by Mike Imwalle
When SBTHP purchased the Santa Inés Mission Mills property in from Harry Knill 1994 the organization knew it was getting remarkably well-preserved and thoughtfully restored masonry buildings that formerly housed grist and fulling mills as well as a series of ditches and reservoirs designed to supply them with water power. In addition to the amazing mission-era architecture, they also acquired some mission-era artwork as well.
If you look closely at the east end of the fulling mill building in just the right light, you can see the faint pink outline of an anthropomorphic form. The figure is painted on the surface of the lime mortar and sandstone wall. Affectionately referred to as “the painted red man,” the figure appears to be pointing at the former location of the vertical water wheel that supplied power to the fulling mill. The water-powered fulling mill processed woven woolen cloth.
Numerous people have suggested that the figure appears to resemble anthropomorphic figures that appear in Chumash rock art. Of particular interest is the material used to paint the figure. Unlike the traditional paints made of an oil base and mineral pigments such as hematite and iron oxide, the painted figure on the Santa Inés Mission fulling mill building is painted with a paint derived from Roman technology. The material used to paint the red figure is called pozzolana. Pozzolana is a type of hydraulic lime cement that is colored by adding crushed tile as a pigment. Pozzolana with an identical chemical signature was also identified as flooring in one of the rooms of the convento and as a lining for the neophyte lavanderia at the Mission complex.
In 2001 SBTHP commissioned Antoinette Padgett and Alan Watchman to do an analysis and condition assessment of the painted figure. The condition assessment identified several adverse conditions to the painting such as blind detachment, micro-colonial fungi, small cracks, surface loss, and visible salts. Despite the years of exposure, the remaining painting appeared to be quite stable. A piece of mortar containing red pigment was recovered from the floor of the reservoir for analysis and dating. The age of the carbon in the calcite was determined by accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS 14C). The pozzolana mixture for the painting was probably made between AD 1823 and AD 1829.
It is unclear how long the fulling mill operated. It was designed and built by Joseph Chapman in 1820, but operation of the mill probably came to a halt as the result of the Chumash revolt of 1824. Whether the mill ever operated after the revolt is not known. Was the painting made during the period of operation for the mill? Was the painting made after the mill was abandoned? Was the figure that appears to be pointing at the water wheel painted to commemorate the wheel that no longer turned? We may never know the answers to these questions. What we do know is the Santa Inés Mission Mill property contains a very special resource that appears to be Chumash art painted on and with materials introduced to California by the Spanish by way of the Roman Empire.
Mike Imwalle is the archaeologist at the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation.