Monday, January 27, 2014

Antiques Under the Ground

Every spring and summer for the last 15 years, my parents have hunted for antiques...under the ground. They dig in old homesteads and old city dumps from the late 1800s to find treasures. The thrill of the hunt, the beauty of the artifacts, and the stories of generations long gone keep them going year after year. I decided to sit down and ask them a few questions about it, as I was completely uninterested as a teenager. Now, of course, I find it absolutely enchanting.

Why do you dig?

It's a lost art. If we don't resurrect these artifacts, they'll be lost forever. Digging, for us, is therapeutic and necessary. Most people love the sound of the New York symphony; we love hearing the sound of cans and bottles clinking together under the ground. Our hearts beat faster when a handful of dirt yields treasures from a life long forgotten.

What got you started?

When we moved to Idaho in 1996, we were walking around our property and knew that there were old homesteads and remnants of foundations right under our feet. Mark sat against an old burned snag from the 1910 fire, and happened to look down and see three old bottles ensnared in the roots of the tree. We've never stopped since.

What if I wanted to start digging? Where would I go?

Go to your local courthouse to find where old homes or farms were, or even where the old city dumps used to be. Dumps are a treasure trove. Look for old tin cans or shards of glass out in the forests. A lot of times in the 1800s to the turn of the century, they would throw their bottles and trash over hills and in gullies, and to hide the occasional flask, down the outhouses. You'll find a lot of good things if you dig deep (down a few inches), too.

What do you use to dig with?

The best tools for digging are common gardening tools like three-prong trowels and a garden spade. Gloves, a head lamp, and safety goggles are also very helpful. Make sure to take old newspaper to wrap up your treasures! If you have an old window screen, you can throw your dirt on that and sift through the silt to find artifacts that are often missed, i.e. bottle stoppers, coins, small toys, jewelry, etc. We throw all of our tools in a 5-gallon bucket, and carry a backpack with lunch and bottled water. Digging can be hard work! 

Whats the most unique thing you've dug?

Well, my most sought-after piece was a pumpkin seed flask that, after 14 years of digging, I found 6 inches beneath the ground, right beside an old tree. Women used these because they were inconspicuous and thin. They are absolutely gorgeous! Some other unique things we've found are: a jar of marbles at an old schoolhouse, celluloid hair combs, tin business cards…toys…I can't even begin to remember all of the things we've found over the years.

Is there anything dangerous about digging?

Depending on where you live, you need to be aware of snakes and insects that sting and bite! In the northwest, we have to watch for bears, mountain lions, and the rare patch of poison ivy! It's nice to dig in the Pacific Northwest...not a lot under the ground that can get you! Always get permission to dig on private land or in national forests. Cover up what you dig, pack out trash (obviously). Digging too deep or far back in a hole can create a hazard for cave-ins, so just be careful. Make sure you're up to date on your tetanus shot because there is a lot of sharp rusty metal under the earth! 

What do you do with all of the things that you find?

That is our favorite part. We bring everything home, wash it up, and spend the day researching where they came from. We can often find exactly where the items came from, some right down to the drugstore or business! We have never sold a single item, and we've found thousands of bottles and trinkets. For us, it's about the hunt and it's about treasuring each item and giving them new life.

They CAN be very valuable. You can find collectors willing to buy certain pieces, sell them on Ebay, etc. You can gift the items, or just keep them to treasure. My sister-in-law used old porcelain doll parts as ornaments on her Christmas tree one year. You can also bring back the shards of glass that are often colored by the sun and time to make mosaics.

Whats the worst thing that's happened to you while digging?

I tied a rope to a tree and used it to get down about 80 feet to a dump that was close to an old ghost town. I was digging back in to reach an old aqua cork-top Milk of Magnesia bottle (one of the first kind made) and I got it…along with a nest of hornets! I had untied the rope to dig, so instead of tying it back on and climbing out, I slid and fell down the shale cliffside and into the water. Totally worth it.

Have you ever been digging? What was the best thing you've ever found? If you haven't....does this make you want to start?

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  1. Wonderful finds!! My Mom & love finding treasures on our country walks! Thanks, for sharing...happy digging!!

    Celia & Glad oxo

  2. Beautiful Post!!!!
    Peter & I have spent many happy hours in the soil surrounding this old someplace ~ arrowheads, bottles, marbles...perfume/medicinal bottles and many broken china chips & shards ~ each one a treasure to us! I just posted about the old bottles we keep in an antique cabinet in our bathroom ~ all found here on our farm & in our woods ~

  3. My husband and I love doing this! We live in Idaho, so there are many places in the desert where the old-timers would take their trash and dump it. We usually always find something to bring home.

  4. Our town had burned down twice in the early 1900's. People would bury their precious items to save them. So if you know the old homestead had burned down, then that's another place to look for buried treasures.