Note: We interrupt Show Cars Week to insert this special time-sensitive post. Normal programming will continue tomorrow.
Following on last week's Carspotting Challenge in which we offered readers a chance to identify some forlorn automobiles gone to their final resting places in an Elephant's Graveyard, we now turn to what amounts to actual archaeological sites. I recently did some fieldwork in a (not identified here) portion of eastern Washington State and part of the survey area included a couple of what we call "dump sites": areas where, historically, people dumped objects. Which is, in fact, a prime kind of archaeological site from any period -- places where people discarded the detritus of everyday life. Really, garbage heaps and latrines are some of the best places for finding out how people actually lived, be it the 20th century AD or 15th century BC.
This post is part photo essay, part eulogy for the sad fate of some automobiles, and part call for assistance from Car Lust readers everywhere. You see, while archaeologists are often called upon to record any site older than 50 years, it is often kind of tricky to determine the age of some of these really recent sites. For example, does a particular beer can or bottle date to 1965 (not older than 50 years) or 1955 (older than 50 years)? And if the latter, was it tossed there around 1955 (older than 50 years) or perhaps much later? On top of that, given the range of time of artifacts that we often encounter -- from 10,000 years ago to occasionally last week -- we are often presented with objects for which we have limited expertise.
And thus, the subject of this post: car dumps. Specifically, two actual sites, one a true car dump and the other a general dump containing a couple of automotive artifacts. My purpose is twofold: First, to show a bit of our automotive past as it appears to archaeologists, and second, to solicit input from readers to assist us in dating these sites. So feel free in the comments to chime in on any insights you may have on the make, model, and especially year of manufacture of any of these objects that may help us to provide an accurate description and dating of the sites.
In everyday life, if any of us looks at a random car on the street we can immediately tell, in a general way, when it was made: cars made in the 1950s are quite obviously different from those made in the 1990s, for example. Oh sure, there are a lot of general things in common -- they have four rubber tires, a steering wheel, fenders, etc. -- but many details change over time and we can recognize these with some experience. True experts on virtually any item can be found who can often date particular objects to even finer levels based on various details. Mustang enthusiasts, for example, can identify "early '65s" from "late '65s" based on the type of engine present. Obviously, most people can also differentiate different makes -- "cultures" if you will -- within given time periods: cars from the 1950s tend to look pretty similar to the casual observer, yet we can also tell whether a particular object is a Ford or GM based on obvious (a "Ford" badge) and not so obvious (the shape of the grille) features.
Second, this is how we date sites as a whole: we look at the manufacturing dates of the various objects found within it and that allows us to place limits on the time the site as a whole was formed. If you're looking at a car lot and you only find cars made between 1953 and 1973, then you can at least argue that the site as a whole probably dates to between those years. There are certain logical constraints on this, of course: someone could have walked by a week before and taken the '78 (or '48) Cadillac that had been sitting there, but we work with what we have.
And thus we come to our present problem: We came across two sites with automotive components: A set of cars dumped along a river bank, and a general dump with some car parts thrown in. I've been able to ID a couple of the cars based on the model tags, but I haven't the expertise to do so on all of them. Admittedly, we also didn't spend an inordinate amount of time studying them because they have fairly minimal significance from a historic or archaeological perspective. But if we could get a little more information on them, all the better for our report. In addition, this little exercise will hopefully give y'all a little more insight into the business of archaeology.
It's also kind of sad, in a way. Knowing how a lot of people would treasure some of these vehicles were they to be sitting in a driveway somewhere in driveable condition, it's a bit distressing to see them dumped and decaying next to a river with very little hope of restoration. A melancholy commentary on the effects of obsolescence in our modern society.
The River Dump
This is a set of cars sitting along the steep side of the river bank, covering a couple of hundred yards. I counted fourteen vehicles total, but most of it was out of our project area so we couldn't do a full count. All were apparently pushed down the bank, most back end down, but at least one front end down. Of the five that I took a closer look at, four were filled with rocks, presumably to keep them from floating away when the river runs a banker (the one without rocks was a bit higher up). None had any wheels or tires attached, and only one had the engine still installed (the others may have, but the hoods were closed). It was hard to tell what state they were in when they were dumped, as a lot of damage could have occurred while sitting on the bank.
Viewing them from the opposite bank they looked to me, initially, as mostly late 1940s or early 1950s, with one perhaps being from the later 1950s. Closer inspection revealed that I was mostly correct, although I was only able to get good dates on a couple of them.
This was the first in line and had no rocks in it. The entire front end was gone and I couldn't find any identifying marks. It's completely unknown to me, although I'm guessing it's of mid-late 1940s or early 1950s vintage.
Couple of views of this one. Again, no identifying marks and it had been used for some target practice (or perhaps . . . . a Car of Death?). The two paint colors look like something from the '60s maybe? Remember, we're trying to pin down not only the dates of manufacture but also the latest date at which they were dumped here as well.
Finally, a model! I've pinned this one down to a 1959 or 1960 Plymouth Fury, as the 1961 seems to have lost the fins. This one was unfortunately covered in rocks and vegetation in the back and the front was only visible from the opposite bank.
Another identifiable model. A 1951-1953 Plymouth Cranbrook which, honestly, I'd never heard of. There's even a photo of a yellow one at that link. This one had the engine still inside which I could observe through that oddly-shaped cutout in the hood there.
I also found a few isolated parts downstream (top photo) which probably came loose from one of these vehicles and floated down a ways. There may be others submerged in the river (it's the spring runoff so the water is high) so there could very well be more than the 14 I counted here. I'd really like any additional information on these vehicles, especially the unidentified ones, but also if anyone's got any insight as to why they were disposed of in this manner.
The General Dump Site
This was a deposit of a lot of different sorts of garbage, mostly Rainier Beer cans. All of these had steel bodies with aluminum pull-tab tops so it's at least from before the later 1970s. We also found a few church-key type beer cans as well. Interestingly, there were a few toys as part of this assemblage as well, a few of which, rather unfortunately, I recognized as part of my own boyhood. It's one thing to see your childhood toys in an antique store, but another altogether to find them in an archaeological site.
There were a few car parts strewn about which I give below.
Another hub cap, this time a "GMC". Not too much info on this one, I'm afraid, and I haven't been able to find anything similar online. It's similar in size and shape to the Ford one though, so I suspect it's probably close in age.
So there you have it. Now, go indulge the armchair historian you all have residing within you.
Credits: All photos mine.