In the last several articles (September, October, and November), I have told you about my life as an archaeologist working with the public, excavating the foundation of an historic residence in Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park. In this festive season, I thought I would share a story about an unexpected gift I received while working on the Glenbow Town and Quarry Project, run by the Archaeological Society of Alberta – Calgary Centre. Actually, I have been given many gifts while working on this project, some of which I discussed in the December 2013 article. Like the gifts I talked about there, this gift was not for me to keep either.
I should explain that I like to play games while I work. My favorite involves using the imagination to construct a story (big surprise there!). While digging, usually at the start of a field season, we take turns answering the question, “What would you most like to find?” This year we had a bit of a head start, as we had previously excavated quite a few things and had done some interpretive work, as well.
For example, I have already recounted how the pipe fragments we found tied in with a family story about smoking. Well, we had discovered another pretty evocative item in our previous field season: a small fragment of a pink-bisque, porcelain doll limb. This was particularly important to me, because finding evidence of children in an archaeological site is quite rare. Afterwards, I interviewed the descendant of the family we thought had lived there, the Dicksons. I asked her if her mother and aunts had possessed any special or favorite toys while residing at Glenbow. (I did not want to ask any leading questions that might bias her answers.) She replied, “Oh yes, my mother received, as a gift, an unbreakable porcelain doll that she treasured.” I was compelled to challenge this with the obvious: “But, if it was made out of porcelain, how could it be unbreakable?” She told me that she was a doll collector herself, and she explained that the back of the head, where the hair attached, was cork so that when the baby doll was laid down, the cork would cushion the head to help prevent the face from cracking. Thinking of the porcelain fragment my colleague had unearthed, I asked if she still had the doll. She replied in the negative, adding, “but I have the shoes.” How was it that she had only the shoes, I wondered aloud. She recounted the story – the Unbreakable Porcelain Doll had come to the attention of a little neighbour boy who declared, “Unbreakable? Hmph, I can break that!” and promptly smashed it with a hammer! Apparently, the shoes had been salvaged and passed down through the years as a family heirloom. My instinct tied this story to our remains and, in my mind, virtually cinched this house as the home of the Dickson family.
So, back to the game. We bandied about different ideas. At one point, I said it would be nice if we could find a house sign that read, “The Dicksons” so I could be proved right in my interpretation, but that seemed a bit self-serving. Instead, I came up with another idea: a heart-shaped locket with a photograph inside. Now, that had imaginative potential! Who would the photo depict?? My colleague, Brian Vivian, who had found the doll fragment years ago, countered, “I thought you would have wanted more of the doll!?” I hastily concurred that this was definitely the case; I would love more of the doll.
The season wore on and still no locket or doll piece (or house sign). There were plentiful nails, however – groan. Then came the surprising day when a miniature tin heart appeared in the screen! I have already explained that this was a tobacco tag, not a locket, but it was a metal heart, and about the size of a locket, too! I considered my requests to the archaeology gods well-satisfied, especially when we found another such tag.
We dug slowly on to the end of the season, with me becoming more anxious every day that the weather would turn before we had completed our task. Finally, we were done. All that remained was to clean up the units for their photos and scans. One volunteer and I spent a last day prying tenacious weeds from between the cobbles and sweeping up the mounds of earth that the nasty, little pocket gophers kept spewing into the units. One unit was particularly disturbed. I scooped up and screened bucket after bucket of earth, uncovering a maze of tunnels disappearing under the cobbles themselves. It was disheartening, to say the least. My precious foundation was being destabilized by pernicious vermin. All season we had fought a losing battle against these furry pests who obnoxiously churned up soil the moment our backs were turned. I’d even flung my trowel at the only one I had seen, when I surprised it by turning around unexpectedly. So there I was, ranting about these vile creatures and their inconsiderate habits, when I spied a shard of white porcelain among the debris. Suspecting a teacup fragment, I gingerly lifted it and turned it over to examine the design, when what did I see? Pink. Bisque. I was stunned. Unbelieving, I repeatedly wiped at the dirt on the pink side, muttering to myself. Fearing for the safety of the artifact, the volunteer suggested I remove my glove! Complying, I touched the porcelain with my fingertip. It really was a fragment of doll limb! I let out a triumphant whoop that bounced off the cliff and resounded down the valley!!
The next day, when I met Brian, I was quivering with not-quite-restrained excitement. There was so much to tell him about our final days at the site. Then, I produced the doll fragment, found on the very last day. Shocked, he burst into laughter. There was a lot of talking all at once, but I did hear him remark that the gophers had tossed it out to me just to make me go away!
This small curved chunk of pink bisque isn’t much to look at. It might not mean a lot to the average person or the typical pocket gopher, but to me it was a great gift arriving with perfect timing. Best Wishes for a Happy Holiday Season to You All.
This article was originally printed in the Bergen News and is being reprinted with permission.