An Upper Second Hand: Unearthing buried antiques, Part I

Don't be squeamish: Prod the beach rubble. You’re going to want to find the toilet.

Well, you are reading my column about collecting old things published on a free website, so I’ll venture that you like beautiful antiques and don’t like paying for them. Me, too, and me, neither!

Put down that crowbar. There’s no theft in my advice, but a lot of learning and preparation to be done. Your reaction to the preceding sentence may say something about your personal values. Something with clear personal value is a half-understood new antique in your hands, one that’s covered in dirt because you just pulled it out of the ground, and that glistens as you wipe clumps of earth off to reveal an embossed name, a label, colors, the object itself. It’s also valuable to know that sometimes, underneath all that dirt, is just a rock. The ground doesn’t care whether you go home happy, so enjoy the dig. Actually, grab that crowbar. It’ll come in handy if you dig into a stone wall or foundation.

I think of the outer layer of our planet as a solid sibling of the astronomical firmament, holding constellations of old things in an expanse of opaque dirt. Had Copernicus drawn up a telescope that peered downward, kindergartners might now learn of Dento, the swarm of blue whale teeth forming the rough outline of a mythical leviathan miles beneath the basin of the Marianna Trench.

The circled area is Doggerbank, that as a land mass once connected England to the Netherlands.
The circled area is Doggerbank, that as a land mass once connected England to the Netherlands.

If the notion of an ocean churning above inaccessible relics of the ancient past grabs your interest, search for more on Doggerland. This thickly populated stretch of land connecting England to the Netherlands was lost to us terrainials around 6,500 years ago when warming weather upped global water levels. The Earth abounds with such clusters of bones and gold and lost technologies obscured by our eyesight’s inability to pierce soil.

So one may conclude the we Berkshirites aren’t so special — humans drop trash, old trash becomes treasure, and treasure hunting is popular across the globe — but by contextualizing artifacts found under local terrain to the people and societies that used them, we can learn and appreciate something unique to our local history. It bears many non-accidental resemblances to our present.

Have you noticed that developed downtowns in this county tend to gather around the charging river that stitches Berkshire towns into a vertical line on the map?

No coincidence here.

The Housatonic’s power generated much of this region’s livelihood ever since Europeans brought their Puritanical work ethic to its banks. Saw, textile, and paper mills ran from the county’s top to bottom throughout the Colonial Era. In 1867, the Smith Paper Company of Lee first discovered a method of fabricating paper purely from wood pulp. The company quickly became the country’s largest paper manufacturer. This industry still employs many of us at Onyx Specialty Papers in Lee (formerly Meade), Hazen Paper in Housatonic (formerly the Rising Paper Company, the largest in the world when built in 1873), and Crane & Co. in Dalton (the family-owned company, founded in 1799, has printed all U.S. currency paper since 1879. In 1770, Stephen Crane, father of Zenas who later opened the Dalton mill, made the paper on which Paul Revere printed the Colonies’ first paper currency).

Terrain has always affected lifestyle. Moving water brings energy and travel and food, silica-rich soil beckons glassmakers to build kilns, deposits of iron ore (how many nearby “Ore Bed” roads can you name?) encourage ferrous metallurgy, veins of desirable stones like granite become quarried by industrious builders, like those who built the Hazen Paper mill out of rocks quarried from the side of Monument Mountain. Such quarrying was done horizontally then, like miners clearing a train tunnel through a mountain, as engineers lacked the technology to lift heavy rocks up out of holes. These specific incidences of humans capitalizing on the landscape are not necessary reading, but internalize the relationship between terrain and lifestyle and you’ll know the alphabet necessary to decipher our landscape for signs of former use. Much more on this to come in Part II.

The author digging for slag glass.
The author digging for slag glass.

Retrieving buried or covered artifacts often requires vigorous and extended digging, but this process should always be treated with great care. Some “sites” are limited to a couple of coins dropped centuries ago, while others expand across fields and rivers where factories sprawled and workers puffed on pipes during breaks. Dig slowly. With each thrust your shovel may slide centimeters from the greatest material find of your life, and all of us diggers have heard of someone who cracked that find with too eager a shovel.

Perhaps you’re sitting atop a collection of antique items right now, whether they were deposited by neglect, lost by children, or thrown by a jilted lover into the night. Having nowhere else to go as years of geological processes churn the soil and move mountains, such things rest like preserved shipwrecks beneath an ocean of soil. Drain the ocean and there stood a home, a glassworks, a public dump, a toilet. Like at an outdoor concert, you’re really going to want to locate the toilet. Unlike at a concert, you’re going to want to get right inside there. But these are not beginner moves. Let’s start with the basics.

slag glass collected from digs arrayed on the author's mantel.
Slag glass collected from digs arrayed on the author’s mantel.

Some commonly found items from Colonial-era settlers who lived in Berkshire County include hand-blown glass bottles, stoneware jugs and inkwells, porcelain plates and dolls, clay pipes, metal tools and machine parts, coins and jewelry, and the large, jewel-like stones of slag glass from the 19th century and earlier. After a hard rain you may find stone arrow tips and pottery from the Mahican, an Algonquin tribe native to the Hudson Valley region of New York and western Massachusetts, atop recently tilled ground.

Henry Hudson first made first contact with Mahicans when sailing North through the Hudson Valley in 1609 on his search for a direct passage to Cathay — the same imaginary route Columbus sailed around the globe trying to find — for the Dutch East India Company. Two years later, Hudson and his son were set adrift on a farewell raft in the Arctic Ocean by a mutinous and chilly crew. Back in England these crew members were charged with murder but acquitted because they knew how to sail back to profitable locations up the Hudson River and money money money.

The Mahican lived in a settlement near Albany at the time, but in the 1680s most moved to a reservation in Stockbridge. Many of their descendants later fought alongside Colonial troops in the Revolutionary War. They were the inspiration for James Fennimore Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans,” but should not be confused with the Mohegan tribe of southern Connecticut. Most Mahicans moved to central New York or a reservation in Wisconsin (The Stockbridge-Munsee Indian Reservation in Shawano County) in the years following the Colonial victory that finally allowed the exhausted sun to set on the British Empire.

A grinding stone (with mug to show scale) found during the author's digs.
A grinding stone (with mug to show scale) found during the author’s digs.

Nomadic Paleo Indians inhabited this area for more than 8,000 years before that. Earliest evidence of their lives has been pollen-dated to around 12,000 years ago, the same time a habitable climate began returning to New England several thousand years after the recession of the last ice age. Much of North America was left barren after the cold spell, but with warmer weather came birds. They pooped and dropped seeds. These plants enticed small animals who tasted good to large mammals, including megafauna. Ground sloths as large as elephants crawled across North American until their extinction 11,000 years ago. Paleo Indians followed these tasty animals back up north — I can’t imagine the giant ground sloths were too difficult to catch — sparking the social reawakening of New England after a very boring few thousand years.

Isolated pockets of the artifacts they left behind could be hiding anywhere, though small, nomadic groups didn’t stay put for longer than a few days at a time and most of their belongings are believed to lie hundreds of feet underwater due to geological processes upending earth and sea during the millennia since their apparent disappearance. Exciting Paleo Indian dig sites have been found in recent years along the Atlantic coast and are managed by professional archaeologists. There’s plenty of digging for all of us.

One of the author's treasures: a smoky black crystal.
One of the author’s treasures: a smoky black crystal.

Looking back even further, crystals that formed in the hundreds of thousands from our quartzite-rich soil rest where time last dropped them. Beach sand has long been a valued source material for glassmakers due to its rich silica content, and Monument Mountain, like much of our local earth, used to be a beach. It’s a heap of silica-rich sand, and over millions of years such a heap is bound to churn out a gleaming hunk of Smokey quartz or two. Even gold nuggets, I’m told, tumble down certain nearby streams where clever panners strain them out from the flowing muck. You may have to work for your reward, but our plot of earth is wealthy and generous.

Cable television wasn’t available on our street in Lee when I was a child (Or did my parents make that up? Dad, I know you’re reading this). But we did have a canvas bagful of small shovels, gardening spades, potato forks (small wooden rakes with four bent metal digging prongs) and clam forks (six prongs), rags, flashlights, and a metal detector. This was my dad’s bottle digging kit, and it became my favorite toy. His father had been a bottle digger, too. But unlike grandpa, my dad, Charles Flint, made antiques his life’s work.

Dad brought me along on searches for the buried cellar holes of vanished buildings, digs where we found treasures as diverse as the gorgeous antique industrial waste product known as slag glass, Woodland Indian arrowheads, quartz crystals, 19th century dumps heaped with all manner of one-man’s-trash, and even a collection of artifacts under the rushing Housatonic River. These trips began at age four or five, as soon as I could make my way around without being whisked off by the current. Finding this stuff, these history-infused artifacts, and plucking them from their resting spots is literally simple and safe enough for any child who thought Sigmund & Freud were the flashy shirtless fellows hopping around stage with white tigers.

The author holding a crystal discovered during one of his digging expeditions with his father, Charles Flint.
The author holding a crystal discovered during one of his digging expeditions with his father, Charles Flint.

My first big score came early in my digging career, after Dad and I walked deep into the southern Berkshire woods. We found the buried stone cellar hole where a house once stood, a site partially excavated by other antiquers, and we dug further down into the basement. Noticing how little digging my small shovel had accomplished, I decided to use my eyes. Within seconds a flash of deep blue glass protruding from the dark earth and suspended by tree roots grabbed my complete focus. Had the house still stood, this piece of glass would have hovered near the inside of the basement wall. I’d seen Dad’s bottle collection, knew the shapes and colors to scan for, and was on it like one of Sigmund’s lions. I willed that the base be connected to an intact top — oftentimes found glass is cracked and incomplete — as my fingers gingerly wiggled the hard object hugged by damp, spongy soil.

How could it be so easy for my young hand to grasp and tug, and for the earth to relax its hold on this unbroken treasure? A cobalt blue blob-top Pearson soda bottle out of the side of a pit, hand blown from a molten ball of glass in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in the 19th century, and now it belonged to me? Would this time-gem have been lost to history forever had it not been for me? I was five and didn’t get out much, so cut an incredulous kid some slack.

A blue Pearson Pittsfield soda bottle, recovered from a dig.
A blue Pearson Pittsfield soda bottle, recovered from a dig.

We’d been digging only minutes when I said, “Hey Dad.” The shining glass reflected his grin. We rode into town like hunters returning with a boar. My treasure’s true seal of authenticity arrived when I overheard the grown-ups discussing a fellow bottle collector who’d heard of my find and became jealous, peeved that a little kid found such a good bottle. It may as well have been a Pulitzer.

In the decades since, I learned that bottle digging is a cousin of archaeology. While not an academic field, it developed as an offshoot of historical societies and bottle clubs gathering and sharing information about the past. Such poking around underground is a peculiar practice in that it’s quite popular and those who enjoy it tend to tell all their friends and invite their families, but a person with no connection to the practice can feel stuck outside of, or even blind to, all the fun.

Dig site locations are shared like trust among fellow diggers. It’s not uncommon for families to pass down knowledge of these hidden sites solely to their kin. This may sound like a secret society, one whose members must tap you for membership. But in practice the hobby feels inclusive and self-evidently public.

Consider this your secret invitation, but also consider that I’m not listing any addresses. Exposing a family dig site in print would feel incongruous with the historically-obsessed spirit of the digger community. Sites are earned through research, through careful discovery, through digging in the wrong place nines times out of 10, through inheritance. You’ll understand once you find your first intact artifact — Indiana Jones will come to mind: no judgments — and catch yourself weighing whether to tell your husband or your sister about the location. Each can be a little loose lipped at times, can’t they? As long as no one lets cousin so-and-so know, because then it’s straight to Facebook.

But all of this information control is in good fun. No one’s in it for vast riches. Those who’ve done excellent research and are the firsts to locate special dig sites may unearth valuable goods (especially those who find the toilet; more on that later), but rarely does anyone find a large amount of valuables buried together. But we’re looking through dead people’s garbage, after all, with the added dimension of an opaque  Z-axis separating one week’s trash from the next. If you want to dig in the dirt for money, you’ll probably make more in the long run by working as a ditch digger.

And one holds no legal claim to a discovered site unless that plot happens to lie on their property. If it belongs to someone else, their legal claim may be that you have to leave. Sometimes asking politely ahead of time can earn all the permission you need, especially if you offer to share your findings and don’t make too much of a mess within street view. Sometimes the best sites are underneath the street itself. Digging on public land is sometimes illegal and sometimes not. This murky area is one I encourage you to explore by speaking with seasoned local historians.

The author with a chunk of hazy blue gray slag glass freshly dug from a mid-Berkshire hillside.
The author with a chunk of hazy blue gray slag glass freshly dug from a mid-Berkshire hillside.

“Hundreds of thousands of dollars are buried in the first three inches of ground throughout this whole area,” my dad told me recently. Charles Flint is an antiques and fine arts dealer native to the Berkshires who’s spent his entire adult life educating himself about local history. “That includes everything: antiques of value that survived, gold and silver jewelry that people have dropped recently, rare coins, minerals, semi-precious stones. It’s a matter of using some common sense or technology, historical research or studying the terrain so you know roughly where to go,” Dad told me. “It’s all there for the picking and it’s free if people have the energy and smarts to find it.”

I asked him for some help in guiding you to the right resources. He’s the expert, after all. I’m just the guy lucky enough to ride shotgun and pick up some tips along the way.

“No one’s born with this information. A lot of it is passed down verbally. Very little is written down about this stuff,” he told me. “You may be treading new territory by writing about this stuff [hence my reluctance to give directions to the nearest slag glass site, but you’ll find yourself unearthing colorful pieces in days’ time if you follow up on the resources to come]. The best place to learn is from other people sharing their knowledge. It’s almost like in the old days when lore was passed down verbally.”

He’s right. This subculture still operates on a word-of-mouth basis. Perhaps that model is essential to its continued well-being. It also helps keep the practice in the hands of individuals; a website listing the coordinates of every known site may prove too enticing for globe-trotting treasure hunters with state of the art equipment and boundless storage space. A few decades of large-scale excavation could strip our resources bare. Fortunately, the lore surrounding dig sites runs deep and with a youthful energy, similar to how locals talk (or don’t talk, depending who’s asking) of prized swimming holes tucked in mountain tarns and isolated quarries. There’s a lot of hearsay, but for good directions you need to find a knowledgeable local historian, ask the right questions, and then shut up for half an hour. Take notes.

“Beginners can start at a museum and talk to curators, or they can join mineral collectors clubs or bottle clubs,” Dad suggests as two actionable first steps. I attended countless mineral and bottle club meetings as a kid and listened intently as old-timers told of their best finds and favorite sites. But, he informed me, I’m living in the past.

“There are lots of online clubs for people who are treasure hunters. You join these clubs and then network with people. Facebook has a bunch of these subculture sites,” he reported. “There’s a Berkshire County History site. Berkshire Blast to the Past is a good Facebook group to belong to. Bottle Collectors is another. Early American Glass. Southern Folk Art and Pottery Collectors. Patent Medicines of the 19th Century. Blackglass and Colonial Bottle and Artifact Collectors. Australians are crazy about bottle digging, and they love junk. They’re some of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Their site is called Absolute Junkers. You should look that up.”

In keeping with bottle digging tradition, many of these Facebook groups are set to “private,” but their thousands of members suggest a welcoming policy. “One that’s run by really die-hard historians is Historical Digging Depot. They teach you a lot about digging, show pictures of people in the field, and post photos of things that they find and can’t identify.”

I visited the group’s page, and despite being set to “Closed” (a Facebook user must request approval from the group’s founder to join), the description states: “The Historical Digging Depot is an interactive forum for all hands-on historical discoveries, and interesting or humorous aspects of history in general. We specialize in antique bottles, privy digging, dump digging, and metal detecting. We invite you to post anything of interest encountered in attics, basements, junk shops, from dumpsters, books, newspapers, photographs, and elsewhere and look forward to networking with you.”

I told you there’d be an emphasis on toilets. Well, there it is. The word privy refers to a small, portable shed that Colonists erected atop a deep hole dug straight down into the ground somewhere on their property. A good deal of Colonial thinking was done atop these pits, known to archaeologists as vaults. When the pit filled up the owner would either “dip” the vault (empty its contents for use as fertilizer) or dig a new vault, move the privy over it, and bury the full one. Some privy vaults run just a few feet deep while others were cavernous, extending down 25 feet. I’ll let you handle the joke here.

But, and this is no joke, privies are the jackpot of bottle digging. They doubled as garbage chutes during the Colonial Era. Glass and pottery tossed down the privy benefited from a cushioned landing and soft, organic material soon covering them up. They were also devoid of rocks, making the dig much easier. As a result, former privies now represent long, vertical cylinders of often well-preserved bottles and inkwells from the Colonial-era and thus rank among the most desirable dig sites in New England. There’s no smell; all the decomposing and stinking that Colonial feces can possibly do is long over by now. It’s indistinguishable from soil, which itself has been digested by other animals.

Digging in the dirt, looking for buried treasure.
Digging in the dirt, looking for buried treasure.

Hard to spot from the surface, seasoned diggers look for a slight indentation in the earth nearby to the perimeter of a former house’s cellar hole, then test the soil by driving a 4-foot to 6-foot sampling rod straight down. If the soil-sampling tip returns a clump of earth that’s darker than surrounding dirt or shows other signs of being filled to the brim with antique crap, then down go the diggers.

“We were finding so many bottles that a friend accused me of planting them there!” said my father, describing a bountiful privy he happened upon while guiding a group of friends who’d never before been digging. “I laughed and said ‘Honest to God, I’ve never dug in this spot before.’ As I kept digging I could feel each bottle under the soil. Each time I got close to one I’d stop and say, ‘I’m tired, why don’t you dig right here?’ Then one of them would find the bottle and be so excited.”

(This is the end of Part 1. In Part 2 I’ll talk about how to dig for bottles without breaking them, what slag glass is and how to find it, how to look at unfamiliar terrain and determine whether it was used as a building site or garbage dump, and why you’re looking at all the wrong things when hiking in the woods…)