Mack Williams: Relics unearthed with help of a metal detector

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 11, 2022

Many people enjoy finding old “relics” at antique stores; but recently, my son, Jeremy, instead of going through the doors of an antique shop, went straight down into the earth searching for “antiquities.”
The site was the tiny, much-in-need-of-repair parking lot next to the law office where Jeremy works as an investigator. Instead of investigating people, this time he was using his metal detector to investigate things which had been left behind by people years ago (but that’s “evidence” too!). Of course, he had the prior approval of the lot’s owner. Jeremy surmised, after looking at old City maps of Danville, that several buildings had come and gone there; and also, during those times in which the spot wasn’t occupied by a building, it probably became an “urban dumping ground.” And, just as in the Holy Land (well, not exactly), more recently discarded items were near the top, with the older things deeper down.
Jeremy’s further digging was aided by a man from Public Works operating a backhoe which had removed the old crumbling paving. Prior to that, time and the “gentle push” of plants working their way up between the cracks had widened those fissures even more! The horsetail rush, “Equisetum” had found a welcoming habitat there, achieving man-size height. But this was still very shy of its ancestor “Calamites,” which could reach 30 feet tall, with a foot-wide “trunk!” But that was millions of years ago; so, let me get back to the time period of the late 1800s to about mid 20 century, which is the age Jeremy judged his finds to be.
Among the glass items Jeremy found were an intact Danville Coca Cola bottle, a NuGrape soda bottle, along with some wine bottles and many other former containers, whole and fragmentary. One bottle had the glass-molded name, “Bireley’s.” In its heyday (1930s) it only held 6 3/4 ounces of orange juice. I guess stomachs were a lot smaller then (inside and out).
Another of the items Jeremy found was a 10–12-inch ceramic jar lid. It looked to be the top of a long-lost cookie jar; but the rest never turned up. It was as if “The hands of time” had removed the lid of the cookie jar, but misplaced the container (along with the cookies).
One of the most unusual items was reed-like in form, made of metal, and inscribed with the letter “G.” Jeremy thought it was too small to be the “note part” of a harmonica, but rather, “squeeze-box” size. Sir Arthur Sullivan of “Gilbert &Sullivan” composed the ever-popular “The Lost Chord;” and I like to refer to this item Jeremy found as the “literally-lost note.”
I looked there some, finding a few bottles, an old ceramic canning lid insert, some pieces of a ceramic bowl or cup with painted flowers remaining on them, etc. I saw something round sticking out of the dug-up, piled soil; and when I extracted it, lo and behold, I was holding the handle fragment of an old drinking mug. It was almost as if the mug’s handle had been waiting there for me to take hold of it!
Not far away from the mug handle was a hole in the soil, about 2 inches wide, with a single hornet exiting; but I knew there were many more below! Sometimes, and by chance, paleontologists are assisted by fire ants bringing up ancient rodent bones encountered while constructing their nests. But as to the aid of fire ant or hornet, I would decline both!
Of the old wine bottle I found, Jeremy said it possibly dated from the late 1800s due to the texture of the glass and the construction of its bottom “dimple.” The very top was broken off, and the bottle was filled with soil and a couple dozen shells of long-deceased snails! I left the earth and the snails inside, feeling that dumping them out would be sort of like desecrating a gravesite. And besides, when I look at the spiral shells of those snails, entombed in that old wine bottle, I recall some of my evenings as an early 1970s Appalachian student.
A big part of the mystique (or rather, “science”) of metal detectors is that people use them to find coins. Of metal items, Jeremy found some square-head nails and other corroded iron objects; but strangely enough, he only found one coin with his metal detector! This was; however, a 1929 penny! I remember first reading about the “Great stock market crash of 1929” when I was at Granite Quarry School. During that upheaval event people lost thousands and millions of dollars! While looking at Jeremy’s found 1929 penny, I realized I was looking at a very small part of that earlier money, in this case, money lost “physically.”
The little parking lot is now re-paved. Whatever was not found by Jeremy, and to a much lesser extent, me will have to wait for sometime in the future, when others may have as exciting a time there as we did! It was like a “rolling back” of the pavement, leading to a brief time of discovery before a “re-covering.” Even though our search was below ground level, it reminded me of a long-term comet, seen in the sky for a comparative instant in a lifetime.

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