Recent Research Leads to Re-analysis of Rare Religious Medal

by Michael Imwalle, Robert Hoover, and Anne Petersen

Drawing of the St. Vibiana medal made at the time of excavation.

In 1994, a small religious medal was recovered from the Northwest Corner of the Santa Barbara Presidio quadrangle during the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Archaeological Field School. Dr. Robert Hoover directed the excavation, which was intended to identify the location of the bastion on the Presidio’s northwest corner. While the excavation did not result in identifying the former bastion location, it was successful in identifying a suite of two adobe rooms that were added to the north end of the west wing of the presidio quadrangle some time before 1795. Given the archaeological context of the find, and what appeared to be an inscription in Spanish, we initially assumed that the medal was probably deposited during the Spanish or Mexican period occupation of the Presidio.

The medal before restoration. Photo by Mike Imwalle.

After a preliminary cleaning of the medal, it was identified as a religious medal bearing the name and likeness of Santa Vibiana.  Saint Vibiana was a third century Christian martyr buried in catacombs in San Sisto on the outskirts of Rome near the Appian Way. Her burial vault was rediscovered during excavations of the site which were authorized by Pope Pius IX in 1853. The unopened sepulcher was sealed with a marble tablet bearing the Latin inscription “To the soul of the innocent and pure Vibiana, laid away on the day before the kalends of September [August 31].” A laurel emblem commonly used for early Christian martyrs was found at the end of the inscription. After several weeks, an investigation led to the canonization of Vibiana. Clearly the medal bearing the name “Santa Vibiana” postdated her canonization.

Mike Imwalle gently cleaning debris from the medal using a pick. Photo by Anne Petersen.

What does Pope Pius IX, the Appian Way, and a third century Christian martyr have to do with the Santa Barbara Presidio? That question was answered by the late art historian Dr. Norman Neuerburg when he revealed that the remains of St. Vibiana were once housed in the Presidio Chapel.  As it turns out, Bishop Thaddeus Amat was entrusted in 1854 with the bones of Vibiana, the marble slab, and a vial of blood from the tomb as relics for the Old Plaza Church in Los Angeles. Amat sailed from LeHavre, France, to New York, to Panama, and finally to San Francisco. Travelling on the coastal schooner, Powhatten, Amat’s journey to Los Angeles was interrupted by a sudden storm, forcing the ship into Santa Barbara harbor on December 2, 1854. The relics were temporarily placed in a special reliquary with a golden crown to the right of the Presidio Chapel altar. Later they were moved to Our Lady of Sorrows parish church where they resided until it was destroyed by fire in 1863. Miraculously, the relics survived the fire and were eventually moved to the old Parish Church in Los Angeles in 1868.

The St. Vibiana medal after cleaning. Photo By Mike Imwalle.

A recent inquiry by UCLA graduate researcher Vitaly Efimenkov led to the re-inspection of the inscription of the medal excavated at the Presidio in 1994. The medal was soaked in a bath of mild detergent in an ultra-sonic cleaner  and gently cleaned with wooden picks, dental picks, and tooth brushes.  After repeating the process for several days we were able to decipher considerably more of the inscription. Roughly translated the inscription on the front reads, “Saint Vibiana, Virgin and Martyr.”  And the back, “Oh Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us, we need your protection.” Amazingly, even some of the original gold plating began to re-emerge. Thank you, Vitaly, for instigating this process. I hope that your research sheds some light on why St. Vibiana’s remains ended up staying in Santa Barbara for almost fourteen years on the way to Los Angeles. Who could blame her, Santa Barbara is a special place!

Mike Imwalle is the archaeologist at SBTHP.  Robert Hoover is Professor Emeritus of Archaeology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and president of the board of  SBTHP.  Anne Petersen is Associate Director for Historical Resources at SBTHP. 

11 thoughts on “Recent Research Leads to Re-analysis of Rare Religious Medal”

    1. Garvan,

      We are not certain of the date of the medal. Due to the fact that the medal was found in association with a portion of the quadrangle known to have been built sometime before 1795, we initially thought the medal dated to the Spanish/Mexican period. After consultation with Norman Neuerburg, it was clear that this medal was probably cast to commemorate either the canonization or the placement of the relics in the Old Plaza Church. Either way, it points to a date sometime after the 1850s which would suggest an American period date for the deposit.

      The portion of the quadrangle where the medal was excavated was occupied continually as a residence and later a residence and commercial bakery into the early part of the twentieth century. Before the construction of the Japanese Congregational Church on the site in 1914, the property belonged to Mariano Lopez, presidio descendant and local judge.

      Due to the fact that this portion of the presidio quadrangle had been graded first for church construction circa 1914 and subsequently for parking lot construction circa 1965 it is likely that it was recovered from a “disturbed” or mixted context. Despite the fact that we cannot assign an asolute date to the medal, we are fairly certain that it was introduced to the presidio sometime during the latter half of the nineteenth century or the first decand of the twentieth century. There is still a great deal of mystery surrounding the medal, St. Vibiana, and the journey that her remains made from the Holy Land to the City of Angels. Thanks for your interest. I will be sure to update you with any new information as it becomes available.


  1. Very nifty bit of history…cool! Compliments to all for all the diligence. Like Garvan I’d like to know the date of the medal and more about its connection to the traveling ossiaire.

    1. Patrick,

      Thank you for your interest and inquiry. Please see my response to Garvan above regarding the dating of the medal.


  2. Thank you Mike and BOB Hoover for sharing this important information. Being born in the CIty of the Angels, St. Vibiana Cathedral is an important part of California history. Nice to know the relics of St. VIbiana were housed in Santa Barbara en route to Los ANgeles.

    Patricia Leyva Krkuse n

    1. Thanks Patricia. Bob gets credit for excavating it. I cleaned it and scanned it! Anne gets credit for getting as close as we could come to the translation. The rest of the story really tells itself. I am glad the story was of interest and we have had such a positive response.


  3. this medal underscores the importance of context in identifying artifacts. While the medal may have been in a disturbed or mixed context, fortunately by other research means we can begin to date when it may have been deposited. I remember when this was first uncovered, most thought it dated from the Spanish Period, but through research discussed in this blog, we find this was not the case, but the story is still quite an interesting one. After storms the earth turns up sherds and shards, and we always tell people that this piece or that is out of context and thus hard to pin down what period of history it dates to. For us historians, archaeology will always be the handmaiden of history, but we sure appreciate the information it provides, and the questions it raises.

    Take for example the tile floor in situ in the NE corner. I had to twist archaeologist Vance Bente’s arm in the early 1980s to dig between two buildings now removed, to see if anything might turn up. He resisted because the likelihood of finding something in a small trench was pretty much nil. But lo and behold, he came across a section of the tile floor that shouldn’t have been there. This was in the area of where a regular enlisted soldier would have lived and the floor should have been packed earth. What may have happened is that after earthquakes the comandancia and other officer quarters were damaged and officers and families may have moved into this space. Don Jose de la Guerra and his family came in 1815, and may have lived in this very tile floor room, until their large adobe mansion was finished in 1827. We know that roofs collapsed in this section of the presidio following earthquakes, and I believe we even found an intact roof tile that had fallen to the ground. Archaeology has raised some interesting questions regarding who lived in the tile floor room and further research may answer the questions this discovery has raised.

  4. Father Yanek tells me that the Cathedral in Los Angeles that was in the old part of town was dedicated to St Vibiana. He also mentioned that he himself has a small relic of the Saint which will ultimately become a donation to the Trust.

  5. For additional examples, research, and references, consult Southwestern Mission Research Center’s SMRC-Newsletter, 25:88, September 1991. Ten examples of crucifixes, plus 5 round religious medals were recovered during excavations at Mission San Buenaventura, reported by Greenwood in 1976.

  6. I have a three piece medal which belonged to my husband’s greatgradfather and was told it was a medal given to soldiers in WORLD WAR 1 which can be taken apart and there is a ST. JOSEPH medal inside if it which is removable and I can’t get any information on it. COULD YOU ASSIST ME?

  7. Thank you for all of this information. My 21 month old daughter is named Vivian, so it was very interesting to me to read about this medal.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s