Old house history…in the ground

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Old House History

My husband adores gadgets of all kinds. He loves to take things apart, build new things out of scraps from here and there, and mess around with things that most people would simply throw away. He also has a love of treasure -- from stumbling upon a shiny quarter at the park to finding the perfect set of old tools at a yard sale, sweet discoveries always light up his day.

So when he reached a milestone birthday this year, I gave him what every treasure-hunting man wants: A metal detector.

He tore open the paper, saw what it was, and squealed in a way that was very unmanly -- more like the sound of a five-year-old finding that long-coveted toy under the Christmas tree. He zipped through the instructions, put it all together, and set out to the backyard, where he was determined to find treasure despite the snow that was still hanging around.

I think we both underestimated the treasures that come from the ground around an old house.

Digging for the past

Finding artifacts in and around an old house is one of the perks of home ownership. Between the foundation of the original cabin to the smoothness of the ancient stone floors, there was plenty of history here already. But when my husband fired up that metal detector in the backyard, it took only a moment before the telltale tones began to sound. Pretty soon we realized that we were already way in over our heads. It seemed as though every square foot of the ground was hiding secrets.

He grabbed a trowel from my potting bench and went to work. The ground of an early Pennsylvania spring is hard to dig into, but treasure-hunting would not be deterred. Sure enough, the first thing uncovered was something more than the nail, wire, or coin we expected.

"It's a salt shaker!" he announced, holding up the dirt-encrusted piece like a trophy.

An hour later we had found other artifacts that declared this was once a picnic area. There were broken remnants of old plates, forks, and the lid of a small cast-iron kettle, deteriorated badly with age. There were glass bottles and other odds and ends that weren't all that ancient, but certainly weren't new either. We lined the treasures up on the patio and surveyed the finds.

"Can you imagine what we will find at the old cabin?" he asked. "And over there by the original well?

My daughter laughed. "There be treasures here!"

Since then, we have found treasures indeed. Half a dozen horseshoes were unearthed near the cistern. We quickly built up a collection of nails, some relatively new, some quite old. And there were bottle caps, worn to a smooth and dull finish, the Coca-Cola logo barely recognizable.

We've only covered a small portion of the backyard so far, and that gives me hope that we will find many more things, evidence of lives lived here on this ground before we came along. I always knew that searching through the history of an old house could be fun, but I had never considered the wealth of information that could be uncovered with a metal detector. Every old house enthusiast with a bit of land needs one!