Digging in the dirt

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STELLARTON — As I stared out across the grassy, sun-drenched plain, I knew this was going to be the day. The day that I rescued from the clutches of history some buried treasures by using my latent skills as an archaeologist. After all, I took an online archaeology course one time; that’s got to make me qualified, doesn’t it?

After signing consent forms at the Museum of Industry site for the third annual amateur archaeology dig, I was ready to go.

First things first, I needed tools. Okay, where’s my fedora, leather jacket and whip? Hmm, a bucket, trowel, and dust pan? ‘Alright,’ I thought, ‘I can use this stuff, too. I just won’t look like Indiana Jones, I guess.’

All the diggers on this Saturday morning were encouraged to pick one of the eight spots and get to work.

I chose a corner site. Unit R. ‘R must be for Ray,’ I thought. ‘Things are starting to look up.’

As my trowel bit into the first layer of soil, I was picturing big discoveries. Maybe coins, maybe tools.

I scraped, and scraped some more. ‘Oh, what’s this?’ An earthworm. Okay, moving on. Eventually, I began to uncover actual artifacts. There were plenty of pieces of thick glass, nails, window glass, and brick — a whole lot of brick.

I did uncover a round, donut-like steel thing that I was dying to rip from the ground, but that’s not the archeologist way. (It’s also not the archeologist way to dump more dirt on the articles you’ve just brought back from the sifter and are supposed to put in your collection bag. I didn’t do that, almost, but not quite.) I was lucky that a root I had to pry out of my way loosened the round metal thing and it came free. The best guess from one of archeologists was that it was a pipe strap. I thought it may have been some kind of primitive crown, but I deferred to the expert.

The amount of brick, mortar, slag metal and nails makes sense though since this was the location of an industrial foundry back in the 1800s. It was being excavated under the guidance of lead archaeologist Laura deBoer. She said the dig has benefits on multiple fronts.

“It’s a great way to let families, kids and adults, feel like they are a part of history and it helps bring history to life for them. It shows that archaeology is here.”

I wasn’t the only volunteer digging in the dirt this day.

Jessica Price of Stellarton and her older brother Brent were hard at work, too.

“It was fun because we found lots of things,” Jessica, a rookie participant, said. “I found glass and a few nails, and part of a wall. The best part was spending time with my family.”

Brent, also a first-timer, said he would definitely do it again.

“I like finding cool articles. I found lots of nails, lots of copper, and pipe things. I really liked using the sifter.”

One attendee who’s no stranger to history was enthusiastic about his day in the diggings.

“This is something that the people of Pictou County should do to see their history and feel their history,” local historian John Ashton said following the early dig. “There are so many areas in Pictou County that are worth exploring and learning about our industrial history. This is a great opportunity to connect with our roots.”

Everything that was found, some pieces big, most small, will be processed over the winter.

“A lot of this is definitely catalogued and turned over to the museum,” deBoer said. “Some stuff that’s not super identifiable is reburied on the site.”

deBoer was assisted by a team of four other archaeologists who volunteered their weekend to the project. They were all very enthusiastic about the project and offered much advice, guidance, and knowledge, as they circulated around the dig sites.

Digs of this nature have to operate under a permit from the government and any unauthorized digs could almost be considered theft, deBoer said.

“Everything that we find, it belongs to you and belongs to everyone in Nova Scotia,” she said.

Debra McNabb, director of the Museum of Industry, said the foundry site is very important from an historical standpoint.

“Coal that came out of here helped build Canada. We are trying to find out what these people in the 1800s did. The evidence is under the ground, but we don’t know for sure. We want to go about it the right way.”

I did my part, and I did it the right way, my sore knees and back can attest to that.

So, sorry, no golden idols or crystal skulls this day.

Maybe next year.