Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Manhattan Well Diggers

The Manhattan Well Diggers are a dedicated group of privy diggers, artists, collectors, research historians and educators with a passion for salvaging stories and unearthing bottles and artifacts on private property in the heart of New York City.

Tim Magee and a girl named Mya, and an eloquent writer named Dan who may or may not hide behind the alias Ole Sachem, (which confuses me slightly because I’d like to know the story behind that name) are the primary components of the time traveling task force.

Oh wait. Let’s not forget Dolhathai Srijamsharoen, a professional journalist, photographer and artist from Thailand known as "Little Pooh". She’s actually the most publicly identified digger on the site; there are links to Little Pooh’s sculptures, painting and photography in the New York City Triptych article, which is really a MUST VIEW photo essay full of insights into their process and digging rituals.

Unlike other more rural diggers, these guys can’t help but get noticed by all manner of ‘back alley’ folks, which I suppose is anybody with an apartment that looks down on their dig zone. Their stories usually reference at least one visitor.

Over the last ten years, this crew has dug dozens of holes and grown bold. They've developed some telltale Dumpdigger rituals and procedures including lots of signature tools and techniques - just look at that fancy homemade tripod. But most interesting is the research and logistics involved in each digging operation. These guys have to really think about things before they start each shaft because the bottles are so deep its impossible to probe. To readers like me it appears their quests originate in the New York City Archives (there is a picture of somebody standing beside a fire insurance map in the About Us section of the site) and then each quest progresses to the 'securing permission' stage. They have to get legal access to the site to perform some manner of investigation... You know I’d like to see pictures of this team probing and digging test pits, but that element of the adventure seems to be missing from their web stories. But there are however some wonderful before and after shots of their dig sites.

But now that I think of it… One of the things I noticed, especially in the New York Triptych article, is that these guys dig holes on faith. The ‘wells’ are so deep there's no way of telling if anything is down there without going down there to look. I suppose it’s more like drilling for oil or mining emeralds than the surface collecting done elsewhere in the nation.

Dan writes that the group tries 'to locate dwellings from the mid 19th century which were built without the luxury of modern plumbing and therefore most likely have a subterranean privy vault somewhere on the original property. These vaults (loosely referred to as "wells" here in New York City) are generally constructed of fieldstone, schist, brownstone or red brick, and sometimes contain shards of pottery and glass…’

The Manhatten Well Diggers write good articles and take great photos. Their best digging pictures are below the fold in the About Us section of the website, while the section marked Gallery has become a repository of good clean ‘treasures’. This is where they post pictures of their best finds, and there are some truly exquisite pieces here. I hope to add one set to the Dumpdiggers Treasure Alley on their behalf.

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