The Past Underfoot
Chances are, history was not your favorite subject in high school. Even if you had a teacher who dressed up as Vasco Núñez de Balboa in an attempt to bring to life the crossing of the Isthmus of Panama, you, like I, might have snoozed a bit during class. But sometimes, if you are lucky, history itself will appear before you, to arouse you from your slumber.In Northwest Florida, where I grew up back in the 1960s, the barriers between people and history were pretty informal. Old forts and Indian mounds were usually open to visitors willing to pay their way in with pocket change. Once inside, the rare docents were conducting school tours. If you wanted to dig around and explore, there were few fences and fewer rules (“no running” was always pretty standard).
I still recall racing my friends (ignoring the previously stated rule) to be the first to see Geronimo’s prison cell at Pensacola’s Fort Pickens when I was distracted by an odd shape on the ground. I picked up one, then another of what looked like pointed rocks. They were carbine bullets, relics from the Civil War era.
Once while standing in line outside of a temple mound museum I was trying to impress a female classmate with a fact I’d learned that morning from my parents. The “temple mound” was actually just a trash, or midden, heap left by the Indians. It was their dump. She looked skeptical so I persevered, insisting that you could just dig anywhere on the mound and find a piece of old Indian junk. I kicked at the ground, as if to make a point, and there in the loose dirt under my foot was a pottery shard with a design along the rim. I think she was impressed.
When my wife lured me north to her family’s ancestral home in Concord more than two decades ago, I quickly discovered that you don’t really have to dig for history in New England. The house we live in predates the Revolutionary War (although only the stone basement reveals that fact) and I now work in a mill building that welcomed the Industrial Revolution.
But even here, history is often buried. Our property line is marked by a gully filled with trees leading down to a marshy bottom. The current neighbors are too genteel to dump trash in our gully, but there are odd items of wood and metal that moulder in the marsh indicating that it was not always so.
Once, when I was showing the gully to a friend, she walked a few steps down the slope and dug into the soft earth with her hands. In moments she produced a glass bottle, clear and cylindrical – probably a prescription bottle from the early 20th century. People were quite prone to dump their waste in gullies back then. Good thing for us they made such collectible trash.
Human history speaks volumes, even from underfoot. Whether unearthed from your back yard, or discovered on the shelf of a back room on Antique Alley, the shells of the past are always great starting points for journeys of historical discovery.
As if you needed an excuse to go antiquing in August in New Hampshire.