The Dig

As time passes, the events of history are slowly lost to us. No matter how careful we are in our homes or outside, we leave subtle clues to our having been here. To rediscover our past we often turn to archaeology. It is important in excavations to not only recover items from the soil, but the knowledge of how those items are found and to document through photographs and notes what is found during the digging. The artifacts and documents are then used to recreate what life was like in the past. It must be remembered though that when an excavation takes place, the site is essentially destroyed. Because of this, documentation must be complete enough to allow archaeologists in the future to use the data that is collected.

(Careful digging reveals many layers of colored soil that can tell us as much as the artifacts themselves.)

People seem to think that the archaeologist is often excavating sites in search of buried treasure. Unlink the tomb of King Tut, very few sites have any monetary value. In our case we find many artifacts such as broken dishes, nails and wood since the house was eventually burned and presumably fell into the basement area. It is in the basement where Edison seems to have spent a lot of time. It was here where he printed his own newspaper. Because the Edison family moved from the house before the fire, we knew that only one artifact in the house could be from Thomas Edison. Unlike printer used with computers today, printed material back then was made by using small printing type, made of metal, that was arranged to spell out words. The print was then covered in ink and pressed against sheets of paper. Looking at the few examples of his paper that have survived, we can identify specific letters that match with the printers type we found during our excavations.

(Edison would line up hundreds of small pieces of printers type, roll on black ink and press it firmly against sheets of paper before heading off to sell it on the local trains.)

Finding several pieces of printers type which had been held by Thomas Edison himself was quite exciting. In addition to the type we found several pieces of a broken teacup, it's size indicating it was used by a child. Printed on the tiny teacup was a nursery rhyme.

". . . turn thine eye . . . -Butterfl . . . ny playf . . air . . . nting gar . . ."

Eventually, we learned the source of the nursery rhyme when a visitor to this site recognized it as a passage from Dante!

In addition to Edison's printing type and the mysterious teacup riddle, we found a horse during our excavation! It was by far our largest artifact. Upon excavating outside the basement area of the house, we located a well or cistern, which collected and stored rain water. It was several feet in diameter and lined with brink. When it was no longer needed and the house abandoned before the fire, the cistern was filled in with garbage and dirt. As the excavation continued downwards and at a depth of eight feet, we came upon the skeleton of a horse, still wearing his shoes. That was quite a surprise!

(Here is a photo of the excavation. This represented part of the basement of the Edison home. Waiting to be excavated, the well was located in the lower left area of the photograph.)

In addition to the hundreds of visitors who stopped by every day, we opened the site for visitors towards the end of the Summer so they get a closer look at what we were doing. They were able to look at Edison artifacts brought over on a trailer by the museum, hear about the work we were doing in the pit and to get a look at the techniques we used in the excavation.

(Hundreds of visitors stopped by to hear about our work and what we had found over the Summer.)

In the photo above, you can see several pieces of wood running the length of the excavated pit. These were the floor support upon which were nailed the floor boards. Unlike most basements today, this basement was only four feet below the surface of the group while the first floor of the house rested several feel above ground, the entire house supported by columns of limestone rock mortared together. It was in the basement itself where I uncovered an unexpected visitor one morning. I guess he was just checking out our work first hand!

(Unexpected visitor. This prey mantis dropped by for a visit one morning to check out our work.)

After several months of digging, we had collected thousands of artifacts that were taken back to our lab for cleaning and analysis. Mostly we had found nails from the home and hundreds of pieces of glass from the windows. The team had discovered and early drawing of the house which helped us envision what it must have been like. Finding one pane of glass, broken but in place, helped us understand how the windows were constructed. At the end of the Summer, we had bagged up all the artifacts, saved all our photographs and carefully organized our notes and video tape so they could looked at by researchers and scientists in the future.

(With the work complete for the Summer, the team posed for a picture.)

After we were done, we were very careful to cover the delicate wood remains from the basement. The heavy material would not only protect the site but act as a marker if digging in the future uncovered it. Despite the fact that the city of Port Huron would develop the site and build condominiums which would share the same view Edison had of the river as a boy, we wanted to make sure we did what we could to protect the site. Condos eventually were built on the site, their basements carefully arranged around our work in an attempt to preserve what was left for future archaeologists.

(Although no further excavations are possible due to construction, we carefully covered the site and had a front loader fill in the hole.)

Much like it appeared before our arrival, the quiet corner returned to obscurity. Train tracks running across the corner of the site had protected it from housing for many decades and hopefully the steps we took to preserve what was left will provide future archaeologists with more material to excavate. The entire basement of the home had been excavated over many seasons as well as the cistern and well, but several other building that had stood on the site might provide them with additional opportunities to uncover what life was like in the city when Thomas Edison grew up there.

(With the site protected, all that was left was taking down the sign.)

Original plans had called for a museum on the site that would incorporate an area of the excavation itself but that wasn't possible. Instead, the museum purchased the local train depot (a mile from the site) and set up the Edison Museum there. In this museum, you're able to view different items from his life as well as artifacts from the excavations. For more information on the museum, follow the links page on this site to the Port Huron Museum link. There you will find information on the museum and everything it has to offer.