Read on for an excerpt from Adventures in Archaeology: The Wreck of the Orca II and Other Explorations.
Wrecked aircraft and abandoned airfields, old highway billboards and derelict boats, movie props, deserted mining operations. In this book, archaeologist P.J. Capelotti explores the places and things that people don’t typically think of as archaeological sites and artifacts, showing readers how seemingly ordinary objects from the recent past hold secrets about the cultural history of humans.
In this excerpt from the book, read about how the author first became interested in the archaeology of discarded materials and the unusual sites of shorelines, sea, air, and space. He believes that even everyday objects can be treasures hiding in plain sight.
Time and the River
The Old Colony Railroad line and its parallel acquaintance, the Shumatuscacant River, cut the street of my childhood from the remainder of the quiet small town of Whitman, Massachusetts. Both river and rail ran alongside a few immense shoe factories that throughout my youth were dying or dead, like gigantic dinosaurs just after the meteor. A paper factory briefly replaced one of the shoe factories, and after that we could climb the stacked rolls of brown paper as if attacking near-vertical mountainsides. One could make small boats and rafts of the heavy paper and set them adrift, as in Paddle to the Sea, and imagine they would reach the Atlantic Ocean. The imagination required to follow the water path to the ocean from my small town was considerable, a deliberate thought experiment that no doubt assisted my later curiosities as writer and archaeologist.
Even so, it was not until I was fifty-seven and in a reminiscing mood that I thought to inquire of a learned colleague the origin of the name Shumatuscacant. He revealed it as a Native American name meaning “Beaver River.” I never saw a beaver in Whitman, so trappers must have accounted for them ages ago. Neither was the Shumatuscacant any part of a river. It was for the most part an unglorified trickle as it wandered in and out of swamps, got held up for a spell in the old mill puddle of Hobart’s Pond, and was then funneled through a stone and cement channel past old Gus’s barber shop. In that tiny but hallowed place, my first haircut cost twenty-five cents and a commitment of half an hour of listening to old farts jabber about the good old days before finally vacating Gus’s chair. In summer the barber shop windows were open to let in fresh air and the sound of the Shumatuscacant as it dribbled along just below.
The river lolled past Gus’s and departed Whitman to rejoin Nature in another swamp, on its way to a rendezvous with an unnamed puddle near North Hanson Station. There it emerged, rebirthed as the much more appropriately named Poor Meadow Brook. This honest stream wound into Robbins Pond to emerge to the west as the Satucket, a proper river, which in turn joined the Matfield and the Town rivers, which together flowed into the Taunton, another proper water flow on its perpetual course to Mount Hope Bay, an arm of the great Narrangansett Bay, at Fall River. Any droplets originating in the Shumatuscacant would have one final stop in Rhode Island Sound before they could claim to be in the Atlantic Ocean proper.
Across the Old Colony tracks and the beaver brook stood the public park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. I have yet to learn how the father of American landscape architecture and designer of New York City’s Central Park found his way to my tiny hometown. A bit farther on, a man named Joe King in the early 1960s built King’s Castle Land, a miniature fairy tale theme park that, after its purchase by Clarence Whitney and his family, added a toy store. Across the street my mother worked for many years as a waitress and hostess at the Wakefield family’s Toll House restaurant, where Mrs. Wakefield in the 1930s invented the Toll House cookie by accident. The Toll House burned down in the 1980s, and King’s Castle Land closed a decade later. A Wendy’s replaced the famous restaurant, and the parking lot of a franchise grocery store obliterated any evidence of the theme park. The only surviving remnant of the vibrant otherworld on the opposite side of my hometown at the intersection of routes 14 and 18 is the “Toll House 1709” sign, now sited over a historical marker in the parking lot between the Wendy’s and a Walgreen’s.
I mention these random thoughts as they return to me now as some of my earliest impulses to search up and down creeks and shorelines for evidence of old factories and general wreckage and along backroads and intersections for the remains of roadside “attractions” and the signs that went with them. In other words, to become an archaeologist and investigate any aspect of the past in any place from any time. In youth one races through such intersections, oblivious of time, stopping only rarely and recognizing the changing landscape only in deep hindsight.
This is probably to the good, as the Toll House, as one example among many, was never apparently an actual roadside tollhouse and was built not in 1709 but in 1817. So be it. If an artificial date affixed to an artificial restaurant enhanced the enjoyment of the patrons for authentically excellent service and original chocolate chip cookies, was that not all to the good? Whether Ruth Wakefield, Frederick Law Olmstead, or Joe King, all had transformed the natural landscape of my hometown into something they considered more authentic, more interesting, or simply more commercially attractive, in the roadside “attraction” sense of the word.
For archaeologists, was not everything in our field of study artificial? Artifact and artificial are practically the same word. Such transformations of the natural and cultural landscape from the mundane to the magical were essential to the escapism required to survive just about any childhood. Little did I realize, escaping to a dark theater in 1975 to witness the Hollywood spectacle Jaws, that one day I would travel as an archaeologist to Martha’s Vineyard to survey the remains of one of its movie prop boats, the Orca II. Like Matt Hooper, the film’s fictional and very wealthy marine biologist, I wanted my own flybridge research vessel complete with sonar, underwater lights, and a rack of scuba tanks. I reached the inlet where lay the wreck of the Orca II some forty years later, in possession of none of these things—just old sneakers, a notepad, and a measuring tape. One could do archaeology with very little.
The Orca II, a movie prop, no longer looked anything like a boat. Time and pillage had reduced it to a scatter of tubes and twisted metal. But of course it was not nor had it ever been a boat. It was a movie prop, virtually the definition of an artifice. Or, perhaps more appropriately— and pedantically—an artificial artifice, something created by humans yet never entirely real. This archaeological meaning—one that reverses upon itself—is hardly uncommon. And perhaps the best example can be found (or not) in a tiny English crossroads.
A few years ago, I found myself a few miles from the village of Piltdown in southeastern England. A colleague agreed to hunt the place down with me, and after some searching we came to this bump in a backroad that, a century ago, was the scene of the greatest discovery in the history of archaeology. A local lawyer by the name of Charles Dawson discovered what was soon announced to the world as Eoanthropus dawsoni, literally Dawson’s Dawn Human, and the presumed missing link between humans and non-human apes. Piltdown instantly became the center of the scientific universe. A pillar to commemorate the great find was placed at the site in the 1930s, and the area was designated a national site of historic interest.
Then in 1953 the British Museum revealed that the whole discovery had been a fake, an artificial excavation of real bones fraudulently tampered with to create a false narrative of human evolution. As a lifelong seeker after historical markers—like the one solemnizing the “Toll House, 1709” in my hometown—I wanted to photograph the commemorative pillar at Piltdown. My colleague and I eventually found the drive leading to the now private estate (the “site of national interest” appellation was quietly dropped after the fraud was revealed). But the gate at the foot of the drive was locked and our entry blocked. How was this possible? How could public access be denied to such a historic site?
I was not, as they say in England, best pleased, to be stopped about a hundred yards short after a journey of more than 3,500 miles. However, as we left the site it finally dawned on me that nothing about Dawson’s Dawn Man had ever been historic, not in any real sense. The bones were faked and the discovery a fraud. The marker, ultimately, commemorated an event that never happened. Even the local pub, once called The Piltdown Man, had reverted to its original name of The Lamb. The only evidence of the infamous past was a framed photo of the original 1912 excavation—tucked away in the men’s loo.
Worse, the village of Piltdown offered none of the consolations of similar explorations of the American roadside: no T-shirts, no beer mugs shaped like primitive skulls, no souvenirs of any kind. This grievous neglect was an affront to American sensibilities. In the United States even the most seemingly insignificant roadside attraction can hold up for sale any manner of branded clothing, key chains, patches, and bumper stickers, along with an obligatory trifold tourist brochure.
At Piltdown Miles Russell, senior lecturer in archaeology at Bournemouth University, noted this glaring absence. In his excellent The Piltdown Man Hoax: Case Closed, he writes that “no indication is provided to the many visitors, travelers, tourists or passers-by as to why the village name appears to be so familiar. . . . If the story of Dawson and Eoanthropus dawsoni had occurred in the USA, there would, at the very least, be a theme park, museum or other acknowledgement of the discovery, but . . . a century on from the first announcement of Piltdown Man to the world, there is nothing.”
As this collection of essays on the adventure that is archaeology attempts to reveal, one struggles continuously to establish, for want of a better phrase, the reality of the artificial. In my own work, the earliest experiences from the artificial landscape of my small hometown seemed continually to find their way into the work. One seemed perpetually alongside some creek or river or along some shore or bay, or stuck on an island or, in the case of the waters that washed away our home in 1996, in the midst of a catastrophic flood. And nearly always in search of some technological chimera: an antique aeroplane or prehistoric raft, a prehistoric airship on an Arctic island, the ruins of a starship on the Moon, or a billboard by the side of the highway half hidden by trees and time. All these became raw materials for archaeological adventures, both in the field and in theoretical flights of imagination.
In the summer of 2017, after a quarter century of writing on the work and themes of archaeology, it seemed time to acknowledge this phenomenon. Even as we often deny their existence or their influence, it remains remarkable the degree to which the dreams and fantasies—the artifices—of childhood pursue us to adulthood.
P. J. Capelotti, author of Adventures in Archaeology: The Wreck of the Orca II and Other Explorations, is professor of anthropology at Penn State University, Abington. He has authored and edited several books, including Life and Death on the Greenland Patrol, 1942.