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Urban Archeologist: Finding a ‘Find’ 1200 Miles Away

Story in a bottle.

One of the things I enjoy about urban archeology is that I can dig anywhere. It’s a hobby that doesn’t require a lot of accessories to get started; just two — (1) transportation and (2) a weekend. I recently returned from a vacation to Florida, which presented an interesting challenge: Would I be able to find a “dig” in Florida? Would my family let me?

With a firm grasp on the two accessories listed above and an ounce of tolerance provided by my accommodating wife, I began looking online to see what digs were out there. Fortunately, I found a similar website to the one I use here in Connecticut that lists estate sales by date and vicinity to any zip code. [See screen cap]

While most of the sales looked to be mainly furniture from vacation condos, I managed to find one that seemed to be a “dig.” Despite being given permission to exercise my minor obsession, my wife and daughter decided to skip this one and stay by the pool. My partner on this exploration would be my mother, the friendly enabler who starting me on this adventure by teaching me to parallel park at tag sales 30-ish years ago. If it weren’t for that one $5 beer sign I found in pursuit of a learner’s permit, I probably wouldn’t be writing this today.

You can see by the pictures that this was a true dig in a tropical paradise. There were many potential purchases, a wooden match box in a rusty metal case, metal fittings that had been dug up on the property 50 years before, and many other items I had missed by thankfully skipping the crowds a day earlier.

I finally found the story I was looking for: a small bundle of three papers, which had managed to survive the deluge of buyers. The story is simple — The Hydrographic Office of the US Navy was in charge of understanding and reporting the condition of the oceans affecting commerce, transportation and navigation. Among the many statistics they recorded were the ocean currents. Thousands of messages in “drift bottles” were dropped from ships in the hopes that the note sealed within would be returned and reveal pertinent data. [See images]

The letter I purchased is a courtesy response from a Navy captain to the finder of one of these drift bottles. The finder was hoping to receive a reward; instead he was presented with a copy of the Hydrographic Bulletin containing the account of the paper he found and a Pilot Chart of the area where the bottle drifted. 

That wasn’t all I found — check out these approximately 100-year-old books, on Steamship regulations, navigation, and medicine at sea and all filled with mysteries of their own.

Finding the story of the “find” made my vacation that much sweeter, being able to play archeologist with my wife’s permission and my mom by my side leaves me in a quandary as to what to get them for Mother’s Day... I’ll “find” something.

Greg Van Antwerp is a Brookfield resident and blogger, who can be found on the weekends in search of a good “dig” or a good story.  You can read more about his adventures by visiting his blog.

Jaimie Cura April 26, 2012 at 02:57 PM
First, I'm not going to go all 'fan girl' about Urban Archeologist like a dork .... except that I am! I think the best find in Brookfield is you and this column. When I was at Earth Day in Woodbury, a Southbury resident told me how much he loves your column. And P.S. That medical guide you posted on your blog is gross. I'm definitely not thanking you for posting that. ;)
Greg Van Antwerp April 27, 2012 at 01:11 AM
Jaimie, your encouraging comments, as well as the support of Aaron Boyd and the rest of Patch team, has meant a lot. Thank you.
Jackie April 28, 2012 at 01:20 PM
Greg -- Just as Jamie wrote, I look forward to reading your blog to see what you've recently "dug" up, so keep on digging, and reporting! I would bet there are many more people out there who think the same way, too. P.S. BTW, you're an excellent writer! Your blog is very easy to read!
Greg Van Antwerp April 30, 2012 at 03:24 AM
Thanks Jackie!

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