For researchers at Mission Santa Barbara, the former location of La Huerta Project’s tool shed has become the most interesting 12-square-foot space in the area.

Over the past week, the team of archeologists, horticulturists and researchers picking and scratching at the plot of land have slowly unearthed the remnants of the largest post-Columbus American Indian mission-village north of Ecuador, according to Mission Museum Director Tina Foss.

Buried beneath two full acres, researchers have discovered a 19th century stone wall, which they believe may open a new window into Chumash Indian culture and history. Foss said the dig, which wrapped up yesterday, confirmed Mission Santa Barbara records detailing the existence of the village from the mission to the current location of Garden and Santa Barbara Streets.

“There is one large village with 251 rooms underneath all the land from the end of the mission buildings to Garden Street,” Foss said. “It was as undisturbed as I hoped – we knew it was right there under that 12-foot square [shed]. The trick was finding a place [where the village] had not been disturbed. For a couple of us, it wasn’t exactly a surprise; we’ve been looking for years for Chumash presence at the Mission Santa Barbara.”

Many of the villages near Spanish missions were ruined by years of agricultural cultivation and societal development following Mexican secularization in the early 1840s and the Mexican-American War in 1848, Foss said. Despite this, Foss said experts suspected that the rooms of the village beneath Santa Barbara’s mission survived, and so the group excavated beneath the shed for validation. Their speculations were corroborated by the dig’s significant discoveries.

“We found the outer wall of a house, and it looks as if there is a street underground, and we’re finding house foundation as we dig down a little bit,” Foss said.

Foss said that once roof tiles are removed, the adobe structure of the rooms dissolves within two years, leaving the foundation of boulders outlining the home. This explains why excavators were only able to discover crumbled walls and other stone materials, she said.

According to Dr. Robert Hoover, a specialist in Mission period archeology, the Spanish transplanted nearly 2,000 Chumash Indians into 300 homes when they colonized Santa Barbara in the 19th century. Hoover said the resulting village was the largest residential area in California at that time.

“Chumash were the inhabitants of the central coast of California and the Santa Barbara Channel for 9,000 years,” Hoover said. “As the mission developed, they built individual living quarters for the married families out of adobe bricks, tile roofs and floors, and it was all part of the Spanish program not just to convert the Indians, but change them basically into Spaniards. So they lived in European houses and wore European clothes and [made] European crafts.”

Hoover said the village was similar to mission villages found in Santa Ynez and San Luis Obispo, but the Chumash village in Santa Barbara was by far the largest.

According to Foss, the sheer number of houses, along with numerous items found, are good indicators of the Chumash people’s success.

“A lot of villages were economically stressed, but [the] Santa Barbara village was a thriving village,” Foss said. “They lived near a sea port and were efficient at farming. They were very successful. For that reason, it was just a very large village.”

Now that the excavation is finished, the group plans to cover the site for future use. In doing so, they will effectively protect the historical significance of the structures, Foss said.

In addition, Foss said the mission will plot the ruins with archeological mapping and study the artifacts they found to better determine how the Chumash lived. With a more accurate portrayal of village life, the mission may chose to recreate the village at some point in the future. No plans to do so exist currently, however.

In the meantime, the mission will continue to cultivate and propagate what Foss calls “botanically correct” heritage plants in its garden repository.