Digging dumps with hard soil? SW USA

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Jun 6, 2022
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Welcome aboard!

If "everything's broken" in two feet of digging through a dump, then the biggest question is how the pieces of the broken items are situated. Are they in close association with each other? In other words, if you dropped a rock, brick, cast iron stove piece or etc. on top of a bottle in a hole you would, in most cases, still be able to discern that it was likely intact before the impact. Contrariwise, pieces of various colors, thicknesses and types all jumbled in a homogenized matrix is an indication that the dump had been dug previously by bottle hunters or disturbed by some other mechanical process such as construction work, or washed down-slope by weather events.

Keep in mind that bottle diggers have been active in North America for more than six decades now, so it has gotten tough. I'd go so far as to say that it is toughest Out West, where the craze actually started in 1959--the West is also where some of the most interesting and valuable bottles were found because of the huge influx of mid-19th century miners subsequent James Marshall's gold discovery in tailrace of Sutter's Mill, the event which kicked off the 1849 California Gold Rush. Camps, towns and even cities radiated throughout the region and into the Rockies with fresh strikes in a process that continues to this day with examples such as the controversial Thacker Pass Lithium Mine now initiating excavation in NV and causing concerns for the government and residents of nearby Winnemucca .

In arid regions of The West that were fortunate enough to escape destruction by wildfire, the old building stood, more-or-less intact and easily seen for more than a century. In that state, they were obvious hunting grounds for bottle diggers, some of whom were quite industrious in their efforts. A peek at photo on page 7 of The Antique Bottle Collector by Grace Kendrick and at several that are perhaps more relevant to your Colorado experience and begin at page 82 of Ghost Town Bottle Price Guide by Wes and Ruby Bressie should provide some insight into how thoroughly the more obvious dump sites have been dug by now in 2023.

Lots of broken bottle shards on the surface of extremely hard-packed ground could mean that no deep dump ever existed on the site. Also likely, especially if you have found vast fields of rusted "tin" (actually steel) can pieces and shreds scattered across the same surface area, that any goodies left behind by early bottle collectors have long since been gleaned by latecomers like yourself, or shot to pieces by plinkers. How deeply purple-colored by UV radiation some of the shards you've collected are suggests to me that the glass lay on the surface a very long time. Even at high altitude, where UV component of sunlight is more intense, I question whether the glass would have acquired such deep hues if the pieces are the discarded remnants unearthed by diggers active five or six decades previous to your visit. That is, I think your finds, at least the more-deeply hued ones, were from items simply tossed onto the surface when originally discarded.

All that I mention is not intended to discourage you. Rather, I'm trying to convey some information that might help you evaluate the site, and others you might discover in the future, to help assess whether a dumpsite warranting a lot of digging effort exists, or ever existed, on the site. My own experience suggests that the residents of small mining towns and camps did not expend much effort in disposing of their trash. If a deep dump ever existed on a site, such as the classic example of Virginia City, NV, it was because the town had a large population over an extended period. As such, odor control and other sanitary needs dictated at least some degree of centralized garbage management. None of that prevented individuals dropping bottles and other of today's "relics" down a privy hole. If you are able to locate and excavate a few privy pits in the "mining towns" in question; and, you then find nothing but broken shards in such context*, it would make a pretty convincing case to me that the site was too well known and has been too thoroughly excavated to warrant further digging. However, if the town is large enough to have been documented on Sanford Insurance maps, and if enough indication of property lot boundaries remain, but all the buildings have long since vanished, you might be in luck! While plenty of specialists have long sought out and dug privy pits in urban areas, I don't think the method was very common in remote or rural areas where diggers of the 1960s and 70s had surface dumps to more-easily exploit!

I wish you some good luck to accompany your efforts!

* Jumbled-up and disassociated shards in a privy pit are a pretty clear indication that one is digging through the back-fill of previous diggers--some items originally dropped into an outhouse pit managed to survive, and even the pieces of an item that broke will be found in close association to each other.
This is really great information!


Well-Known Member
Apr 22, 2009
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Port Angeles, WA
This is really great information!
Thanks. I'm just trying to help some people relatively new to evaluating a site with some things I realized ages ago. Having worked in a number of fields over a lifetime, I've earned that not everyone views situations in the same manner. I've even embarrassed myself by not seeing "obvious" solutions to a problem a time or two that were clearly evident to coworkers. Thankfully, the opposite situation has prevailed enough times that I don't feel like a total dunce!

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