Butte, under the direction of Archaeologist Mitzi Rossillon. Cataloguing of the artifacts collected was by Nicole von Gaza, who also created a catalogue of all the marks found on ceramics. The dig was funded by Butte-Silver Bow County's Urban Revitalization Agency, which transferred ownership of the artifacts to the Mai Wah Society.

Funding for the exhibit came through a $2,000 grant from the Montana Historical Society's County History Initiative, which also supported printing of the accompanying booklet. In addition, cases were donated for the exhibit by Brenda Shea and Bob McMurray of Butte, and by the Mai Wah Society.

Curatorial work on the exhibit was done by Janet Sperry. The exhibit project was coordinated by Mai Wah volunteer Richard Gibson, who also wrote and laid out the booklet. The text is based on the technical report by Mitzi Rossillon; photos on this page are courtesy Mitzi Rossillon.

Much more information and photos of the dig and artifacts can be found on the Traveling Trunk site. See also the German Gulch web site.

The Exhibit

More than 140 artifacts are on display, ranging from gaming dice to bone toothbrushes. There is an abundance of broken ceramics, glass, and crockery in the collection of 60,000 unearthed artifacts, including a lot of celadon pieces imported to Butte from China. Invented in China before the 13th Century, celadon's distinctive light blue-green color results from firing ceramics containing iron oxide in the glaze in a reducing environment. Celadon wares from the dig were produced in China, and the pieces discovered were mostly rice bowls and tea cups, typically 5 inches and 3 inches in diameter, respectively. Many bear Chinese markings on the base. 27% of the Asian porcelain from the Chinatown dig is celadon.

Clothing does not survive well underground, or in Butte's harsh seasons, but the exhibit includes a hat and a shoe that were found. The careful professional work allowed the archaeologist to define several different features in the excavation, ranging in age from the late 1890s to the 1920s. Most of the Chinese artifacts are from about 1902 to the early 1920s.

Guide to Butte's Chinatown Archaeological Dig Exhibit

This 24-page full-color booklet was produced to accompany the exhibit of selected artifacts from the 2007 Chinatown archaeological dig. Publication was made possible by a grant from the Montana Historical Society's County History Initiative and volunteer work by Janet Sperry, Mitzi Rossillon, and Dick Gibson.

The booklet is available for purchase at the museum for $5.00 per copy.

A look inside - a sample page from the booklet (PDF)