October 10, 2011

Archaeology 101, or Get a Real Job, Hippie!

I'm going to go on the record here and state that our house is a cruel tease.  For as long as we have lived in the house, I have desperately wanted to find something really cool buried in our yard.  I'm not talking about real buried treasure (although let me make it totally clear to the powers that be that if my shovel should happen upon a cache of gold coins, I will reluctantly embrace the find).  All I'm looking for are a few colonial coins, some intact pottery, even an arrow head or two.  Just the little tangibles that provide a link to the people who lived on the property in the 18th and 19th centuries.

While we have found a few neat items, including a beautiful cobalt ink well, some early clay marbles, and iron strap hinges and tool parts, for the most part, the property has been pretty stingy with us.

This is particularly disappointing given the lengths to which I have gone to uncover the artifacts that our yard must contain.  When we put an addition on our house five years ago, I over-enthusiastically instructed the excavator to pile the fill that was removed from the newly dug basement in our side yard, so that I would be able to sift the dirt for stuff.  As the basement was being dug, it seemed like everywhere I look there were pottery shards, glass, metal and other artifacts.  No doubt, there would be lots of even better stuff in the big pile of dirt that now stood next to our house.  So, I started sifting.  I don't know how many of you have watched archaeologists sift for artifacts on TV, or at Jamestown or places like that, but the reality is that the process sucks.  I quickly found that it takes a brutally large amount of time to work your way through even a small amount of dirt, especially when the dirt contains lots of gravel and rocks.  To be sure, I found some interesting things - bits of local redware, stoneware, some decent sized pieces of green hand-blown bottles and some cool china pieces, but really all I was finding  was old trash.  And this is not to disparage old trash.  Old trash can tell you a lot about the past.  If you haven't read it, I recommend James Dietz's fantastic book, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life, to find out what I mean.  That said, there is only so much broken trash that a person can take before they throw in the towel.  Which is pretty much what I did after a few months.  And which is why "The Dirt Mound" continues to stand in our side yard, an eternal testament to my archaeological hubris.  From time to time I will take a few wheelbarrows of dirt to fill in a hole somewhere in our yard, and our kids love running down the mound at full speed and digging around the mound to find "Daddy's treasures", a phrase that sounds genuine when they say it, and more than a little sarcastic when used by Jenny.

While Jenny gently teases (mocks) me for the Dirt Mound, she is the one who retained the services of a metal detecting enthusiast at a silent auction, so she shares some culpability for our local (and predictably disappointing) National Treasure sequel.  Sadly, the semi-pro detector guy had just as bad luck on our property as I have had.  Among his paltry finds were a sheet of lead, a dog tag from the 1950s, a few axe head (old, but not that old), and a round metal disk that was the right size, metal and color to have been an 18th century coin, but which had been rubbed flat to the point that it was impossible to identify.  More old trash.

"Treasure" Hunting

The closest I have come to finding anything useful in the dirt was a cache of pottery shards, glass and bones that turned up under a circa 1840s entry hall on the side of the house.  As we were repairing the foundation around this structure, a few tantalizing pieces of Norwalk redware plates emerged, followed by some broken slip decorated stoneware and broken case bottles (and some creepy, unidentified bones).  Thinking that I was finally going to hit the jackpot, I excavated under the hallway, a process better suited to a small, double-jointed child than to someone of my size.  Still, I dug every piece of trash out from under that house, but never did encounter one complete item.

Still, hope springs eternal.  There are old wells and privies on the property to be dug (seriously, digging up old outhouses is generally considered to be the most likely way to find "good stuff" at an old house), and I may be only a shovelful of dirt away from finding that buried musket, figural flask, 18th century plate or diamond ring.

In the meantime, I will continue to fill container after container with broken glass and pottery, and to gaze in awe at the beauty of brilliant autumn sun setting behind the Dirt Mound.

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