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Digging for Memories

by John Robinson

Wow, I can hardly believe my eyes … an old inkwell sitting right on top of a mound of earth next to a groundhog hole. It’s a perfect little aqua colored, cone-shaped bottle, apparently excavated by the lumbering rodent in the course of conducting his business. This is very exciting -trust me on this- because looking for old bottles is exactly why I’m here. It’s a breezy April morning in the early 1970’s and my friend Rocky and I are poking around the overgrown grounds of a vacant plantation house in tidewater Virginia, on a tract of land owned by a family acquaintance.

We arrived here twenty minutes ago. I’m 15, Rocky’s 16, and he can drive. His dad’s beat-up old Chrysler station wagon –“The Heap”- is an ideal vehicle for excursions like this one. Heck, it’s the only car anybody will let him drive. And I don’t even have my “Learner’s” yet.

“Hey, Rockhead!” My friend, well over six feet tall and shaving since age 13, soon appears traipsing through the high weeds. I hold the prize inkwell up and grin. We know there have to be other bottles in the ground under our feet, so we excitedly set to work. With an old steel ski pole from which I had removed the basket, I probe the soft earth, searching for the characteristic feel of crunching glass. Remember, this is tidewater Virginia. The ground is relatively soft and there are no rocks, those having been relegated to the western part of the state.

The ski pole probe indicates what we think is glass about two feet beneath us, so we rush back to the Heap to get more digging tools. Now we’re breaking ground. Gosh, just to think back upon it now pauses my hand with anticipation. Anyway, in a few minutes I uncover a cracked medicine bottle, among shards of others. “We’ve hit paydirt!” is my assessment.

It’s two hours later and we’ve got a sizable hole, one big enough for both of us to crouch in. We expand the excavation laterally with our moms’ gardening tools. We follow the seam of 100-year-old refuse.  A growing cluster of good bottles (whole ones) which we’ve uncovered are perched on the edge of the hole.

This “plantation pit,” as we call it, is not our first adventure in bottle digging. By this time I’ve been picking up old bottles, mostly from the mucky shoreline of the estuarine creeks and rivers of the Chesapeake, since I was five or six-years-old. I’ve learned a lot about old bottles along the way. For instance, the bottles we’re digging here are made by blowing the molten glass within a hinged mold made of wood. The neck and lip of each bottle is applied in a separate step.

The bottles in our pit are circa 1850 to 1880. They have lots of character, being pleasingly crude. Within the glass they possess bubbles large and small, varying degrees of waviness and lopsidedness, and fascinating color due to impurities in the glass. Many have embossing of various kinds. After the advent of the automatic bottle making machine in 1903 or so, bottles got considerably less “interesting”.

Hours go by, but we’re oblivious to their passage. The hole expands. We discover that the bottles are often found in “nests” and the removal of each one of them takes much careful scratching and brushing; the portion revealed growing along with our excitement. Sometimes we work for twenty minutes on one bottle only to find the bottom third of it missing. Oh well, it just makes finding the intact ones that much more rewarding.

“If this one’s whole you are going to love it,” I announce as I scrape the remaining dirt away from a dark brown bottle embossed  “Dr Kilmer’s Electromagnetic Liniment.” I pass it to Rocky for his reverent inspection and appreciation. We find medicine bottles, we find whiskey bottles. And we find bitters bottles whose contents is claimed to be the former but is more accurately the latter. We find inkwells, beer bottles, and poison bottles embossed with skull and bones.

Now I’m uncovering a huge, two-gallon stoneware jug, buried deep in the trash pit, packed tightly in the debris. Amazingly, upon freeing it from its earthly clutches I find it to be in perfect condition. One really never knows.

I get up to survey the scene and notice the shadows growing conspicuously long. It’s time to go, but we’re compelled to linger. We play “one more bottle” several times before we hastily refill the hole and gather up our tools and our treasures. As we walk back to The Heap, dirty from head to toe, Rocky and I agree that this has been one of the best days ever.

It’s the simple things isn’t it.



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