January 24, 2012 4 Comments
Part 1: A Day In The Life
When I was a kid I went to summer camp in New Mexico and while there I spent a few days on an archeological dig. We sifted through a bunch of material and although we found nothing of interest, at least nothing of interest to me, it was a taste of treasure hunting that I was never to lose. It was also an introduction to anthropology and eventually, when I went on to college, I majored in it.
My first year in higher education was at Northern Arizona University. With its large native population and long history of habitation it’s a pretty good place to do anthropology. To tell the truth I chose NAU for its proximity to good backpacking but I never would have been able to sell that to my parents as a good reason to move 2200 miles away for school. I transferred after a year to the University of New Hampshire and I continued in the field there for at least the one semester and probably both though I can no longer remember for sure.
I think the second semester I duel majored in anthropology and sociology, the idea being that if you’re a major in something, the teachers tend to cut you a little more slack in an effort to keep you in the department. I would have majored in everything but it would have required a visit to my student advisor and that was out of the question. All I had to do to endear myself to the archeology professor was to boil his road kill. He was trying to build a skeleton collection of indigenous fauna.
Of course I dropped out after that year but my interest never really went away. I always maintained that I gave it up because there really are no jobs after you get an anthropology degree. There is nothing much to apply that knowledge to unless you want to teach but in looking at the question right now I realize that the subject, like so many before and since, simply was unable to hold my attention. Having said that, I never really lost interest, it just became another one of my many interests. I suspect a lot of people are like this and it probably could be considered a syndrome which means it deserves its own name, something like Highly Ordered Attention Deficit: H.O.A.D. “Poor dear”, they’ll say “he’s kind of HOADy.
One of the very first things you learn in archeology is that wherever there has been human occupation, there you will find a trash pit. I was thinking about that recently and naturally enough it got me thinking about my job. Going over it in my mind I realized that I’ve worked on a good variety of jobs this year. I’ve had a hand in a high rise apartment building, a junior high school, two waterfront recreation areas, a water treatment plant, a ferry terminal, a museum and a hospital. The last one, the hospital, is the subject of this story.
We have been removing material from the hole that will be the basement of the hospital for about three weeks. It’s been slow going; we have to reinforce the pit so surrounding buildings will not start sinking or shifting on their own foundations. The backhoe has been pulling up an old concrete slab and we finally got down to the muddy fill just the other day.
We are two blocks away from the river but it became apparent pretty quickly that we were digging up an old solid filled pier. This type of pier was common in the 19th century and consisted of timber piles stacked like Lincoln Logs in a grid and then filled with large stone. As a point of interest the stone is said to have come from abroad as ship ballast. I think that’s probably incorrect since it’s bluestone, the same as that used for sidewalks before the use of concrete for that purpose. It is abundant locally and the use of local materials or materials at hand would be standard for the time period.
As the hole got deeper and filled with ground water we put in pumps and that is about when the bottles started showing up. They were here and there without any order and were obviously washed into their present positions. The first one I retrieved was a ceramic bottle in perfect condition. I’ve seen these before and my guess is early to mid nineteenth century, before glass came into common use. Who knows what was in it but whenever there is no imprint to the contrary I assume all bottles are beer. That’s not so far fetched as it may sound. It’s been said that there were about 140 breweries in New York at this time. After that came some heavy glass bottles that were also probably beer and then some medicine bottles with the imprint of the druggists, complete with addresses.
The thing about a waterfront is that people work there and eat there and stand and look at the river traffic there. And when they stand there sipping their beverage and pondering the comings and goings of the world they are swept away by their imaginations to distant ports. Ports of the mind. And the time slips away and the bottle is empty. It’s time to get back to work or go home and the bottle slips from the fingers to join the barques and barges, schooners and ferries. It hits the water on this, its maiden voyage, and bobs once or twice as it fills with water. Each bob it swallows a mouth full like a drowning man and then with a last gasp of bubbles it slips beneath the surface, settles to the bottom and relaxes into the soft silt. You can tell where the best spot to stand was, either because of view or venue, by the piles of bottles that accumulate in a location. In fifteen years of pier work, most of it with the divers, I can say that an overhead view of a pier, minus the pier is like a solar eclipse of bottles. The perimeter is clearly marked out, with more bottles by the waterfront where there is the greatest activity and thinning towards the end yet the whole thing still clearly outlined.
Now the medicine bottles didn’t jive with this scenario. Also, the glass is thinner; the casting more refined and so they must have been from a later date. The waterfront was gone having moved east and the old hospital was erected on made land. Landfill. As soon as I saw the medicine bottles I knew there was a trash pit on the site and that we were digging around it if not yet fully in it. Every scoop of the bucket was bringing up yards of material and a bottle or two. At the end of the day everyone cleaned up and left except for me. I was energized and excited to begin the hunt. I had a pretty good idea where to start looking and climbed down the steep mud embankment to have a look around.
With my boots sinking in I was looking at a wall of silt and stones and bits of glass and porcelain. Broken plates and bowls and cups are common in fill all over this area. Often they are covered in elaborate blue patterns. They are from China I suppose and even a small fragment can be quite astounding in the complexity of the pattern and the beauty of the brushwork.
I was digging away only a short time when I pulled up a ginger ale bottle. The cork was intact as was the cork of the next bottle I pulled up. This doesn’t necessarily mean anything as even a cork will eventually allow water to leach in but it does give one hope of finding a full bottle. I don’t suppose a full bottle is worth any more than an empty one; in fact none of these bottles is worth more than a couple of dollars, but I like the idea of this thing having weathered a century and more as if waiting for just this moment to deliver its goods.
By this time my gloves were heavy with mud and soaked through and I grabbed a likely looking scoop from the muck to dig with. I turned up several more items including a nice dark blue medicine bottle and a large cattle bone. Back in those days dead horses and cattle were legally and routinely disposed of by being left out with the trash and so in turn were used as land fill. I had as much as I could carry back to our shanty and so quit my labors. I tossed my scoop aside but even before leaving my fingers it occurred to me that it might be something. It didn’t feel like wood or stone and the weight was odd for the size. It was encrusted with mud but I thought it might just be a more or less intact bowl, which would be a great find. Then I thought it seemed more like a gourd and I thought it might be a colonial era artifact. I retrieved it and with an armful of stuff went up the hill to wash off my finds.
The GINGER ALE bottle, from MORGAN & BRO 232 west 47th St NEW YORK was indeed full and still had a curl of ginger in it. The other corked bottle was probably beer and bore an imprint of the brewer, JOHN HECHT BROOKLYN NY and the year, 1862. A nice find. The blue medicine bottle was from TARRANT & Co DRUGGISTS NEW YORK. And the bowl when washed clean turned out to be a human skullcap. The saw marks suggest it was an autopsy.