Findings #2: Archaeological Finds

Even if a found treasure turns out to have no value, it's still worth something if it connects us to particular people. When an object has stayed in place since its owner dropped it, or hid it, or set it down and then forgot it, archaeologists call it "primary context." It's "secondary context" if, say, a rat picks it up and carries it to a nest.

In one attic, the owners were wrenching up floorboards when they came upon two glittering bits of gold—a set of earrings. Later, they found books and magazines from the early 1900s. Most intriguing, though, was a bamboo stick tied to a leather thong between the joists. At the end of the thong was a bottle of opium—empty.

Most of these objects are not just historical tchotchkes or, as archaeologists call them, "accidental discards." They're fragments of a story. Like the 43 jelly glasses Jim Collins discovered under the floor of his Hillsborough, New Hampshire, farmhouse. When he asked residents of the town what that was all about, one of them gave a sage nod. "Townie Leed was a drinker," he said.

Some people take great precautions against unintentional immortality. One day Sharon Welch-Blair and her husband, Bob, had a visit at their bed-and-breakfast in Little Rock, Arkansas, from an old man who said he had worked in the house years before. He walked up to the mantel, touched it, and a secret compartment swung open. It was filled with empty liquor bottles from the Prohibition era. House documents show that a federal marshal owned it during that time.

Scott Jordan finds treasure in the literal wastelands of old New York. He searches defunct privies and cisterns—filled in with garbage when plumbing was installed—that he finds on historic maps. He has dug up 18th-century buckles and a redware pie plate commemorating the Marquis de Lafayette's 1825 visit to New York; once, "after the archaeologists had gone," he unearthed a tricorn hat in the South Street Seaport.

Mostly, though, he finds shards and bottles and old coins in people's backyards. After asking permission to dig, he sets his finds in plaster and paints them, then offers the art to the homeowner. Some of his works sell for hundreds of dollars in galleries. "I make enough for my next dig," he says. Like bits of ancient pottery, these ordinary objects suddenly have a value far beyond their original purpose, bridging time and connecting the people who touched them.
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