Artifact Story: Found Objects

Mystery Object

I stood in my friend Jane’s big, open kitchen in Knoxville one morning nearly a decade ago gazing upward at a particular skylight over the adjacent living area. Several other friends stood there with me, our hands on our hips and our brows furrowed, trying to get a better look. A moment earlier one of them had asked, Hey, Jane? Is that a…biscuit…on your skylight?

Well, I’ll be damned, said another.

Jane had the most fabulous deadpan of anybody I’ve ever known.

Yeah, she answered like she was tired of this particular question, it’s been there several days. We’re not sure how it got there. Best story we’ve come up with is a crow nabbed it from one of the workmen’s lunches and it was too heavy to carry. My kids were the first to notice it. We figured we’d just let nature take its course—it’s a pain to get up there to clean it.

As a young student of historical archaeology I spent a lot of hours pulling artifacts out of the ground, still more in a lab painting accession numbers on each of them with a fountain pen dipped in a pot of India ink, squinting through a loupe to get a better handle on the best spot to place the minuscule alphanumeric code that linked them to a specific location in the soil. But for most of those artifacts—bits of broken window glass, cut nails, and porcelain, earthenware, or stoneware shards, even the occasional remains of an animal—we had a pretty good handle on how they came to be wherever we found them. They were the bits and pieces we reassembled scientifically to better understand the story of a family or a neighborhood.

The best kind of found objects, though, are the biscuit-on-the-skylight kind. They fire the imagination and create fodder for all kinds of distinctly unscientific stories. I still think Jane and her family were on to the crows, though: her house was undergoing a massive renovation, and her theory seemed plausible to me. Of course, it could have been leprechauns.

A couple of weeks ago I found this stoneware shard sticking up out of the gravel on the side of a rural Vermont road (I know it is stoneware, because I licked it and my tongue did not stick: archaeology trick). Could be some fragment of a chamber pot—there are plenty of farmhouses in the area where I found it that go back to the days of the chamber pot—or it could be much more recent, maybe a piece of a bullnose tile from somebody’s kitchen renovation.

The plow trucks turn up all kinds of stuff on the dirt roads around here, leaving mounds of earthy gravel a certain little Labish doggy I know loves investigating. I still like the idea that somebody used it ‘til it broke, and then pitched it into a rubbish pile near the road (rubbish—that’s a very New England-ish term), where pieces of it made their way into the ground and became part of the accretional layers of the soil, as we would say in archaeology. And then this particular spring, a single piece of it met the front of a plow truck, and not long afterwards I found it while I was running.

A few days ago I found this robin’s egg right out in the open in our back yard, with the end broken off but the tiny liquid yolk perfectly preserved inside it. Who stole this egg? I think it was somebody’s breakfast, interrupted, because the best part was still in the egg. I could not resist bringing it into the house and cleaning it up, if only to admire this little piece of incredible natural architecture and its exquisite shade of blue for a while.

And last week on one of the first sultry days of the season, I came across this butterfly in the middle of a dirt road, with tire tracks all around it, but still remarkably well preserved for having been, well, smooshed. I looked it up, and evidently it is a black swallowtail. Mr. Black Swallowtail (we’ll call him a mister because he looks like the other examples of misters I came across when I found ‘black swallowtail’), you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, but you are a thing of beauty and I am glad I found you.

Just this morning I found this leather tassel right inside our mudroom on the floor—it had come loose from the boot I was about to pull onto my foot. Not a terribly exciting artifact, but good thing I found it so close to the actual boot, and not, say, on somebody’s skylight next to a mystery biscuit. And though I have no idea how it escaped the boot, I suspect faeries—friends and colleagues of leprechauns and crows—may have conspired to make trouble for me when I was in a hurry to get out the door.

That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

4 thoughts on “Artifact Story: Found Objects

  1. My undergrad major was also historical archaeology! My husband teases me for the random artifacts I find on my runs. I tell him it’s material culture…he still calls it junk 😉

    • Stephanie, how many historical archaeology majors who are also runners can there possibly be? We should form a society with a secret handshake, I think. And to your husband: one man’s trash, or junk, as it were, as the saying goes!

  2. Sparks the imagination! I’m a big fan of crows. I often refer to them as natures “garbage men” since they seem to clean up and gather all things edible and collectible!

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