Friday, November 8, 2013

I'll Never Be Hungry Again...

It’s full-on fall here in Tennessee. The ticks and snakes have retreated into their wretched, little lairs and Cheryl and I are free to dive into deepest, darkest, seemingly virgin woods to dig up crushed Budweiser cans, 12 inches down.

Which we do.

Since my epic skunking of the last post, we’ve returned to our construction site (we’ll dub it Double Buckle) quite a few times and have even gotten to know the weekend crew of Latin American construction professionals. One hot day, they disappeared and came back with ice-cold bottles of juice for us. In their broken English, they told us about the ancient broken pottery they’ve unearthed in their home lands.

I, who am scared of anything large and loud, have even become comfortable with the massive bulldozer and dump trucks that we share the site with. When one heads our way, I just saunter out of the way. Sounds obvious, but it’s been a bit of a breakthrough for me and I am rather proud.

Here’s me in my headphones and ball cap, covered in construction site mud, looking and feeling pretty bad-ass if I do say so myself.

Don't f**k with the dance major.

No. I didn’t find a buckle, though I surely tried. I did manage to dig some very nice buttons and a few other cool odds and ends. Here’s a visual recap:

This button makes my heart sing a radiant song.

Yup, this site was generous with the
buttons. Cheryl, too, found some
beautiful ones. 

I knew you wanted to see this "dragoon"
button up close.  Lots of gold left on it.

From left: harmonica reed, clock or watch guts
suspender clip that looks like a tiny valise.

One day, we ventured into the woods that border the site (you remember? the woods with the murderous branch that nearly brained me?… ). We didn't find much in there but I took the biggest outdoor pee of my life and if that is too graphic for you, then your sensibilities are too delicate.

This is what I found in the woods.

That's right. It's a rare and valuable
Civil War elephant.  I understand
your feelings of envy, but you must
learn to deal with them. And don't
go telling me it's a bent and broken
hoe handle. That's ridiculous. 
Last weekend, with nothing else on the docket, we headed back to Double Buckle to see if the bulldozers might have flipped over a good spot. It’s sad to see the natural topography of this land get all flattened out and readied for the $500K houses. (You may insert something about “progress” here, if you like; I can't.) We got busy and dug for a couple of hours, dodging 'dozers. The ground was mostly orange clay by this time, but there were a few areas of black dirt that looked interesting.

Here are a couple of things I found.

This looked promising.

Here it is, cleaned up.
Still not sure what it is. Any ideas? Jakson
insisted on being part of the display. He liked
the textural dissonance of metal and fur and I
have to say, I do too.

Cheryl and I found these within minutes
of each other, but far apart.
About 3, Cheryl and I were taking a break, when a massive white truck pulled up and the man inside began talking to the workers. Now, I don’t cotton to this type of interference. It can only be bad. So I began my fervent prayer, PLEASE DON’T COME OVER HERE AND ASK ME IF I’M METAL DETECTING PLEASE DON’T PLEASE DON’T PLEASE DON’T.

The truck pulled up next to me. “You gals metal detecting?” said the man, who had the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. The kind of eyes that report metal detectorists to the authorities.

“UM, well? Not right now! I, uh, mean, we WERE, or might have been? But as you can see, we are merely eating sandwiches!”

I’ve never flourished in these situations. (See page 38 in my book, Not About Madonna, for another example of this).

Well, the man said, leaning out his truck window and staring at the Fisher F75 detectors in our hands. “Over on Cracked Stump Road, the fire department just burned down a 100-year-old house. You can hunt the whole property. You can’t miss it – it’s still smoldering.” The man – head of a huge construction company handling a bunch of local sites – gave us his card and permission to hunt all we want.

And that’s how, at the end of the day, Cheryl and I found ourselves in a huge field next to a seriously burning house. We walked around in amazement. Two barns burned in the far corners of the property. Two matching chimneys stood stark against the darkening sky.  There was hissing, crackling. A flaming branch fell off a tree I was standing under and nearly set me on fire. Of course.


Then Cheryl had to leave and I found myself alone at the burning Southern house at sunset. I fought the urge to drop to my knees, scrabble in the dirt for a parsnip and sob, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” because that would not have been cinematically accurate because Tara did not burn, (though Twelve Oaks did) and this house, though old, was not that old as evidenced by the satellite dish in the front yard.

I kept saying (out loud, to no one): “How did I end up here?” There was something a little buzzards-circling-the-carcass-y about my presence on this property, even with permission. Was I “profiting” from someone’s misfortune by digging here? Then I remembered that whoever had just sold this property to the developer was probably a millionaire now AND I was about to unearth cool clues to the people who’d lived here for the past 100 years. And that, my friend, is just a teensy bit sacred. When the bulldozers arrive, it’ll all be lost forever.

I took a breath and got to digging. Here’s what I found.

These were together, clearly from the same harmonica.

Maybe from a desk? So pretty.

1920 -- my grandfather had arrived from
Armenia only a year or two earlier.

The next day, Cheryl and I checked out a wooded area in a brand-new subdivision that the construction guy had told us about. Just a year or two ago, this had been a remote site on a dirt road with a 200-year-old log cabin on it and a real, live spring house. Now, the cabin was gone, but the spring house remained, tucked into some woods, next to a neat and tidy cul-de-sac. We didn’t dig anything fun but the spring house was pretty sweet.

So then we went back to the burn-out for round two but didn’t stay long because Dirt Girl had signed up for a food writing workshop in Nashville.

But here are a few more things we found.

Mama's coat button.

This this is huge! I'm guessing the fin off an old car?

I'm a little teapot. (This was a pin.)

So, yeah. Fall. I’ve been thinking about the burning house all week long. My van still smells like smoke. I can’t help but wonder about the 100 previous falls that fell there. How there’d been a house, nothing fancy. No columns. Just a house. Grannies. Babies. Well water. Turkey dinners. Folks sitting out on the front porch, staring at a particular sky. A man looking out the screen door, saying, “Whoo-boy, feel that chill, darlin’? Let’s have a fire tonight, after I get home.”

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Dear Cheryl...

September 15, 2013

Dear Cheryl,

I’m just going to come right out and admit it. You skunked me.

I shall even hazard to say that this weekend’s skunking of me, your friend Whitley, may herefore be referred to as the Skunking of the Ages, a skunking by which all other future skunkings will be measured.

(As this isn't, of course, actually a letter, but a blog post, I’ll recap a bit for the clamoring public.)

First, this weekend was the most beautiful in many weeks, with morning temperatures in the 50s and reasonable highs. Overhead: the bluest of skies, dotted with wispy wisps. Cool breezes. It was prime for digging and, Cheryl, you know as well as I do how badly we both needed this weekend. Our MD mentor, The Aptly Named Doug, had scouted out a construction site in the small town of “Borgnorf”, a few miles northsouthwest of Nashville. Between a marshmallow factory and a pelican ranch.  

(Sorry, folks: Cheryl and I will never tell you where.)

It was going to be so FUN.

And then, suddenly, I could not go digging on Saturday, as I had to teach dance to underprivileged children. Hungry, underprivileged children. (Disclaimer: the children I taught were neither hungry nor underprivileged but I still had to teach them. On a flawless Saturday, wrought by God for metal detecting.)

As I left the studio, Cheryl, you called me with excitement in your voice.

You’d found your first US buckle. You texted me a photo of it and it’s indeed a beauty! I was so happy for you! I really was. Later, I told a friend how cool it is that when one of us finds something, the other one is really, truly happy. There is never jealousy.  Never.

I will say, however, that your buckle did quicken my pulse. Sunday could not come soon enough. Saturday evening, I became so desperate that I visited a neighbor’s yard and quickly pulled out these nifty 1950s-era house numbers. Pretty cool, huh, Cheryl?!

Which brings us to this morning, Sunday. We met at the site in Borgnorf. You were right, Cheryl: it’s HUGE. A massive, unfenced, unposted, drool-worthy construction site in a rugged and ancient area that will soon be peppered with subdivisions named “Briar Mount” or “Craggy Landing.” We pulled in and got started.

It was hard going. The bulldozers had turned the gentle fields and forests into the surface of the moon. We immediately split up and started swinging our twin Fisher F75s. I instinctively headed for the edge of the site – it was bordered by thick woods.  Here’s the first thing I found:

(It’s brass or copper with a nice, green patina, so I was pretty excited.)

I had high hopes for this, but it's just a lid.

Also this:

Yes, a buckle, but not really what I had in
mind. Still, nice.
 I guess.

There were hundreds of pieces of porcelain and pottery that spoke “old home site” loud and clear 

but there were also tons of beer cans that spoke “assholes who litter.” I didn’t find anything else for a long time. I fell down twice. Found a harmonica reed just lying on top of the ground.

Who played a love song on this, so far from home?

I kept looking at the woods. They were very enticing. I noticed one tree in particular that stood tall above the rest. An old timer that had surely sheltered soldiers in their camp…

And here, Cheryl, is where I must thank you for saving my life…  for when I pointed out that tree and told you I was going into the woods to check it out, you told me NOT to because rattlesnakes are at an all-time high in September and I believed you. And then, not THREE minutes later, we heard a huge, earth-shaking noise and a massive branch from that very same tree came crashing to the earth. For no reason.

Right where I would have been standing had you not warned me.


So thank you, Cheryl. Your kind warning makes what happened later a little easier to bear.

For you, Cheryl, had to go and turn up the skunk. First: a beautiful rosette that totally surpassed my – let’s-face-it – old lid of something.

I am kind of in love with this item.

Then you found another buckle. This time, with an eagle on it.

Nice. If you like that kind of thing...
(Interesting to note: despite the fact that
troops were obviously here, neither of us
found any bullets. Not one. Very strange.)

Sigh. Oh, Cheryl, Cheryl, Cheryl…

You have every right to dig multiple Civil War buckles. I support you!

But this was a little much, don’t you think? Two in one weekend? Really?

I became frenzied. I dug my little heart out. I wanted a buckle – or ANYTHING – so bad. I did manage to dig one plain, little flat button. I showed it to you, triumphant.

Then you showed me the numerous highly decorated flat buttons and military buttons you’d been digging all afternoon without fanfare and a little part of me died. 

Finally, you were ready to call it quits. I agreed – it was so hot – But I found I could not give up! I got a weird signal and – zowee! – dug an ancient spoon. The scales were tipping.

Then, I got a GREAT signal and dropped to my knees, scrabbling in the dirt like a crab. You watched, pityingly, from your car.  “Go home!” I yelled across the acres of bulldozed earth, but you would not leave me there alone. Instead, you joined me and helped me dig. And when I pulled it out and screamed, “FUCK it’s a GAS CAP!” you turned it over and showed me that it was actually an old oil lamp and assured me that it was cool.

Delicate oil lamp parts. They just don't
make things like they used to.

You are a good friend.

And so, I am happy for you and your buckles. You deserve them. And, after I find some of my own, I hope you find many more.

Here are my finds of the day.

From top left: ancient spoon, round thing surrounding
 smaller round things (possibly clock parts),
the Lid Thing, buckle that is not even close to being
the kind of buckle I want, harmonica reed,
cool spikey thing surrounding porcelain bit
and flat button, round spool thing (actually kind of cool).
Center: oil lamp parts.

I broke the spoon.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

I'm Sorry, Did You Say "Tinkling Cones"?

I don’t think your Dirt Girl has ever been so excited to tell you about her finds of late. It will be a somewhat complicated story and to tell the truth, I’m a little cowed at the prospect...

As many of you know, I have strong ties to the Great Lakes State. After I graduated from the University of Michigan, I pretty much stayed in Ann Arbor until 2008, when Al and I moved to Nashville. (You see, I’d been psychically summoned here by country music, undiscovered Civil War relics, and a whole slew of tiny children desperate to learn to point their feet.)

I’ve never regretted the move but I get back Up North as often as I can. I love Michigan: brainy, sparkling Ann Arbor; sad, scrappy Detroit, the small towns, the beautiful rivers and oh, Lake Michigan, I love you soooo.

From 1997-2007, Al’s family gathered on the shores of Lake Michigan for two weeks of lovely togetherness. After this difficult past year (Chloe, and a whole lotta other stuff) I felt I deserved to stare at water for a week or so, not quite sure how I’d pay for it, I booked a cabin for a week. (Thanks, Dad.)

It took me two days to drive up there, but with Jakson (black dog, a model citizen, quite capable of driving if only he had thumbs) at my side, it was pleasant enough. We stayed in Ann Arbor overnight and were at our destination by Thursday mid-afternoon.

First stop was a different rental, where a healthy dose of Hills was already gathered. My kids (honorary Hills) were there too, which was great.

I wasted no time in getting down to the beach and swinging the Fisher F75 in and out of the shallow water where the waves meet the sand.

Pretty quickly, I found this, deep in the wet sand.

I know. You are jealous. You need to
deal with your feelings. Yes, I'm pretty
sure it is not a Tonka steering wheel.

I really, really like it. More on this later.

Two days later, the Hills headed home and my kids and I moved into “our” cabin, a couple of miles north.

The place was old and teeny: one room, with a loft sleeping area, a wee kitchen and a bathroom. Massive, stone fireplace. Deck. Lake Michigan. Coziness, beer, whiskey, love, food, woodsmoke, dog, water, sand, stars. At our max, we were six people, but we didn’t care. A zillion rounds of Balderdash were played, to riotous effect.

Jak, waiting for Balderdash to begin.

Months before, I’d asked the homeowners about MDing around the cabin and they said sure. So, since it was, ultimately my vacation, I felt little or no guilt about abandoning my family that first day and heading out into the gentle, sandy woods for a little look-see. The sun sprinkled through the tall trees. The ground was soft and loamy. No mosquitos. Yum.

Here’s what I expected to find: tin cans, old Matchbox cars from long-ago vacationers, pulltabs. Maybe, if I was lucky, some wheat pennies.

That’s not quite how it worked out.

I headed off down a path that ran parallel to a small bluff overlooking the water. Signals were by no means constant, but they were there. I started digging, pulling out old scraps of metal, none of it very deep. Looked greenish, like copper, but I wasn’t sure. Also funny little rings, like old washers. Figured it was all just junk and stuck it in the fanny pack.

Later on, we got locked out of the cabin and the owner, John, came down to help us out (turned out he’d left us the wrong key). I told him I’d been metal detecting, but hadn’t found much.

John’s grandfather had built the cabin nearly 100 years ago and he’d spent much of his boyhood in there playing in those woods. “We used to find tinkling cones in the woods all the time,” he said.

Tinkling cones?

Yes, he explained. The Native people would trade with the French and English soldiers and traders – silver trinkets and scraps of metal (old copper pots, etc.) in return for beaver pelts. The Native people would sometimes form the scraps of metal into little “cones” that they’d dangle from their clothes.

Hmmm. Cones like this? I asked.

About 2 inches and 1 inch. Yes, they tinkle.

Yes, said John, excitedly, those are tinkling cones.

Inspired, I spent part of each day happily exploring these gentle woods. The little bit of contemporary trash I found (a couple of tin cans, one or two bottle caps, a tube of hair cream or something) was nothing compared to remarkable evidence of the indigenous people who used to live here on this lake, their rich culture in simple harmony with the earth. And evidence of their early contact with the Europeans who, as we all know, changed everything for them.

Here's a sampling:

I was initially very confused
by these, but they are trade
silver trinkets, I believe.

I have no idea.

Musket balls.

Again, no idea.
Tiny Viking headdress?

LOVE it. I think it is
part of a hawk bell.
Note the "No"... not sure what it means.

Colonial era coat buttons.
Note cool pattern on the larger one.

The back of the larger button.

Several times, I got some monster signals – real honkers – and dug fairly deep to pull out large pieces of old copper.

About 9x4 inches.
This is OLD. It's kind of a bundle
of scraps, pressed together.

This is the back.

Miscellaneous copper strips.
Ones at top are about 12 inches long.

I can't handle it.

Needless to say, there were some pretty serious history rushes coursing thru the old bod.

After a couple of days, I visited John’s wife, Debbie, in her realty office. Debbie loves to MD too and was curious to see what I’d found.

“Whit, what kind of metal detector do you HAVE???” she said when I took the items out of the bag. An artist with a degree in anthropology, Debbie had worked as an interpreter at a local museum and was well aware of the issues that so often pit archaeologists against metal detectorists. Still, she enjoyed detecting from time to time and, like me, was open to hunting areas where no archaeologist was ever likely to go. We talked a long time.

I mentioned that virtually everything I found was within, say, 50 feet of the bluff overlooking the lake.  The further I got from the lake, the less I found (as in swinging the machine for 15 minutes without a sound.)

Debbie made the point that for the Native Americans living here, the lake was the road; there was little point in settling or even going much inland (though I know that there were settlements around large inland lakes). I began to better understand the richness of the land: water, meat, fish, wood in seemingly endless supply, right on the lake. It was all kind of Eden-ish, except for those blasted winters. I learned that many tribes thought of northern Michigan as a place to go in the summers – like their later fudge-purchasing, Rayban-wearing counterparts. They would travel south for the harsher months.

I’ve never felt much connection to Native American cultures. I’ve never wanted to wear the jewelry, nor collect the blankets. A psychic once told me I had been a Native American midwife in a previous life and I almost busted out laughing – not because of the midwife part, that I could believe – but because of my lifelong lack of connection to anything remotely Native. I admired, respected and was moderately interested in Native culture, but didn’t feel it the way so many people do.

But after my week by the lake, discovering, cleaning and holding items they made, held, wore and valued… now I feel it.

Still, the question loomed: what should I do with these items? Donate them to a museum? Make assemblages? Give to my card-carrying NA friends whose ancestors lived near this place not so long ago?

When I got home, I took a big chance and wrote to an archaeologist, attaching this photo of the thing I found in the surf.

Gulp. Here is our exchange:

Hello, Dr. XXX
I found your email address online and hope it's ok to ask you a quick question. I was recently metal detecting in the surf of Lake Michigan. [I told her the name of the town.]

I found an item in the water I'm very curious about and was wondering if you might be able to identify it. I've attached a photo. It's about the size of a quarter. Any leads much appreciated.

Here’s her response:
That is certainly interesting – of course it is hard to ID things from just a photo, but it certainly looks like trade silver and perhaps a piece of some kind of Jesuit ring/pin/other personal ornamentation – trade silver was common in Jesuit relations with tribal communities in the Great Lakes – so I would say this is an item from the early historic period, French interaction with Michigan tribes, between ca. 1610 and 1740ish (French and Indian War)

It’s a very nice item -- I must add as an archaeologist that once an artifact is out of context, it loses a lot of its meaning, it is very important to us to find things in situ and for sites to remain as intact as possible.  The items themselves are only one part of the story, the main part of the story is the association of items with each other, with buildings, with living surfaces, and so on. I would also add that tribal communities are still very present and active in Northern Michigan today and they are working hard to protect their cultural heritage – you might consider giving this item to them or to a local museum.

I wrote back immediately:

I'm excited to hear your take on the item. I immediately thought about donating it, but wanted to check with you — or someone — to be sure it wasn't a steering wheel off an old toy car, or some 1970s hippie jewelry.

I do understand about the "in situ" issue — and the differing views of archaeologists and metal detectorists. This item was found IN the water (right where the waves were lapping up) so I would imagine the in situ issue is moot, right? It must have been moved around quite a bit over the centuries.

The part that confuses me is the ethics of metal detecting in an area where clearly no archaeologist is ever going to go. In addition to the item I found in the surf, I did find a few clearly historical items in the woods right next to the cabin we were renting (with permission of homeowner).

 Isn't it better to at least know that an area might be worth looking at closer? Isn't it better to find some items and donate them rather than just have them be lost forever, or be bulldozed during a home building?

Is an ethical metal detectorist who locates a potential site and perhaps contacts an archaeologist better than leaving a site undiscovered? Sorry… lots of questions! I'm genuinely trying to understand the issue better and do appreciate your wisdom. Thank you!

She never wrote back. 

I probably over-gushed. Maybe she thought my questions were challenging in some way. I did appreciate her initial response, though.

Back home, I’ve been learning more about “trade silver” – the items brought over from Europe specifically for trade with indigenous folks.

And what I’ve learned has made me look closer at some of the items I found and initially disregarded. For example, these:

Well, of course I thought the long item was
a 1970s hair barrette. Wouldn't you?

I also disregarded the smaller piece until I got home and found two tiny letters on the cut end…

Can't quite make it out; can you?

 But online I found photos of nearly identical pieces in a website on Native American trade silver. So I guess that’s what they are. 

Which brings me back to my original question: what do I do with this stuff? I certainly didn’t rob a grave. These were items that were dropped or discarded by both Native people and Europeans who were in the midst of living their lives. It’s not like this is ancient history and we have no idea what happened there. We know. This particular collision of cultures -- Lake Michigan tribes and European traders and missionaries -- has been studied and written about by all kinds of scholars. In every way, it is a terrible story of hubris and violence and subjugation. But it is not a mystery.

Is it inherently disrespectful of me to remove these items from the ground? Could it be that they want to be found?

What about the tin cans, bottle caps and the pulltabs? Should I remove those? After all, they are the artifacts of the future.

Everything in the ground tells a story. Everything. 

I’m just listening.

And with that, I will leave you with the sound of the waves, an incoming rainstorm and a joyous, gamboling dog.