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Treasures from the past being stolen

February 12, 2002|By JENNIFER RALTON-SMITH, Staff Writer

EAST MESA — Archaeologist Margaret Hangan wants us to stop going through "her" trash. Hangan, who works for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's El Centro field office, is worried that valuable historical information is being lost because someone is systematically raiding historic trash dumps throughout the East Mesa area of the Cargo Muchacho Mountains in eastern Imperial County.

Standing close by the site of what was once the American Girl Mine and braving the chilling winds of early morning in the desert, Hangan reached into a large pile of rusty trash and retrieved an object more readily identifiable as a lump of rust than as anything else.

"This is a great example of a solder seam," Hangan said as she carefully turned over what she now identified as a food can.

"This is an example of early can technology from the late 1800s. This can has an overlapping seam and is the type used to can food up until the early part of last century. And it is important because it predates this trash dump and so must have come from somewhere else," Hangan added.

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With the sort of enthusiasm only an archaeologist could muster for trash, Hangan reached back into the mess of rusted cans and picked out another lump of rust.

"Here's a modern can. This is a ‘sanitary seam' and is the type of can we use today. It was first introduced in 1904 and got its name from the fact that no lead solder was used in the seam, unlike the earlier cans."

When challenged to explain exactly how a bunch of old cans could be considered an important element of historical data, Hangan sighed a little as she carefully placed the sanitary seam can back where she'd found it.

"To most people this is a bunch of trash — and yes, it actually is a bunch of trash, but it's historic trash. And it's historic trash that has a lot of meaning in it."

Pausing for a moment to look at the desolate landscape that was once the site of a thriving mining community, the archaeologist enlarged upon her theme of "historic trash."

"A typical trash dump out here has a lot of meaning in that it tells us a lot about the historic communities that were in this area at one time."

Picking up a glass fragment and holding it to the light, Hangan continued, "A lot of people did not write about themselves in the past … only the people who were educated wrote about history and recorded events."

With a wry smile, Hangan posed the question, "Who did they write about? They wrote about themselves, of course. Women, children, ethnic people — the people who were not literate — they did not record themselves."

Citing how archaeological excavation of slave quarters in the South has revealed a large amount of previously unknown detail of the slaves' lives, Hangan said trash sites like the one she was standing over tell her much about the men and women who worked in this area in historic times.

"Here in this area, migrant workers — the people who had been migrating from across the border and working here — they left things from themselves behind, but the one thing they did not leave behind is a written record of their existence and the details of their lives."

Hangan says because of this lack of a written history of the common laborers of the time, the only way she and her fellow archaeologists can "read" the history is when places such as the trash dumps exist.

"Through the things they leave behind, like their food trash, we get to know something about them and their work environment. During the Tumco mining period there were many Hispanic workers here and in fact we do have some photos of their social gatherings and clubs, but very little written history of their lives."

Walking a little way to another trash dump, Hangan stopped and picked up a fragment of what was once a large can with its sanitary seam clearly visible.

"Whatever was in here — there was a lot of it!" Hangan said as she turned the piece in her hands. "This came from an industrial-size food can and would tell me that the people here were feeding a lot of folks — early mining camp people."

Further on, finding the remnants of what appeared to be a square can, close in shape to today's ubiquitous Spam can, Hangan grinned as she commented, "Consumers' tastes and can styles have not changed, only the technology for manufacturing cans has. We're still eating canned meat!"

Not far from the meat can, Hangan was excited to find what looked like an oversized zip fastener.

Enthusing over this latest find, Hangan said, "See the canvas bit in here? This was part of the belt system used to move the ore carts from the mine."

Pausing to enjoy the first warmth of the morning as the sun rose over the top of the nearby hills, Hangan spoke reverently of the Indian pottery shards sometimes found in this area, emphasizing that they are not prehistoric shards but are considered historic.

"The Quechan Indians were still making pots and selling them well into historic times and the people working out here were buying them."

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