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. 

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