The Underestimate-able Digger

  • September 24, 2015

I am an enigma. The more I interact with experienced diggers and historians, I’ve begun to realize that strangers have a tendency to underestimate me. I’m underestimate-able. You aren’t likely to find underestimate-able in the dictionary–however–I do like the ring of it. (Underestimate-able, adjective: a person, place, or thing that is thought to be smaller or less than it actually is.) For all intensive purposes, consider me underestimate-able.

A few years ago, I embraced that perception. When I was picking for profit at yard sales and estate sales, I took full advantage of my clueless young-woman appeal. “This bowl looks really cool!” I would proclaim as I plucked a piece of carnival glass off a table. “Is this metal?” I would ask and tap on the glass. All the while, I knew that this was Fenton. More specifically, I knew this particular piece was a red, persian medallion patterned  bon-bon worth–at the time–$350. (I’m not sure what the going rate is these days, but any glass collector will tell you that the market has taken a nosedive.) These days, I just fill my shelves with pretty iridescent and opalescent bobbles from years gone by.

Back when I was picking, I didn’t really mind being pegged for the clueless brunette with an infectious smile and strange fascination with grandma’s dust-collectors. (Dust-collector, noun: an object of decoration with considerable age that collects dust on a shelf or mantle.) Picking is a game that relies on being underestimate-able. You win the game by knowing more than the seller–thus turning the object for a profit and making some quick cash. I was terribly good at this ruse–but that’s a post for another day.

I do still pick on occasion, but–as many of my readers know–I spend a lot more time digging for my treasures. Digging–unlike picking–requires a certain level of knowledge and understanding of the past. I’m not talking about digging through a park for clad–my four-year-old could do that. I’m talking about finding permissions that will deliver tangible history–researching troop movements, local lore, and family stories. Digging requires knowing that before the travelling trashman got his wheels, people would haul their refuse into the woods or toss it down a privy. Digging requires knowing that before central air, people sought shade beneath trees. Digging requires knowing where social gatherings took place, where farmers led their horses and cattle to drink, and where the mailbox was positioned by the road.

I was recently invited to dig around at a stone tavern that was built in 1794. This had been one of those unattainable permissions for two reasons: 1) the property is owned by the historical society, and 2) the property is owned by the historical society. (Yes, I realize I repeated myself.) In my experience, historical societies like archaeologists. They like the idea of bringing in a professional to chart out a grid, remove inches of dirt at a time, carefully excavate any shards of broken china and bubbled glass, and carefully catalog everything in labelled brown lunch bags. Needless to say, I never expected–in ten bazillion years–to break ground on this tavern.

It just so happened that a fellow digger and friend of mine has connections with the local historical society and acquired permission for the tavern property a few months ago. These past few months, I’ve drooled over some of the relics that the tavern has produced. Then… last weekend, he invited me to join him for some detecting. I jumped at the opportunity–not figuratively, but literally. I dove off the couch to charge the XP Deus.












When we finally had our chance to hit the tavern, I spent more time clearing the side yard of blanks from previous reenactments than I did digging the deep targets. An hour into the dig, my pocket was crammed full of brass casings and a few scraps of foil. My mindset–at the time–had been to eliminate the surface chatter and gradually reveal the deeper tones. My theory seemed feasible enough, but the darned casings were tangled in grass and partially buried. This was no matter of simply plucking them off the ground. I had to part the grass and stab around with my pin-pointer until I found the darned things. Then, I had to pop them out of the earth with my hand digger.

I have a short attention span for a digger–not even just for a digger… I have a really short attention span in general. All my giddy anticipation for digging at the unattainable tavern had started to simmer. I could feel myself getting frustrated. This is not an uncommon emotion for a digger. We all get frustrated when a property fails to meet expectation. Roman must have sensed my frustration because he suggested that we relocate our effort to the other side of the property. I snatched up my detector and followed his lead.

On the other side of the property, the historical society had dug a trench. Now, I’m not positive that this massive rectangular hole in the ground was–in fact–a trench, but it measured about five-feet deep by three-feet wide and ten-feet long. I may have considered jumping onto the hole to detect along the walls, but Roman cautioned that I  might get buried alive. Good call, Roman. Instead, we decided to locate the displaced dirt and detect the pile.

11998056_707228732712236_1694671026_nWe meandered through the woods and found a curious pile of brush. Laying on the ground, partially concealed by dirt, was a fragment of pottery. As you can imagine, this got my attention. I am always up for a good ‘ol dump. Roman and I set our detectors aside and began rummaging around through the ash. (FYI: Digging requires knowing that ash is an indicator of an old dump.) We started pulling out bottles, flatware, broken transferware, and buttons. We found Fire Department uniform buttons and we found Navy uniform buttons. By this point, I was up to my elbows in stove ash and the creases of my neck were black from swatting at gnats.

A member of this historical society noticed us digging and came over to investigate. “Found the old dump, did you?” He asked. Then he began explaining the purpose of the dump. I–of course–know a thing or… five about old dumps. Of course, I let the gentleman explain the old-fashioned methods of trash disposal and engaged him with a smile. I realized this gentleman was trying to be helpful and share his knowledge, but at the same time–there was this little nagging voice in the back of my head that kept reciting: “He thinks you’re stupid!” I somehow did–however–manage to ignore this inner tittering and reserve myself to being underestimate-able.

Let’s face it… I’m no archaeologist and I’m no historian. I have no formal education or certificate hanging on my wall. I do–however–love digging and I love discovering tangible history. I may be underestimate-able, but I can live with that.


Early Fire Department and Navy uniform buttons. Also, a button that appears victorian but could date to 1830’s.



These are the bottles we left with. We weren’t all that selective–as you can probably tell by the machined bottles in the picture. At the time, we took any that weren’t broken. My favorite is the cobalt medicine bottle.