1) Pre-Dig Research
The Dig Process
Prior to arrival at the property, I study local maps, early photos and aerial imagery to identify current and historical land features. Some early maps show the position and layout of homes and outbuildings from the 1800s, providing excellent insight into where possible outhouse or refuse pits are located. Topographical maps provide indication of ravines or troughs that may have been used to dump refuse.
The Core Tools of Bottle Digging: Metal Detector and Probe
Without the aid of a metal probe, this hidden hillside dump would not have been discovered
2) Survey Property
I meet with the property owner on a pre-determined date to walk through the property and scan for potential dump sites. With me are my two key tools to locate artifacts: a metal detector and a long metal rod (probe). The metal detector helps find small relics scattered throughout the property, like coins, cans and silverware. However, the probe is the primary tool as it allows me to feel deep underground for areas where objects were buried. I can determine differences in soil composition and listen for contact with metal or glass based on probe resonation. Bottle probing is a skill that proves extremely useful in discovering artifacts that are deep below the surface and beyond range of detector.
Types of places where artifacts can be found:
- Specific Dumpsite: If you live outside of the city, the old garbage dump will usually be on the outskirts of the property on land that was not used for farming or industry. I often find dumps down ravines or gulches, out of sight and out of mind. Usually a few metal buckets or barrel hoops will be sticking out of the ground, a dead giveaway of antiques buried beneath.
- Outhouse: Prior to the early 1900s most bathrooms consisted of a hole dug in the backyard and covered by an outhouse. The outhouse doubled as a place to throw away small items like bottles, jars, plates, etc. People often accidentally dropped valuables down the outhouse, like coins, rings and guns. After 100+ years everything in the outhouse has turned to natural organic soil, while the antiques remain in good condition. Outhouses can be more difficult to locate than dumps, especially on large tracts of property and in yards that have seen significant landscaping.
- Scattered throughout the yard (coins, etc.)
3) Artifact Recovery
Dumps: I use the probe to determine the exact parameters and depth of the dump. Because a dump is usually in a gulch or ravine, I will start at the bottom of the ravine and dig my way up the slope, depositing dirt behind me as I go. I use a shovel to get under the upper layer of dirt, which is usually a foot of organic material. I then use a hand scratcher and small shovel to carefully and methodically dig through the refuse layer. Artifacts of interest are put in a safe place as digging proceeds, and trash (most broken items, rusty cans, etc.) are reburied. Photographs are taken through the dig to document what was recovered and the surrounding context. After the dump dig is complete, the area is raked smooth and in certain cases replanted with vegetation. The duration of the dig is from an afternoon to a few days, depending on the size of the dump.
Outhouse Dig: An outhouse dig usually takes place in the backyard about 20-40 feet from the back of the house. As a result, much care is taken to protect the property and restore it to the original condition. Tarps are placed around the perimeter of the pit, which usually measures 5 x 5 feet in diameter. If in grass, the sod is carefully cut and placed to the side, where it will remain until the hole is refilled and sod placed back on top as though the dig never happened. Usually the top three feet of a privy dig will have no artifacts in it, as it was the section of dirt that was used to fill in the hole when it was no longer in use. This dirt is carefully shoveled onto the tarps as I work my way down. Privies can be difficult to dig alone, so I often enlist the help of a dig partner to aid in the process. After about three feet it becomes too difficult to use a shovel to move the dirt out of the hole, so dirt will next be placed into a bucket and the partner will hoist the dirt out. Privies in the northwest go anywhere from 4 to 10 feet deep. Extreme care is taken to ensure absolute safety throughout the dig. Artifacts are usually deposited in a concentrated layer near the bottom of the pit. Items are photographed as they come out of the hole and safely placed to the side. Once bottom is reached, the dirt is shoveled back into the hole. This is an excellent opportunity for the homeowner to bury any yard debris that they have been intending to take to the landfill. The dirt is tamped down and sod replaced.
This privy was located in a backyard corral. Shown are before, during and after shots of the dig. The site is restored and will be re-sodded.
Half of the fun is finding the items, but the other half is in cleaning them back to their original luster. I initially take home all of the items to be carefully restored. Bottles are cleaned with a soft steel wool to remove rust and dirt, and pipe cleaners are used to reach small crevices. Metal is given an initial rinse and often put through electrolysis, a system of removing rust from metal via an electrically charged submersion in water. Items are dried, photographed with a high quality camera, and catalogued.
5) Research & Reports
An important step in the process is analyzing the items and understanding a) the history of the companies / proprietors that created the bottle/artifacts, and b) the historical context & story that these items provide about the people who used and discarded them 100+ years ago. I always write a summary (2-3 pages) of the dig and provide information about the items discovered. The report is provided electronically and available for print as well. With property owner’s permission it can be shared publicly online and with local historical societies.
6) Distribution of Finds
The finds will be equitably split between property owner and myself. The bottom line is that most artifacts will not be rare and valuable- the majority of bottles have a market value of 50 cents to $5. Most coins are common and not in good enough condition to warrant a decent price. If, against all odds, a valuable item is unearthed (in excess of $500), revenue will be split 50/50 or I provide you with half of the item’s value. However, with the majority of digs money never even comes into the picture. It certainly is not the driving force behind my passion for this hobby, and does not detract from the true focus which is discovering history and furthering our understanding of a world that has all but vanished. I often donate my finds and information to the local historical society, where they can be catalogued and stored for future generations.
A Legal Note About Discover Underground
Discover Underground is the banner name for my bottle digging hobby and is not a business. It exists solely to increase awareness and knowledge of local history and does not exist to make a profit from the sale of antiquities or services. I operate with full accordance and respect to the law. I never dig on property without permission, never dig on protected historical or native american sites, and always leave a site looking better than I found it. The work is not meant to challenge or imitate that of professional archaeologists. Information collected from digs is shared openly with the public through the Discover Underground website and local historical societies. Discoveries, if any, are shared with property owners and interested historical societies.