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Reconstructed redware items from historical digs (ca. 1820-1860).

Historical digging is the pursuit of antique bottles and related things while excavating old privies (backyard outhouse vaults), old town dumps, assorted landfill, and elsewhere. Commonly found items such as tableware, kitchenware, stoneware, decorative porcelain pot lids and bases used for pomades and skin creams, hard rubber combs and hair picks, marbles, buttons, toothbrushes, pipes, assorted tea set pieces, china dolls, and a variety of other objects, all of which are routinely found broken or damaged.

The term historical digging has been in use for decades, though it is not clear when it was first coined or who initiated its usage. It may apply to any grade of privy digging, dump digging, metal detecting and scavenging specifically for older things, and even sludging depending on the age of the materials being encountered in a given location (sludging is digging or sifting through the sediment build up of municipal storm drains and old sewers in search of lost coins, jewelry, metal badges, antique marbles, various trinkets, doll parts, etc).[1] Historical digging was mentioned in two different articles by the late 1990s, "Through Bottles, Darkly, Glimpses of the Past"(New York Times May 30, 1999) by Nina Siegal, which gives her rendition of an historical dig at the home of an heir to Johnson & Johnson, and “Excavating tiny treasures” (Dollhouse Miniatures, September 2000) by Eliza de Sola Mendez where historical digging is referred to directly as a pursuit separate from conventional archaeology.

Contents

Controversies

Historical dig site prior to demolition and backyard removal.

There are ongoing controversies regarding who should be permitted to pursue historical digging, and what is actually being found on the average dig. From a conventional archaeological perspective it is commonly assumed that all properties contain vital and unique information which cannot be found elsewhere, and that only a professional archaeologist should be permitted to investigate them. Even on private property there are different schools of thought regarding how it should be practiced and who should be allowed to pursue it.

Many historical diggers emphasize that their efforts are frequently applied to areas being developed, locations where privies, dumps, landfills and residential backyards are in the process of being permanently altered or destroyed by major renovations and assorted excavations.

There is a prevalent misconception among some archaeologists that most potential historical dig sites are artifact goldmines, that each property contains otherwise unattainable information and objects which are vital in nature. While privy diggers concur that perhaps 75% of the privies they have been involved with do not contain a "night soil" layer, or other in situ layers, and that food bones and related information and privy-artifact discoveries in general, are exceedingly repetitive for most purposes. The main cause for the large percentage of barren vaults today being that the suppliers of the booming waste-generated fertilizer business of the late 19th and early 20th century operated widely and diligently. In the pursuit of cheap and easy to acquire fertilizer material these “dippers” emptied millions of defunct vaults during the advent of modern plumbing. The early waste management workers routinely backfilled the subterranean chambers with sterile dirt, assorted rubble, debris and ashes, and occasionally random bottles and other garbage. The latter mostly dating to the time when plumbing was installed at the address.

Historical diggers often remark that they are excavating on private properties with the owners’ permission, and reiterate that they are an integral part of the vast amount of information which already exists regarding excavated objects and their histories. They are bottle collectors, coin collectors and other kinds of collectors and enthusiasts and are involved with salvaging these things as the opportunities arise, and largely focusing on the many areas which will be dug up by heavy machinery during major developments annually.

In either case those excavating without being professional archaeologists are frequently targeted as “looters” by the archaeological community. An accusation of actual stealing the term looter has been in use for centuries and in some situations it is open to interpretation. In one sense or another it is applied loosely to define and condemn a wide range of both professional and amateur digging activities worldwide depending on the specific conditions. For example, when a rogue historical digger is observed excavating on national park lands or archaeological sites directly, from a legal perspective they are looters.[2] While engaged in these same activities legally, behind private residences and on construction sites for instance, they are still routinely considered looters by the archaeological community in general. Sometimes for disturbing sacred sites, burial grounds, and doing other things within ongoing ‘sensitive’ areas without full consent of those connected to the places involved, archaeologists pursuing their projects have also been categorized as looters.

Despite the unmistakable similarities regarding items discovered by archeologists and historical diggers, there is almost no communication between amateurs and professionals. The latter generally preferring not to interact with historical diggers who are not archaeologists, no matter what kinds of sites they dig and salvage on. The former are equally cautious about relaying anything of potential importance to those affiliated with the mainstream archaeological community for fear of being further typecast as nothing more than looters.

Historical dig sites

Salvaging from a pile of disturbed landfill.

An average dig or investigation will take place within a residential backyard or on a property where it is known that an old structure of some kind once stood. One of the most frequent spots to attempt to locate and investigate is the defunct outhouse vault, particularly one dating to the mid 19th century. Since most of these were filled in a century ago or more probing for them is usually necessary. Depending on the circumstances this is done with a custom made spring steel probe of varying lengths and widths. Historical diggers develop many different probing techniques over time and many become adept at locating not only privy vaults but cisterns, water wells, and a wide assortment of structural remains and materials situated underground.

The locations where these digs take place are frequently being renovated, demolished, or otherwise permanently altered. Many privy diggers and those who operate metal detectors in pursuit of old things seek permission to look on properties which are not being renovated or disturbed as well. In either instance a high percentage of all buried bottles from any era are usually found broken or damaged. A large amount of intact antique bottle discoveries are exceedingly repetitive, and only of nominal value. Yet many of these are still collectible to some degree as they are considered one of the most popular small antiques in the world. The historical diggers who target old coins, jewelry and military related items via a machine also find a high percentage of items which are damaged, and in poor condition and repetitive as well. Nails, small change and pull tabs long ago separated from assorted beverage cans are some of the most likely things to “beep” up with a metal detector in many locations.

Construction sites and old industrial areas, early landfill deposits and shorelines are also potential areas where assorted glass, metal, porcelain and pottery objects can sometimes be found. Along with residential properties, privy diggers, metal detectorists, artifact scavengers and various urban explorers are all likely to pursue permission to investigate these places as they become available.

Bottle history

Historical dig in progress.

An important time for glassmaking and bottle collecting is known loosely among collectors as the ‘patent medicine craze’ (bitters) or the ‘pontil medicine period’. During the 1840s and 50s a plethora of remarkable designs, colors, names and outlandish claims or promises became indelibly linked with ‘medicinal’ glass containers in particular. Many other striking bottles were being produced then as well, such as mineral waters (Excelsior Springs or Saratoga Springs), inks and historical flasks.

The pontil rod, something which leaves a distinct scar on the base of a bottle, went out of general use in bottle making by about 1865 and is inherently linked to serious historical digging. By the 1850s and 1860s assorted clamping devices known as “snap cases” and other devices were being used to grip the hot bottles once they were removed from their molds.[3] From then on the pontil rod was basically no longer needed for this maneuver. Mouth-blown bottles without a pontil scar on their bottom are known as “smooth base” bottles. Unprecedented examples of pontiled bottles of all types were made in the decades just prior to this change but are very difficult to find in any condition underground. It can take years of digging and salvaging in key locations to unearth just one intact example which is noteworthy to a serious collector or historian. Despite the very low odds historical digging produces some fine examples of rare pontiled bottles each year. Rare embossed bottles, those with raised lettering denoting contents, proprietor’s names, addresses, and other marketing information dating to about 1835-1865, are among the most sought after in the world.

Early smooth base bottles from around 1855-1875 sometimes look identical to their predecessors. Lacking only the pontil scar on their bases they are not usually anywhere near as valuable as their earlier pontiled counterparts can be. Even those smooth base examples which were blown in the exact same molds and colors as their slightly older pontiled relatives.

Many everyday bottles regularly found on historical digs were still being mouth-blown, and the lips formed by hand tooling devices, as late as 1910-1920. These are also considered smooth base bottles and occasionally some examples can be rare and valuable but they are generally less attractive to a serious collector. These late manufactured smooth base bottles of nominal value are relatively easy to find on many historical digs. Those produced between the 1880s and 1915-20 being the easiest to find as they were manufactured and subsequently discarded in enormous quantities annually. An endless variety of shapes, sizes, colors and assorted embossing are known to exist. In 1903 the first fully automatic bottle machine, the Owens Automatic Bottle Machine was patented. By the end of World War I nearly all bottles being produced in the United Sates were machine made.

The truly rare pontiled and smooth base bottles that do surface on historical digs, their history and the related stories being circulated, motivate many privy diggers and dump diggers throughout their digging careers. In a similar manner the truly remarkable discoveries made sporadically by some metal detectorists each year inspire others to seek buried objects with various metal detecting machines.

Historical diggers

Assorted clay pipes (ca. 1835-1875).

Demographically, historical diggers are a diverse mixture of skilled trade's people, white collar professionals, history buffs, and others with an abiding interest in making subterranean discoveries of their own. Some historical diggers are connected to fields related to history and teaching. However, most historical diggers do not get paid for their actual digging efforts, no matter how prolific they are.

Thus, historical digging is pursued by a wide variety of dedicated individuals and groups and is exceptionally popular in many parts of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. Those around the world involved with actual digging of some kind, usually done by hand, while searching for antique bottles and other old things which do not disintegrate rapidly underground or in water. Many of those who engage in historical digging on a regular basis have visually impressive collections of antique bottles, and other things related to an area and its history.

By definition historical diggers are not archaeologists but primarily operate as small scale independent investigators. Working mainly on private residential properties groups and individuals will focus on specific areas of interest and hone their particular skills over time. Historical digging has things in common with treasure hunting and garbology but is none of these exclusively. Actual treasure is not usually found while excavating in this manner and digging through garbage is only one aspect of the process.

Going back to its early days there is a widespread myth or misconception that historical digging produces a regular and substantial income with little effort. That discovering prize items can be achieved easily and without abundant research being applied regularly in some manner. Though compelling to outsiders and newcomers, in reality most noteworthy discoveries of valuable ‘dug’ bottles, reclaimed jewels, coins, buttons, military related objects and other things are almost always the end result of years of active searching, in many different locations. Though there are many exceptions, the vast majority of things discovered while historical digging do not have value in the antiques market but are traded as collectibles. Many historical diggers donate objects to assorted learning institutions, such as local museums, historians and other places. Some rebury incidental things which are too common or damaged to warrant storing them indefinitely. Only a very small percentage of diggers attempt to make a living solely off the things they have excavated in privies, dumps and while metal detecting, and/or the restorations and artwork created from artifacts found on various sites.

Rickett pioneered the three-piece mold during the early part of the 19th century (ca. 1825).

There are many clubs coast to coast and in other countries which fall under the general umbrella of historical digging. In fact, by 1970 over 100 bottle clubs with thousands of members had been formed. Collectively these kinds of clubs spend a considerable amount of time and effort researching and doing historical digging work and salvaging, locating and maintaining historic sites, and additional history related volunteer activities. Members of these clubs and other individuals typically make their efforts available to the general public during annual bottle and artifact shows and other places, and for educational and recreational purposes through article writing, giving and hosting lectures, photography, sometimes books, and websites (The Manhattan Well Diggers).

Locally and internationally antique bottle clubs and historical digging clubs and magazines (Antique Bottle & Glass Collector Magazine) have been responsible for helping form and maintain bottle and artifact museums (National Bottle Museum). Many of these organizations strive to elevate awareness of things of interest which are being discovered among major renovations, on assorted construction projects and also during private backyard digs each year. Many clubs have antique-glass experts and other knowledgeable historians among their ranks. Generally, a wealth of information can be acquired through them.

Summary

Historical digging is a multi-level pastime which involves various techniques for locating and excavating old garbage dumps, landfill deposits, privies, construction sites, and occasionally battlefields and shipwrecks, and investigating history via metal detecting. Through various digging and salvaging efforts, particularly those dating to the middle 19th century or earlier, historical digging has brought to light a remarkable array of antique bottles and other items, and specific knowledge relating to things of general use during the recent past.

See also

Notes

References

  • Botha, T. (2004), Mongo: Adventures in Trash, New York: Bloomsbury  
  • Miller, B. (2000), Fat f the Land: Garbage in New York: The Last Two Hundred Years, New York: Four Walls Eight Windows  

External links

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