Carol Nickolai – My Day in Random Archaeology

The house just after the gas explosion.

The house just after the gas explosion.

The only archaeology I planned for the day was the one I barely touched. I’ve been working on a book review for Historical Archaeology, but I couldn’t bring myself to stay inside — and stay hungry — all day so I went out for lunch at my favorite cafe. My errands took me past a place where a gas problem caused a house to explode and burn and destroy the house on one side and part of a condo complex on the other (no injuries! thankfully the people smelled the gas and started evacuating their neighbors before it exploded). I stopped to see how the re-construction on the condo complex is coming along and to look at the mounds of earth and rock where the two houses were demolished after the fire. I wonder what happened to the things it wasn’t safe for people to retrieve, are those things buried here or were they separated for the residents to go through during demolition? Sometimes I find little bits of things, some not surprising like pieces of ceramic and some almost tragic like half of a flip-style cell phone. And I try not to think about what my apartment would look like if this happened; what’s the point of a fireproof box if you can’t get to it? Sometimes I’m tempted by a little experimental archaeology excavating the houses, and think about what it means for future archaeology that the places we live and work will be almost devoid of “stuff”. At the cafe, I read a magazine article about the use of pneumatic tubes in the late 19th and early 20th century — I remember my Mom using these at the drive-through windows of banks, though I don’t know if banks still use them. A couple of technology companies want to use these to build high-speed transport for people between major cities. Considering how often it seemed the bank containers got stuck somewhere in the system, I’m not ready to ride in one myself! Finally I checked on the repair work going on in my new apartment, a 1915 building which might have some original woodwork under all the paint, and went back to my early 1970s apartment building to work on that book review — my friends have always laughed that in 20 years in Philadelphia this historical archaeologist has never lived in an old building!

Carol A. Nickolai, Ph.D.
Adjunct Professor of Anthropology, Community College of Philadelphia
Adjunct Instructor of Anthropology, Rowan University