When it comes to learning the history of South Mississippi, Mike Burkett likes to get his hands dirty.
The Pass Christian police detective has been digging up clues to how people lived in the 1800s for six years — one hole at a time.
The history buff has always been drawn to the past, avidly reading about the people of Mississippi and Louisiana.
A few years ago, Burkett began really digging into history and has made a side business out of what he finds in the earth.
He’s a bottle collector.
“You know how you go to a museum and you can’t touch anything?” he asked. “Well, this is history you can touch.”
Don’t misunderstand, he doesn’t just take a shovel and start creating potholes in fields and yards willy-nilly.
This is an archeological dig.
Burkett said he starts by reading about the history of a place and finding out what life was like back in the late 1800s.
Then it’s on to research. He uses Sanborn maps, which are fire maps that were created starting in the 1850s. They show the property and their layouts, including where all the outbuildings were located.
And, more importantly to Burkett, the approximate locations of wells, box wells, cisterns and privvys.
Those spots are likely candidates for trash from the households — and where his buried treasure lies.
“The pits usually are wide, but not deep,” he said, noting that most are 5 feet wide by 5 feet long by 5 feet deep. On the Coast, that might take him three hours to dig. In New Orleans, where there is more clay, it could be a nine-hour dig.
The deepest he’s gone is 12 feet, which was originally a brick-lined well on Elysian Fields. He unearthed ink wells and a soda bottle that could fetch $200 to $2,000, depending on the condition and the color.
One of the most important parts of the research he does, Burkett says, is to find out who owns the property and get permission to dig. Otherwise, he could face trespassing or malicious mischief charges — and who knows what else.
Being a police officer himself, he’s careful to make sure he has the proper authority to dig before he ever turns the first shovel of dirt.
Something else he does, once he’s on a site, is to use a probe to check the site. The 4-1/2 foot rod has a pointed end that can get through the clay and allows him to test the site. If there is a trash pit or covered privvy below, the ground will get soft again after the clay. The hollow handle of the probe also allows him to hear whether the probe is sliding against glass. That means he’s found what he’s looking for.
The probe also helps him gauge how far down he’ll have to dig before he hits paydirt.
On a dig on a recent Sunday, he hit a field that’s been dug before in Pass Christian. Once the property of the old Miramar Hotel, he dug a small hole in the back of the property about 12 to 18 inches in diameter and about 3 1/2 feet down.
He brought up mostly shards of crockery, bottles and plates. Some of the bottles, shards, flatware and toys like marbles that he has found are destined for shadow boxes. He displays them in such a way that they tell a story and sells them through Derek Doyle Designs in Pass Christian under the name French Quarter Relics.
But he also brought up an whole ceramic bottle that once held ginger beer. Cream on the bottom with a tan neck, the bottle came out mostly clean, thanks to the sandy soil where it was found. A simple rinse with some bottled water on hand and the bottle is ready to display.
Do not clean
Burkett doesn’t clean his bottles. Many that come from New Orleans will pick up a white haze. Under that, a rainbow effect from the minerals in the soil it’s been buried in since the 1850s.
“The optimum age for glass is 1850 to 1890,” he said. “The most expensive bottles are (medicinal) bitters bottles.”
The bottles that have the maker or the product in raised relief are worth more than those whose paper labels have long since worn away.
But the thrill of the find keeps Burkett reading, researching and digging for pieces of history.