When the public happens upon an archaeological excavation, the second most common question they ask an archaeologist such as myself is, “Find any gold yet?” (see below for the most common question.) Smothering my inward groan, I explain that people take their valuables with them when they move, and archaeologists essentially dig up the garbage left behind. That is usually true, barring grave goods or purposely hidden hordes of treasure, neither of which I (nor most archaeologists) have ever found. Shipwrecks are a flashy example of the accidental disappearance of something valuable, and are also very rarely encountered. More commonly, the unintentional loss of something of value is rare and the item is usually small, easily misplaced and virtually impossible to find, even by archaeologists.
This raises the question of what happens to the materials that archaeologists do discover. The Archaeological Society of Alberta – Calgary Centre (ASA-CC) has been running a research project at Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park since 2009 and part of our work is to educate the public about the importance of historical resources and the laws that protect them. Our province is fortunate to have the Alberta Historical Resources Act which guards our archaeological artifacts and sites (and paleontological materials like dinosaurs and ammonites) from those who want to steal or damage them. The penalty for digging up an archaeological (or paleontological) site without proper permits is $50,000 and a year in jail. Unlike the fictional yet iconic Indiana Jones, archaeologists do not get to keep or sell what they find. All the artifacts we uncover in this province belong to all Albertans and, therefore, after analysis they are sent to the Royal Alberta Museum for storage or display.
In spring 2017, the Glenbow Town and Quarry Project of the ASA-CC began an excavation to search for the foundation of the bunkhouse, the residence of the single men who worked at Glenbow Quarry. Although we did not locate a clearly defined foundation, we did uncover remains of the structure and some objects that were left behind. Most artifacts were bent nails or broken window panes, mundane though useful items for our purposes. However, there was one exciting discovery that was completely unexpected. An archaeology student, Justine Buchler, was working a short distance from me, when she suddenly called me over. The tone of her voice betrayed uncharacteristic shock and I leapt up to see what she had found.
There, nestled in the dirt among some fine roots, was a small circle of silver-coloured metal. She had uncovered a coin. My first instinct of surprise was quickly replaced by disappointment. A modern dime would indicate contamination of the site and could negate any chronological interpretations I would make based on stratigraphy (layers of soil). However, when we looked more closely, we saw that it was not a dime. The circle was embossed with the words, “5 / CENTS / CANADA / 1907” which were surmounted by a crown and bracketed by two sprays of leaves tied at the base with a bow. I turned the coin over and saw a crowned king’s head and the words, “EDWARDVS VII D.G. REX IMPERATOR,” which is Latin for “Edward the Seventh, by the Grace of God, King and Emperor.”
I was stunned. It was the first coin I have ever seen come out of an archaeological site. I am a big fan of Edwardian era design and this little coin was just so pretty, all tied up with a bow! There was a lot of excited chatter and hugs and jumping up and down. Suddenly, we noticed the approach of a visitor and we stifled our elation, so as not to betray our unusual find. I swore everyone to secrecy, for fear the uneducated public would destroy our site attempting the impossibility of finding more such rarities.
A quick search online showed current values for a 1907 five-cent coin ranging from one cent for damaged and worn coins to sixty-seven dollars for uncirculated mint-condition coins. However, the more interesting question is, “What was the value of the Glenbow coin when it was lost?” Clearly, then, we first have to know when it was left behind. The bunkhouse was built in 1909, used until 1912, and salvaged for its lumber around 1918. So, the coin was probably lost after 1912, based on the layer of deposits in which it was found.
Three aspects of its value can be looked at: 1) its equivalent value in today’s currency, 2) the length of work-time required to earn that much, and 3) the purchasing power of that coin in that era. In the first case, to find the equivalent value today, I used an online inflation calculator. The earliest calculation date possible for Canada is for 1914, when five cents had the equivalent value today of $1.08.
The second interpretation of value based on time worked can be assessed using the 1911 national census, which particularly asked for hourly rates of pay. In the Glenbow population, quarry labourers earned 25 to 35 cents an hour, while stonecutters (who were trained in a skilled trade and had a union) earned 62.5 cents per hour. Therefore, an unskilled labourer would have had to work 12 minutes to earn five cents.
The third way of thinking about value involves understanding the purchasing power of that five cents in the period of its loss. The most direct evidence I have is from a lone surviving receipt book from the Glenbow Store, which sadly covers only a few days in the spring of 1918. I found just one item valued at five cents and it was simply labelled as yeast. I presume it was a packet or tablet, but have no notation of measurement. Ms. Harnden, curator at Heritage Park, kindly provided me with a list of items that could be purchased for five cents in 1910. Examples from this list include a wooden spoon, a paring knife, two pairs of knitting needles, a bar of soap, a comb, a bottle of ink, or a pair of shoelaces.
The surprising discovery of a rare five-cent piece in the archaeological remains of the Glenbow bunkhouse provides a unique touchstone for us to examine the value of money. As an historic archaeologist, I want to understand the significance of its loss to the person who dropped it. If we calculate value based upon rate of inflation, the closest estimate is that five cents in 1914 is equivalent to $1.08 today. If we consider amount of work-time as a measure of value, an unskilled labourer at Glenbow in 1910 would have had to work for 12 minutes to earn that five cents. If we see value as purchasing power, then the person who dropped the five-cent coin would have had to do without something like a bar of soap or a pair of shoelaces.
When people ask me what that tiny, beautiful, five-cent piece is worth today, all I can really say is that it is priceless, in the word’s most literal sense. As an archaeological artifact, it will never have a price placed upon it; it will never be sold. Figuratively speaking, as a piece of our past, and for the story it can tell, it is beyond value.
(The most common question asked of archaeologists is, “Find any dinosaurs yet?” which leads to an explanation of the evolutionary timeline that separates the subject of our work — humans — from these animals by at least 63 million years.)
This article was originally printed in the BERGEN NEWS and is being reprinted with permission.