The lure of Urban Archeology

Never mind the temples, deserts, tombs, pyramids and huge, chiseled libraries (That's you Alexandria!) Sometimes all it takes is the guts, grit and determination…okay and some digging tools and a little know-how, and you can find fascinating things in your own urban backyard. New York is prime for finding pieces of history. This past summer, workers at the World trade center found a 32 foot, 18th century ship's hull as they were digging the site. It was apparently used as filler to extend lower Manhattan to the Hudson River. WILD.

Growing up in a mostly elderly co-op neighborhood, and being the Superintendent's daughter, we were always privy to the treasures left behind by those who had moved away or died. It was often part of the job description to clean out the apartment, and the relatives who were *supposed* to handle it rarely came back to claim anything. Sadly, this also included beautiful family photos and albums, yearbooks, and other paraphernalia from as far back as the thirties and forties. If it were me, I would be clamoring for pictures and memorabilia of my family. I do now and I have fun restoring them in photoshop when I can.

The last 25 or so years have been a cornucopia of books, records, magazines and dusty baubles and trinkets. Two of the coolest things I think we've ever obtained were a Brass compass, (No, not an omni!) Something more akin to the picture below (not as pretty, trust me)-but very old, with a thicker, dark border/holder. The compass had water inside and I doubt it worked, but I loved to hold it, and sometimes having an antique object in your possession can just spark the imagination.

The other find that we still have was a postage stamp coin machine. So cool. No stamps inside, only the samples where the coin slot would be. Very similar to this-

While reading through my favorite blogs, I came across one from the Bowery Boys about a special book just released at the end of November. It's called Past Objects by Scott Jordan. I fell in love with the cover alone and it made me quite nostalgic for the 'old days' when I used to go with my dad and dig through stuff like you see. Though, I admit I am wearing rose-colored glasses too, because a lot of it was truly junk, old gum wrappers, sporks, napkins, papers, mouse traps, medicine prescriptions, used tissues, clothing that should never dare see a revival. But, you never knew what was what or its value. That's what made it fun. One time my sister scored a bag of barbie clothes and dolls, never opened, but they were modern. I used to love to find books. I keep waiting to see when the Antique Road show will be back in New York State. I would love to attend with some of our findings. Just to see the value.

New Yorker Jordan developed a passion for scouring through the five boroughs. He's braved mud slides and garbage heaps, cisterns, privies and other dangers to find remnants of the past. Bottles, cannon balls, metal, leather, bric-a-brac centuries old, and according to the Bowery Boys post, those creepy – Victorian dolls with the staring, dead eyes similar to this one.

For more information, I humbly direct you to my original inspiration for this post on the Bowery Boys Blog- 'Buried Treasure: The beauty of 'Past Objects,' underfoot.'

You can buy the Hardcover version of this book on Amazon. This one is definitely going on my MUST HAVE list. Past Objects on Amazon.


  1. Hunting through old and not so old stuff can be amazing, can't it. For the last ten years, until he died several months ago, I've lived with my grandfather. He was 101, and you can probably imagine some of the 'junk' he'd acquired! It was terrible trying to decide what to keep when he died, because you just can't keep it all. Little trinkets can be so fascinating, though. They might look like junk to one person, but for somebody to have kept them for so many years, they must have meant something, in some way.

    On a similar note, as a kid I always loved digging in the back garden. In years gone by, people would just bury stuff in their gardens, as there was no refuse collection, and you can often find great bits of broken pottery just a few yards from your door. And old coins. My best find was a George III penny dated 1804. :)

  2. Wow, God bless your grandfather's longevity. I'm sorry to hear he passed though. I agree, one man's trash is another man's treasure. I remember as a kid trying to dig for things, but didn't find much of anything. You found an 1804 coin! That's amazing. Have you ever gotten its value assessed? It could be worth a pretty penny now. But either way, it's probably one of those things you don't want to give up. I love that old compass we had found, and I just want to keep it too.

  3. Thanks. I think he was quite proud of himself for having lived so long. :)

    You should definitely keep your compass. It's a sad fact that the things that mean the most to us as individuals are rarely worth a lot to anybody else! Take my collection of old coins. I really like them. There are few better ways of connecting directly with human history than coins, because they've passed through so many hands, and affected so many lives. Because coins have always been so plentiful, though, they're worth almost nothing today - unless they're in mint condition. And if they're in mint condition, they're not nearly as interesting!

    "Value" is a funny thing, really.

  4. That compass looks like a ship's compass to me. If you could clean up the brass, you could probably mount it on the wall as a display piece. For that matter, it would work even if you left the brass as is.

    Swordz, your tale of the coin reminds me of one of my own. Years ago, when I was still living at home with my parents, we renovated our house. When we tore up the linoleum in the living room, we found two treasures: One was a complete copy of the Sunday edition of the New York Daily News from 1945, printed, in fact, just one day after the battle of Iwo Jima, with a periscope-view of the island as an American sub approached it. That picture was on the front page. Included were the complete main section, the sports, business, and cultural sections, funnies, and the color section. It had been used as floor-paper instead of the usual tarpaper used for the purpose. (Floor paper, for those who don't know, was, as stated, tarpaper spread on the floor before the linoleum was put down, to keep moisture down, back before we had the floor sealants we have today.) My brother claimed it as soon as he identified what it was. My own treasure was one that gave us some idea of how old that house was. A section of floorboards had obviously been replaced at some point in the building's life; now nearly as worn as the rest of the floor, they were torn up. Underneath we found a metal disk, about the size of the modern-day quarter, that looked like one of the pieces of metal knocked out of electrical boxes for the cables to go through. My father was about to throw it away; I rescued it and cleaned it off, because when he dropped it, it sounded to me like a coin. Sure enough, it was: An 1865 penny. The thing would only be worth five cents today even if it were in mint condition. But I still have it, over thirty years later.

  5. Those are some cool stories! I didn't realize coins were so worthless, but it make sense, money loses its value, it's just paper or metal in the end. I remember getting so excited whenever I found those pennies that would have 'ONE CENT' printed on the back instead of the the image of the Lincoln memorial. They were usually dated like 1910-1945. I used to think they were worth something.

    I'm going to take pictures of my real compass and post them here, Mine is kinda bulky like an old brass cylinder, squat like, and stuff. But I just love it.
    That's really cool you found the newspaper too.

  6. Old newspapers are always good things to find. Partly for the news stories of course, but also partly for the adverts, and for the cinema, radio and television listings. It's great seeing what people were buying and watching in years gone by.


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