Construction Site Yields Treasure from Past
March 13, 2000
Wherever we are, wherever we go, we walk on human history. The pavement, the grass, the herbs, and the soil conceal this hidden story until they are stripped away. Only then can we peek through the window of deep time. Only then can we become, so to speak, archaeologists.
For 16 years I have walked to Beach Hall from my home, south of campus. I change my route now and then to keep it interesting.
The recent renovation of South Campus was particularly fun for me. At first, I walked near buildings full of students, full of life. Then the dorms stood empty, almost ghost-like, as if waiting for a miracle. Asbestos removal seemed to take forever. Then came the giant cranes with their wrecking balls, the front-end loaders scooping rubble into countless trucks, and finally the noisy bulldozers, which pushed the remaining debris into former basements. After re-grading, the demolished neighborhood was seeded with grass, the fences removed, and nature took its course, ever so gradually. For days I walked through sprouting grass.
Then one week there was a tropical storm. Torrents of sweet-smelling rain poured down onto the nascent lawns, not yet thick enough to hold on to the soil. Rivulets of water dissected the surface into a miniature badland, washing the loamy sediment into Mirror Lake, painting it the color of coffee with cream.
The next day, I walked slowly, deliberately, across the eroded scene, eyes to the ground, looking for buried treasure. Soon, I was rewarded. Within one of the shallow gullies was an
unusual object, its bulk nearly buried in mud, its blade rusted orange, its broken wooden handle blackened with age. I had to pry it out.
Not knowing what it was, I donated it to the Museum of Natural History in exchange for an identification. Nick Bellantoni, state archaeologist, informed me it was a tobacco ax, probably 100 years old, that was once used to trim away rough outer leaves during harvest. Although an isolated find, it spoke to the agricultural heritage of the area. Only then did I realize that South Campus has risen - like a phoenix - from the forgotten fields of an earlier era.
We have a necessity for ruins. We use them to measure progress, or, in lieu of progress, change. The coins, combs, and pens lost by some of today's students mingle with those lost by their parents during the late 1960s and previous generations. Mixed even deeper into the soil are the remains of earlier epochs - colonial, native American, Paleolithic, glacial, and even older. We dwell on the past, literally.