Sunday, June 28, 2009

19 Tiny Artifacts (And Two Really Good Ones) Dug from Forgotten Ypsilanti Dump

Dusty Diary and a confederate excavated 19 artifacts from an old Ypsilanti dumpsite today. The dumpsite is forgotten, and neither named nor dated. When did these mysterious items, many years ago, first see daylight? It turns out they would see light three times.

A few twinkles of glass shards in the faint path made us bend down and start brushing clumps of grass aside. A warm sun shone down on the remote area. Nearby, a single daylily bloomed in the center of a weedy field, a possible descendant of lilies planted by a householder long ago.

One hawk swooped overhead, pursued by a tiny bird, as underneath it we pursued small fragments buried in the dirt.

Confederate found two small lumps of what looked like fools' gold mixed with coal. "This is slag. They were burning something here." The rocky bits twinkled. "Maybe they were burning the trash here." "Is slag the same as clinkers?" "What are clinkers?" "Clinkers are the burnt-out bits of cheap coal left over in a coal furnace." "Could be...look, there's another one. They were doing some burning here." "Well, maybe they were just throwing out the clinkers from the furnace because it was all burned out."

Between the two slag bits at left is a rusty industrial - style caster suggesting some factory dolly or cart. "It's rusted solid, so it's either iron or steel." Was it used in a local factory?

Many tiny ceramic and porcelain bits littered the site, most plain white.

The ceramic fragments at left do not represent those generally at the site, since a magpie factor influenced us to collect items that were particularly decorated, interesting, or patterned, like the one with a frilly red floral design at bottom.

When had they been thrown away? So far it was impossible to date the site. But today was the day when the objects were coming to light a second time, decades later, under our fingernails.

If the clinkers were coal remnants scooped out of furnaces, though, they were likely from Ypsilanti's era of home coal furnaces, which lasted at least into into the Depression.

We collected some pieces of colored glass. At top left is a tiny broken neck of a dark brown (medicine?) bottle.

Beneath it is the fanciest piece we found, of amber glass with an iridescent sheen. It shows a floral design on both of its sides, whose gentle curves suggested a bowl.

"At first I was thinking something like a cosmetics bowl, for face powder or something, but then you wouldn't see the design." "It'd be covered up." "So it's something where you see the design on the inside, like..." "A candy dish."

Underneath the floral glass is a shard of basketweave-patterned brown glass, and beneath it is another broken neck to a small brown bottle--except this one is distorted and melted.

Melted? This must have been some trash bonfire. Wait--could a bonfire actually melt glass?

Other glass pieces included, at far left, what appeared to be about half of a small round lid, a sturdy round handle suggesting a big glass jug, and a fancy faceted fragment that hinted at another decorative bowl. (Not pictured is a big round clear glass disc that may have been the bottom of a large jug).

The small white semicircle below them, apparently ceramic, gave us another hint about dating the site. Initially suggesting another bottle lip, the object revealed it was a broken electrical fuse, from the days of fuse boxes. Later it would prove difficult to pin down when fuse boxes began to be replaced by circuit breakers. 1960s?

The largest artifact was a 10-inch-tall brown bottle. Its neck was glossy like modern glass, but its body was matte, and distorted. Apparently it too had been partially melted--surely not in some trash bonfire! Had the site had an early trash incinerator? Something fiery enough to melt a sturdy brown bottle?

On front of the bottle is an oval embossed logo showing a bouquet of four roses. On back is the legend, "FEDERAL LAW FORBIDS SALE OR RE-USE OF THIS BOTTLE." On the front bottom is "4/5 QUART". On the foot underneath are the characters "O-11 96-47" and the capital letter I within a horizontal diamond backgrounded by a small vertical oval. It looks a lot like the bottle in this 1951 ad.

Confederate found the day's most exquisite and charming artifact: a dainty, plain glass bottle just as long as my pinky with a 1/4-inch opening in its threaded neck. Dusty D has found a similar bottle in her backyard years ago--if contained a glass pipe tapering to a point, suggesting a medicine applicator used to lightly dab a drop or two of some especially potent medicine onto a wound. Today's bottle, with its tiny neck, also suggests it contained some substance doled out in tiny quantities. Its lack of decoration hints that it contained an everyday substance, as opposed to something like a possibly more ornate perfume bottle. Was it a medicine that lurked in this small vessel? Considering that modern medicines in the drugstore are packaged in plastic (which only started to become common after WWII), is it pre-war? Who bought it, for what illness, and when?

This evening the artifacts, taken home and carefully cleaned with soap, finally came to light a third time, after their initial creation and much-later excavation.

I lifted up the scanner lid, laid them on the glass plate, and turned out all the lights in the room to get the black background I wanted. I pressed "SCAN" on the machine and watched the blue beam of scanner light start snailing across the plate.

As the beam passed the clear glass artifacts on top of the plate, the blue light refracted through, turning them into sapphires. The light changed the light brown glass into a glowing amber jewel. The beam's slow transit revealed the worthless bits' true nature, as jewels of the past. No wonder I'd been enchanted in a desolate weedfield. No wonder I'd patiently and carefully dug out the whiskey bottle with my small penknife. No wonder I'd gazed at the shards in my hand and longed to know who'd owned them. The light twinkled and sparkled through unwanted junk, pried from the dirt, and revealed it as topazes, opals, and rubies.


Anonymous said...

No wonder you like to dig around old city dumps. What wonderful treasures you found.

Anonymous said...

fabulous treasures, DD!

Dusty D said...

Anonymous: I do think they're wonderful, too--and that was just from digging around with fingers and a little knife. The medicine bottle in particular. Confederate gave it to me as soon as he found it and he really couldn't have bought me anything I'd like more. It is so mysterious and yet evocative, and there is the slightest sheen of age-iridescence on its tine-scratched surface--it's so beautiful. Tried looking it up on bottle-collecting sites but looks as though I might have to look at a bottle-collecting book to start pinning it down.

Dusty D said...

Jen: Thank you! I think so too. The fuse fragment was a surprise...I haven't even thought of fuse boxes for YEARS but we used to have one, sure enough. Still trying to pin down the actual era of fuse boxes, vs. circuit breakers.