the archeology of landscaping

April 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

 After a week of digging around in my neighbor’s backyard we found no really interesting artifacts, no gold or dead bodies. What we found today though was exciting…at least to me. I was digging around at one of the corners of our plot and just outside about 3″ deep I found a bunch of old bricks that match the original bricks of the house. Someone at some point in time used the leftover bricks to create a garden border about 20′ long with them. It looked like at one time the backyard was probably nicely cultivated but whoever lived in it in the last 20 years just let the landscaping become completely overgrown. It makes you wonder what else you might find just below the surface.

It made me think about how nice it is in an old house when you find beautiful hardwood floors underneath a carpet you can restore. I think people often focus their attention inside but there are interesting bits of history to find outside as well. Some people might look at it as a new stockpile of original bricks, knowing you can’t buy bricks like the ones used to build the house any longer. If it were up to me I would keep the border there as another part of history of the home and try to see what else you might uncover. It’s obvious at some point that someone cared about it.

Even though there was no treasure to be had (so far), we did have fun. I even have a new little friend, Smoke, who kept coming by to see our progress.

I did have this feeling every time I was digging like there might be something so close but we might be digging in the wrong place. What if we were just inches away from something really cool and will never find out? I suppose if something wants to stay buried, it will stay buried.

The one place I’m still convinced we would be most likely to find something is in their basement. A gold miner living there for 60 years during Prohibition and the Depression? I bet there are some interesting things hidden for safekeeping. It’s too bad I’m too afraid to run into the ghosts in the basement.

what you might find in your backyard depends on who lived there

April 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

When I was a kid, like other kids I’m sure, there was a time I believed I could dig in the backyard and find some sort of treasure. I don’t think we have any assumptions like that now but Kelly & I were trying to imagine what we might find in their backyard this week…bottles, an old gun, pottery, dead body???

I thought it would be cool to try to learn more about what the people were like who lived in the house since that might shed some light on what we could find. Kelly shared a couple of fascinating resources she got from the previous owner. One is a book compiling all of the historical information of their house including who lived in it and what they did. The other is a book called Haunted Boulder which describes the paranormal activity that supposedly occurred in their house.

One of the documents is an article on the will of the wife of the first people who built the house. She and her husband owned a grocery and confectionary store on Pearl St. What interested me about the excerpt was looking at the “ads” next to the article.

There are all kinds of “cures and remedies” that I would imagine they probably sold in their store. I imagine we could find old bottles from some of these things, like Lichty’s Celery Nerve Compound that ensured a good night’s sleep that would lead to good health & rosy cheeks. Or Krause’s Headache capsule as a hangover cure.

My favorite “sure cure” of the time was the Krause’s Cold Cure: “the busy man of today cannot afford to lie abed a whole day and undergo the martyrdom of the sweating process.” Maybe people weren’t as tough as we thought back then or maybe a cold was a much different thing? It could be likely that we come across some of these old containers, especially given the original owner was rather sickly leading up to her death.

The next owner in 1918 was a miner named Otis Pherson who lived there for 60 years. He was a gold, silver and tungsten miner who managed the Grand Republic Mine in Salida and was known as an honest man. He was also known to be fascinated with electricity and was a “character” who often wrote letters to the Daily Camera. This is where it might not be such a far stretch to imagine some gold treasure he buried away somewhere around the house. Who knows? I’m not brave enough to venture into their crawl space to find out. Previous owners did find mining equipment in the basement.

So far we’ve found nails and a few scraps of metal here and there. I did find a ball of some sort, but I’m not sure what it is exactly. We’ll have to keep digging!

where to dig

April 19, 2011 § 2 Comments

Kelly is standing next to the door that used to be the door into the kitchen. When looking for somewhere to dig in your backyard supposedly you’re supposed to try to figure out where the “midden” was or the kitchen heap. This is often the place where the trash was thrown or buried.

Given we live in a fairly cold climate for a good part of the year we also were trying to figure out where the outhouse might have been as that was another place people would get ride of stuff.

Today we just marked off a spot of 2 yards by 2 yards and spent a good part of the time cleaning out all the weeds and vines growing. (something I’m becoming somewhat of an expert at).

We chose a spot fairly close to the kitchen but still off to the side as it was likely not somewhere there would have been a lot of foot traffic.

It’s funny how just about everyone in college thinks about becoming an archeology major at some point or other, imagining traveling to exotic locations and finding treasures & artifacts. It was probably all the Indiana Jones movies we grew up with. The truth is it is pretty backbreaking work. Luckily Kelly and I always have fun just shooting the shit. I suppose we did have a little help as well from her son and the other neighbor’s cat Smoke.

We didn’t get too far today with the actual digging but we did find a few scraps of rusted metal and some old, rusted nails (and lots of earthworms). We’re hoping to find the good stuff when we get further digging tomorrow.

you never know what might be hidden in your backyard

April 18, 2011 § 3 Comments

In May of 2008, a Boulder resident, Patrick Mahaffy, was doing a backyard renovation project and happened upon a pretty amazing find. The landscapers were digging a koi pond and found 83 tools that had been buried there that were over 13,000 years old with blood still intact on some of the weapons. The find is linked to the Clovis culture which is considered by some to be the oldest inhabitants of North America.

My neighbor Kelly had a great suggestion for one of my 52 weeks to do a backyard archeology project with her by her house. Like many of the other houses in our neighborhood in Boulder, their house is well over 100 years old. Kelly has also done some research to find out where the best spots are to look based on how people used to use their properties, especially where they got rid of trash.  (Her husband “Snoah” has also identified where all the power lines are so we don’t get electrocuted or anything.)

I also found a  “how to” on that helps you get started with all the materials you need and how to approach the dig. It seems like such a fun thing to do with your kids on the weekend. Especially if you live in places that have been there over 100 years.


  • dig site
  • map of the area
  • metric ruler
  • plant stakes (available at hardware or garden stores)
  • string
  • graph paper and pencil
  • small shovel or spade
  • spoon
  • small, soft paintbrushes
  • bowl of water and sponge
  • notebook
  • camera (optional)
  • glue (optional)
  • large box (optional)
  • toothpicks or straws (optional)


  1. Choose a site for your archaeological dig. Your own backyard might be a good spot, but only if your house is considerably oid—100 years or more. Some of the best places to dig include very old garbage piles and old farmyards. Always get permission from the owner before starting any dig.
  2. Research the history of your area. Get as detailed a map as possible. Make use of state organizations and local historical societies. Who lived there, and when? What were their culture and society like? What can you find out about the geology and soil where you will be digging? What do you expect to find?
  3. Divide the area you’ve chosen into a grid of l0-cm squares, using plant stakes and string as shown. Make a diagram of your archaeological dig site on graph paper, showing the stakes as dots and the strings as lines.
  4. Start your dig carefully, working on one or two squares at a time. Work to depths of 10-cm intervals. Use a small shovel or spade or a spoon to remove soil gently and in small amounts, taking care not to damage anything you might find. Use a small paintbrush to remove soil from the extracted artifacts. Only if they look as if they can withstand water should you clean them gently in a bowl of water, using a sponge. Do not attempt to clean coins other than by brushing them with a soft paintbrush, since scratching them or using chemicals can decrease their value.
  5. Log all your findings, keeping a careful record of where and how each item was obtained. Each specimen should be numbered and listed in a notebook very clearly so that anyone can readily identify it. You may also want to make sketches or take photographs of the objects found at the site.
  6. You may wish to repair broken items with glue. Talk to your shop or technology teacher for restoration ideas.
  7. You can re-create your dig site in an exhibit in school by using a large box, stakes and string, and your careful records. Or make a scale model of the site using toothpicks or straws for stakes, and sketches or photos of the objects.
  8. If you think that you have an important find on your hands—like gold jewelry or a human skull—the next step is to tell your parents and teacher so they can help you get the assistance of local archaeologists and historians. You could donate your treasures to a museum and become a local legend!
After our cow skull find gardening last week it will be fun to see what we dig up this week. A lot of what I’ve done so far has introduced me to local culture and this will be fun to see what local culture was like well before our time.
I think some bloody mary’s will be in order as well. Who says you can’t have fun while you’re doing archeology?

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the 16 backyard archeology category at 52 To Do.