Audio Documentary—Bottle Diggers

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Mark Neumann, Northern Arizona University; and Michael LeVan, University of South Florida

About This Work

Prior to the widespread use of plastics and other engineered materials, most trash was biodegradable. Without rubbish encased in plastic bag time machines, and before chemical food preservation (consider that 50-year old hotdogs and Twinkies have been found in mid-century municipal dumps), a lot of what was discarded simply broke down and vanished into the earth. What remains in these city dumps from the 19th and early 20th centuries is glass, porcelain, metal, and some bone. In cities like Tampa, Florida, where initial growth occurred between 1880-1920, city dumps from those times are a treasure trove for bottle collectors. Bottle diggers are part treasure hunters, part amateur historians/archeologists. They are passionate hobbyists who put in long, physically exhausting hours excavating old municipal dump trenches to find bottles that have been lying underground for 100 or more years. Most of these dumps lie under the yards of unsuspecting homeowners in neighborhoods built after the 1950s. The variety of soda, beer, spirit, bitters, medicine, and tonic bottles that can be found dovetails into an expansive networks of collectors and traders.

One weekend morning, while on a bike ride through the Ybor City area of Tampa (historically, an immigrant enclave of Tampa), we passed a few men digging a trench in a back yard. Intrigued by the flurry of activity, we initiated a conversation that opened up the world of bottle diggers. After attending an antique bottle trading show, we spent a few sessions interviewing a group of diggers at a site. Another digger invited us to his house to show us his expansive collection of bottles and talk about the hobby and the history of bottles. Across these interviews, our subjects discussed the thrill of digging, the life experiences that brought them to this hobby, and the knowledge they gained of the cities and cultures that emerged from the dumps. They see beneath the surfaces of the city. They imagine a terrain of local history and a milieu of emerging values that now define contemporary life. While producing this documentary, we tried to capture the sounds and rhythms of the dig, interspersed with the intriguing narratives of desire, memory, and camaraderie emerging in this truly "underground" activity.

Audio Essay

Summary of Audio

This audio documentary is about amateur urban archaeologists who dig through 19th century and early 20th century municipal dumpsites in search of antique glass bottles. The documentary layers sounds of the diggers at work in their trenches, the ambient urban soundscape, and the diggers’ narratives and descriptions about digging for bottles. We hear stories, theories, histories, and speculations about digging for bottles; narratives about becoming collectors, the digging community, what the trash reveals about people’s lives in the past; and reflections about bottles and bottling economies, obsession, hobbies, and the thrill of the unknown contents of the ground under former dump sites. Compiled like a sound collage of narrative fragments, the audio portraits show the diggers to be underground explorers, alternative urban historians, and cultural theorists.

Medicinal Bottles

Fig. 1: 'Medicinal Bottles'

Van Den Bergh and Co. Bottle (front view)

Fig. 2: Van Den Bergh Bottle (full view)'

Van Den Bergh and Co. Bottle (side view)

Fig. 3: Van Den Bergh Bottle (side view)'

Van Den Bergh and Co. Pig Snout and Seal

Fig. 4: Van Den Bergh Pig Snout and Seal'

Van Den Bergh Seal

Fig. 5: Van Den Bergh Seal'


Mark Neumann is a professor at Northern Arizona University’s School of Communication. He teaches courses in documentary studies, visual culture, journalism, and theory. He is the author of On The Rim: Looking for the Grand Canyon and co-author (with Daniel Makagon) of Recording Culture: Audio Documentary and the Ethnographic Experience.

Michael LeVan is a senior instructor in the Department of Communication at the University of South Florida. He teaches courses in public memory, visual culture, space and time, performance studies, and globalization and democracy. He is editor of Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies. His essays have appeared in Text and Performance Quarterly, Performance Research, Peace Studies Journal, and the International Journal of Translation.

© 2013 Mark Neumann and Michael LeVan, used by permission

Technoculture Volume 3 (2013)