PALMYRA — Trowel in hand, Sam was working in pit 1 in the northeast corner, taking great care to remove a thin layer of dirt to extract the object, clean it off with a toothbrush and mark its location and depth in the ground.
Sam had uncovered a chunk of wood from a tree, but what a find. Careful examination showed the piece of wood with bark still in tact was petrified and likely dated back to pre-1700s, Historic Palmyra Executive Director Bonnie Hays said.
Sam was one of 15 children and adults taking part in Historic Palmyra’s third annual Dig Camp, a three-day archaeological dig held right in Palmyra held in early August.
“They all had a ball,” Hays said. “It’s not expensive, but the rewards are amazing.”
A few years ago, Hays went to a historic site in Farmington, Ky., where she met several Syracuse students who were doing a dig. Hays thought it was “cool” and brought the idea home with her. With four museums in Palmyra and so much history surrounding the village, it was certain a dig would be fruitful.
Hays was right. Each year, the finds made by those participating have been true treasures, put on display at the Historic Museum in time for Historic Palmyra’s Pirate Weekend.
Hays enlisted Cassie Hughes, who has a master’s degree in archaeology, and her mom, Pam Hughes, both of whom have been long-time volunteers at the museum. She then got a grant from the Wayne County Endowment Fund to help cover costs and to allow more children to take part. Hays then picks a location for a dig, and this year’s site was behind the Historic Museum. The best sites are typically in a backyard in the right back corner, Hays said.
“For some reason people tend to dump stuff there and by trees,” she explained.
The area is carefully marked out, stakes are pounded into the ground and string is strung between the stakes a short distance from the ground, splitting the area into four quadrants. Each item found is logged with its location and depth in the ground, which is measured from the string down. Treasures were found as deep as 17 inches into the earth.
“This is the most interesting hole we have ever dug,” Hays said, holding up each item, studying them.
This year, young archaeologists Nate, Sam, Lucas, Angela, Maria and Kate (Hays did not have last names of participants) unearthed pieces of carnival glass from the early 1900s; a piece of cobalt that appears to be part of an inkwell from the 1880s; various bone pieces most likely from animals; Depression-era glass pieces; a blacksmith’s file and nail pull from the 1870s; stoneware pieces; and a toy airplane from the 1930 or 40s, which is being professionally cleaned.
Some of the items found simply baffle Hays and her colleagues at the museum, none of whom can identify everything that was discovered or its significance. Every piece tells a story about those who lived before, and finding items that link together brings a certain level of excitement to the young diggers. Maria found a piece of Depression glass that fit perfectly together with a piece Lucas found. Much of what was found can likely be linked to the Erie Canal or people traveling along the canal, so the possibilities are endless.
“It gives us a timeline of what people used,” Hays said. “Then we can determine how folks lived.”
Hays is planning another dig next year, likely at the Historic Museum again. Anyone interested in seeing what treasures were unearthed is encouraged to visit the museum during Canaltown Days. All four museums of Historic Palmyra will be open from noon to 4 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday during the festival.