Thursday, September 27

Urban Excavating


In the past 3 years, I have turned up quite a few rocks while planting shrubs and perennials. Most of the stones in the backyard are fist-sized, flattish, and fairly smooth. Here you see a collection of the ones that I turned up last night as I began to excavate what will soon be my grotto garden. The 4x4 grape arbor post and the quart-sized fern pot give you an idea of their actual size.

They look fairly innocuous, but don't let that fool you. Even a half-dollar-sized rock in the wrong place can bring a manual posthole digger to a screeching halt. (They are, however, ultimately no match for my garden trowel, a few choice words, and Brian's stubbornness.)

In addition to the numerous rocks discovered along the way, Brian found a few extra special surprises as he dug all of the postholes for the new fence. Discovering this brick was particularly vexing, as we didn't know whether it was part of an old drainage system... or, worse, a mortared cobblestone driveway buried 6 inches beneath the new cement one. Lucky for us, it proved to be a single specimen and only took an extra 20 minutes to remove.

The pottery shard next to it is marked like a fine ceramic plate, and is one of many such pieces of glasses and dinnerware that have been discovered here. I lost track of the glass chunks somewhere around 6 dozen, and I only keep the pieces that are pretty colors--like the light blue opaque glass in a photo below. When I find a new one, though, I amuse myself by making up stories in my head about the clumsy residents who preceded me and how this particular shard came to be.

Among my "fun finds" have been the front bumper of an old toy car, the torso of a 6o's action figure, and a 4-color pen of the type I coveted in junior high. (You could write in red, blue, black or--most importantly--in green. That was almost as cool as writing in purple.) I have also discovered overwhelming evidence, collected over the course of at least two years, that an old coal pile was once sited about 6ft off the northwest corner of my garage. That would have been a long, cold walk from the house in the days before PolarFleece!

And I have no idea how this huge chunk of marble, carved with two straight channels, could possibly have come to rest almost 8 inches underground in my backyard. You can see how large it is by comparing it to the size of the toy car bumper shown above.

I really wish I knew its story. These row houses were originally built for blue-collar company workers, not for people who had need of--or means for--marble facades. Mine is no bigger or smaller than others on the street, and can see no reason why it might be singled out for pricey upgrades.

But I saved the best for last. By far my favorite find is of far more modest origins: An old pry bar!
I discovered the straight end of it as I was planting a cherry tree last spring... and didn't realize what I had found until I dug it out enough to unearth the crooked end.

In a fitting twist of fate, this pry bar came in very handy as Brian coaxed the old brick out of the last posthole this weekend. The brick was a little too big for my trowel to handle, but the pry bar made short work of it--and helped us to ensure that there were no other surprises waiting beside or below it!

But I bet you don't have to be an urban gardener to make interesting finds "below grade" in your little domain. Anyone else have good stories of exciting, scary, or otherwise interesting finds they've made while digging in the dirt? I'll be back to read them... as soon as I dig a few more holes. I'm aiming to figure out just exactly where the clumsy spinster buried all of her grandma's money... ;)

33 comments:

kris said...

Yeah, money is what I'm hoping to find as I dig up the rest of my yard! There was a tornado that went through here in the mid 60's. That along with the fact that people used to use the lake as a dump, means that I find lots of treasures when I pull weeds for my compost. Mostly old bottles and broken glass - but once in awhile something fun like a railroad spike.

The most maddening has been an old sidewalk. I do vaguely remember deciding to just bury the bottom half of the sidewalk when we filled in the lower part of our yard. The sidewalk went straight down the center of the yard toward the lake - and really, was I going to put anything in the center of the yard?? Well, now, many years later, the lake gardens have come that far up into the yard - and I've had to uncover and dig out many feet of sidewalk. Your crowbar would have been a huge help! :)

chuck b. said...

You would not believe all the crap I've dug up from my backyard. I wish I was blogging back when I did most of the work, but alas I was not.

(I will say tho' that it was extremely creepy to find a little girl's swimsuit [no other physical evidence of a little girl, thank god], and it was very depressing to find approx 100 old batteries and several yards of fiberglass insulation.)

Since my backyard would be a downslope without the retaining wall at the back of the yard, I have a theory that a previous owner built that retaining wall, and backfilled with garbage and dirt. Then a later owner laid sod and installed sprinklers. Who knows what's still down there awaiting future excavation.

Anyhow, I did blog one weird thing I found once:
http://coldcalculation.blogspot.com/2005/07/iron-mystery.html

I also have an awesome collection of old brown glass bottles.

But this is your blog, we're talking about you, and I think the prybar is a most excellent find!

Kristina said...

When my husband and I were landscaping our backyard last year (our house was a new build and there was nothing but dirt back there), we were digging a trench to run an electrical cable underground to the garage pad. We had our cat (who is an indoor kitty) out with us and I was saying that we should look into getting one of those corkscrew-like things you screw into the ground with a circle at the top so we could attach our cat's leash to it and let him wander. About 2 minutes later, my husband's shovel hit something metal and it turned out to be exactly that thing I just described.

I then promptly said we should look into finding a few million dollars worth of treasure so we could pay for someone else to landscape the yard, but alas.... no such luck (yet).

Yolanda Elizabet said...

Looking for that pot of gold Kim? ;-)

In the garden of my previous house we found a lot of broken clay pipes and cow's teeth. Which was to be expected as there were once cows grazing where my house is now. Strangely enough we also found a crystal lid of a decanter. The matching decanter we never found. ;-)

snappy said...

Hi Blackswamp girl.I loved your post about buried items being uneathed when you are digging.I have hit my fair share of bricks which generally take some moving.I have found knives, fake rolex watch, toys, coloured tiles, marbles, cutlery, broken glass.I enjoy imagining how they got there and ended up buried.
You hear of people digging up buried treasure of old Roman coins here occasionally.
Its like mini archaeology working out who has been in the garden before you.
My most recent item I dug up was a 1964 Half Penny in Frans Garden.Maybe her Grandad had dropped it in his bedding plants 40 years prior :)

Colleen said...

I've found lots of rocks, a few bricks, and, like you, some flat pieces of marble. None of the ones I've found have been nearly as large...every once in a while, I still find a piece, especially if I'm digging up near the house.

Me said...

Our yard is fairly clean. When we did all the roto-tilling and digging earlier this year we found very little. The builders of our house must have used clean fill (our house is between 15-20 years old). The only interesting things we found were a beer can full of dirt and a super-ball.

I think the prybar is awesome!!

Natalie said...

I'm with Chuck B. in that the amount of crap I have dug up next to the house is amazing. Pieces of glass, marbles, a button, the top of one of those wire hair brushes was my most recent find. One of my more interesting finds was the metal portion of a hand-held garden rake grown into the stems of a giant evergreen bush.

And I live next to a gravel pit, so the amount of rocks I pull out of my gardens is just phenomenal. I've bordered a garden with hand-sized or larger flat rocks I've pulled out of the ground, and I regularly pull a five-gallon bucket worth of gravel off the surface of my vegetable garden. Post hole digging is not a fun activity in our yard!

Mr. McGregor's Daughter said...

I think there must have been some structure on a concrete pad on my property because I keep digging up large chunks of concrete! Definitely not as fun as a hunk of marble. I've also found a few drainage tiles, but why they would be on my property is a mystery as the ground here is sloped. The only interesting thing was my most recent find. From the front yard I dug up an old metal doorknob. It makes me wonder whether there was a shed here to go with the old farmhouse on the corner. Thanks for rekindling the memory of those funky rounded capped purple pens I used to use in junior high.

lisa said...

Fun post Kim! Your prybar is such a useful find, none of mine compare. In this yard, mostly rocks, an old button, a couple fossils. We found much more interesting stuff at my mom's house in Northern Indiana-arrowheads, chunks of pottery, lots of fossils, marbles, old bottles, a hot wheels car, and the best one-a 3" porcelain doll, unbroken. It's very cool and I presume rather old, and luckily I'm a packrat and still have it! I feel a post coming on.... ;-)

Jen Fu said...

I live in the city too. The most exciting thing I've found is a cistern. My boyfriend and I were hoping it was a gangster's stash and would be filled with gold. Instead it was just a partially empty hold, so we filled it up with dirt. I've also found a toy soldier, numerous bricks, and various pieces of metal.

jodi said...

Gee...all I ever find when I dig in our property is Just. More. Friggin'. Rocks. Of all sizes from pebbles to serious boulders. This is a lovely post, kim, thanks for sharing. (and I hope you're not too tired after all that excavating.)

meresy_g said...

Mostly I dig up fist size peices of quartz, but I also sometimes find pieces of old pottery, marbles, and pieces of those blue-glass canning jars. I love to find old farm dumps and can spend hours sifting through the household refuse of another era.

Ottawa Gardener said...

The strangest thing I've found is sand. Feet upon feet upon feet of sand while some of my neighbours complain of clay not far below the surface, I have yet to dig deep enough in some places to find that clay underbelly. In other places, I'd say it's at least 3 feet down. And by sand, I mean SAND, the kind you could quarry and sell in little bags.

No wonder we have such good drainage.

As it turns out some people say that they had originally planned for a cut-through where our house stands so they dumped the sand when the neighbourhood was constructed. I don't know but it comes in useful when I need some... sand...

Heather said...

My first ever post was about the most interesting thing we've excavated from our garden:
http://heathersgarden.typepad.com/heathers_garden/2007/06/the_beginning.html

But I like to think that I've gotten better at this whole blogging thing, so I draw your attention to a more recent post about more under-garden finds:
http://heathersgarden.typepad.com/heathers_garden/2007/09/really-frighten.html

Blackswamp_Girl said...

Kris, how funny--maybe since you haven't found a crowbar yet one of those railroad spikes would come in handy to help remove the stubborn sidewalk?! ;)

chuck b., au contraire! This may be my blog, but we're talking about finds, not necessarily about me. The former is much more interesting.

The little girl's swimsuit would have seriously creeped me out. I would have probably been afraid to dig any more at all for fear of finding further evidence of said little girl! I checked out your linked post earlier... I wonder if that iron rod had anything to do with an attempt to find water or something? Hmm. In any case, I agree that batteries and insulation are pretty depressing finds, but the old glass bottles are rather sweet. I have yet to find a bottle in its entirety, unfortunately.

kristina, how ironic that he found just what you had "wished" for! You must have only been granted one wish, though, huh? Too bad you didn't know that early enough to wish for the treasure first... *grin*

No, yolanda elizabet, I don't think it's a pot of gold. I think it's a box of old silver coins! *wink* Seriously, cow's teeth would be kind of fun to find. And the crystal decanter top cracks me up... I wonder how it got there and what happened to the other half of it?!

Snappy, I have heard those stories, of gardeners finding old Roman coins in England. (I've also heard about people finding still-live WWII bombs while doing construction projects around London. Talk about job hazards... yikes!) I like to think that you're right about Fran's grandfather dropping that coin. Makes me smile. :)

colleen, that's so weird--any idea where that marble might have originated? Are yours, like mine, between 3/4 and 1 inch in thickness? I would love to know what this came from!

me, you reminded me... I've found a couple of those old pull-tabs they used on beer cans in the 70s as well. Isn't it funny how you can sometimes find actual cans full of dirt? It almost looks like someone has packed it in there on purpose, they can be so full. I wonder why that happens instead of them simply being crushed?

Natalie, I'm grinning about that metal rake head. I'm imagining some frustrated kid losing it in the bush for the second time and then saying, "Forget it! I'm done raking!" And then going off to do something else and never coming back for it. :)

mr. mcgregor's daughter, did you keep the old metal doorknob? It would be fun to use as a coathook or something since it has such a good story. I wonder if you could find an old-timer who remembers the house "way back when" to verify whether your hunch is correct?

And you're so right... chunks of marble are way more fun than chunks of concrete. And likely a whole lot easier to dig out! lol.

lisa, I can't believe that the porcelain doll was unbroken! That's amazing! I never found anything cool at my parents' yard, although i was convinced that Indians must have lived there since we were so close to the river and thus I was always on the lookout for arrowheads. (Youthful imagination--I conveniently overlooked the fact that until the farmers moved in, the place was literally a swamp. Duh!)

jen fu, I love your username! :) If I had found a cistern and suspected that gangsters had used it to stash things... well, I would have feared finding a body along with the gold! lol. That said, too bad it was entirely empty... must have been some kind of work to fill that up with dirt.

Jodi, excavating is my mind-clearing task. :) I think that the biggest rock that I've found is only about the size of my hand fully spread out, so that's not too bad. And as my Dad commented this weekend, farmers who deal with clay would love to have my dirt--so that makes up for quite a bit, too.

meresy_g, it sounds like you are a fellow wannabe archaeologist!?! (I wanted to do that for a while when I was a kid... right after I decided that I wasn't quite cut out for being a real gypsy, and before I decided that I'd rather go into forensic science. I still flip to the archaeology articles in National Geographic first.) I would love to find chunks of quartz that large... and blue glass, too. So pretty that it makes me wish I had a tumbler.

Blackswamp_Girl said...

Ottawa Gardener, how odd! At least you know why, I suppose, because otherwise you'd still be wondering where in the heck all of that sand came from! Maybe you could go into business making souvenir hourglasses? ;)

heather, I would LOVE to find a flagstone walkway!!! How fun. :) I laughed about the other finds--I would definitely have made some garden art out of that taller thing that you tentatively id'd as a tv antenna. I don't know, though, it almost looks like an old rake to me--like it should have pegs coming out from the horizontal post at the top. I don't know why I think that, I just do.

Heather said...

Kim, I saw your comment on my blog and clicked through to the photo. I think you're absolutely right, it is a rake. I'm going to have my husband dig it out of the trash barrel so I can take a closer look. I sense a post in the offing.

Ellis Hollow said...

My best finds here have been sheep shears and an iron -- the kind you heat up on top of the woodstove.

When we lived in town, I noticed a 5-inch piece of slate peeking through the sod. I peeled the sod back to find a foot-square flagstone. And more peeling back revealed a 15 x 20 rough stone patio. I used the stones as stepping stones and replanted lawn where the patio was.

On that site, if you dug down more than about a foot and a half, you hit coal ash fill. Everything growing in that yard pretty much grew in that narrow strip of top soil on top of the fill.

Having dug a lot of post holes by hand, I just assumed that you had a breaker bar. I wouldn't think of using a manual post-hole digger without one. Mine is about six feet long with a sharp tip on one end and flattened 'tamper' on the other end. Probably weighs, oh, maybe 30 pounds. With the help of gravity, you use it to break up the soil or whatever you hit (it's got enough cojones to bread rocks) and then you use the post hole digger just to remove what you've broken up. It's still hard work, but not as tough as just using the digger.

Maybe I'll post some pix of the junk tomorrow.

Blackswamp_Girl said...

Heather, cool--you'll have to let me know whether you find holes bored out where the tines are supposed to be! I just remembered why I knew that was a rake, too. My grandma has an old decorative one (made entirely out of wood) hanging on the wall of her front porch.

Craig, now THAT would have been a useful tool for Brian--er, us--to have! *grin* As it was, he was happy for my garden trowel. It's all metal (tough but light) except for a spongy material around the handle for gripping. It was at least easier to navigate in the hole than a full shovel.

Sheep shears and an iron, eh? I guess I can see someone "losing" an iron but the sheep shears seem like something you would definitely keep track of. (Unless of course you lost the sheep first.) I hope you do post some pictures--that would be fun to see. Were the shears sharp yet?

Carol said...

I haven't found a lot while digging in my yard, other than some interesting rocks and a fossil. However, over at my sister's house, where we all grew up, she occasionally digs up one of our old marbles or plastic toys, which is fun for her kids.

What I want to know is who is burying stuff now in their gardens for the next gardener to find? I'll admit when I dug a post hole to set a post for my grape arbor, I threw in a little plastic box with some surprises (good surprises) for someone to find some day.

Carol at May Dreams Gardens

Dirty Knees said...

Like Kris, we found a sidewalk. But I live in an old farmhouse built in 1890 or there abouts. Lots of residents, everyone with their own idea of how things ought to be done.

My favourite find, though, is a tiny apothecary bottle with the raised-letters "T.E. Eaton" on the side. Eaton's is the name of a now-defunct department store that once had many chain stores across Canada. Nostalgia for Canadians.

Layanee said...

Rocks can be a pain in more places than one! I have the big ones that are connected to the earth (ledge) in addition to every size imaginable! Love all your treasures but the pry bar is the best!

Blackswamp_Girl said...

AHEM, Carol! What I want to know is what in the heck you buried in that little box... I can't believe you would tease us like that and not give us the details! (lol, okay, yes I can.)

Dirty Knees, I would love to find an entire bottle. Or a partial bottle with recognizable letters raised in the glass. How fun!

Layanee, I bet those ledges are a pain... but you do such nice things with the rocks and all of the other features of your yard. :)

LisaBee said...

I posted photos some time ago, here:

http://todayinthegarden.blogspot.com/search?q=archaeology

of a bunch of treasure we've unearthed. We sort of collect Fiesta ware & other colorful 40's pottry-- which makes it especially fun to find it here!

Digital Flower Pictures said...

I think the weirdest thing I dug up was an old Army Jeep will installing drainage at someones house. Needless to say I got it covered back up before the inspector arrived and rerouted the pipes. It is still there today.

Another time I was planting some big trees and I dug down and found a 6 foot round drywell that was 6 feet deep. The sides were perfectly stacked field stone and the top was a huge piece of granite. I had been running all sorts of heavy equipment over it for weeks and thankfully it didn't collapse. There was no sign of pipes or any use I could figure out.

If you keep your eyes open around here it is fairly easy to find arrowheads.

gintoino said...

Well, apart from tons of rocks, I've been finding blocks os cement,empty tunna fish cans,old brushes and of course bottles, beer botles by the look of it...The most interesting , in a kind of kreepy way, finding was a sheep's skull and the jaws of a dog/fox (we live in the country side, so finding animal bonnes is not that strange)

Sue Swift said...

Hi – this is an invitation to join the Garden Bloggers Retro carnival. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across the concept of a Blog carnival – if not I’ve explained it in detail on my site today (Oct 1). But basically the idea is to revive an old post which you think is worth rereading, or which you think new readers might enjoy. Send me the link to the post, and in November I’ll publish a series of posts describing and linking to all the posts people have nominated.
I hope you’ll join in and we have a fun carnival!
Sue

Phillip said...

It seems like every day I dig I find a brick or two. I've also found some interesting bottles over the years but nothing as interesting as your finds!

bs said...

that's fantastic! thanks for sharing. i love urban archeology... i'm finding all sorts of stuff in my yard here, even besides the stuff i import. but my weirdest find is still the grave of my husband's grandfather's long dead bird. there's an intimacy to gardens whether you want it or not...

David in Greensboro, NC said...

Great post, Blackswamp! I love finding things when I dig. Maybe someone who lived in your house did construction work and brought home bits of scrap marble???

Heather said...

Kim, I finally got around to posting on that tv antenna/rake.

Entangled said...

I haven't dug up anything very interesting, but back in the woods there are rusty old pieces of a car just lying on the ground. I'm trying to decide whether they deserve some kind of memorial ;-)

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