Among the many periodicals that land in my mailbox, Archaeology magazine may offer the most inspiration. Sometime in my life I will don a multipocketed vest and a pith helmet to search for a lost city under the Tunisian sun. For now gardening in my yard is as close as I get to digging around in the dirt. My haul has been not so terrible: I cleared away an overgrown oleander, which yielded 22 old bottles; while prepping a hole for a lavender bush, I uncovered a metal toy gun imprinted with the word TEXAS, its barrel clogged with tiny dirtballs. I’ve found marbles, shards of tile, and a lapel pin. I cannot definitively connect any item to Native American tribes, 18th-century Spanish settlers, or John Steinbeck, all of whom once inhabited the area, but that doesn’t mean the stuff isn’t impressive.
This fascination with what lies beneath probably has its roots, as it were, in my childhood. Before my parents planted our backyard with a pool, it was a dried-up Valley riverbed. We were never a “lawn” family, which made us green pioneers, I suppose, so we four kids were allowed to turn the yard into an excavation site, which provided wheelbarrow loads of free fun. The ground was sandy and easy to break with even a tiny shovel. My brothers dug a series of trenches, covered them in plywood, and invited all the neighborhood kids to play war games. We spent summer days making mud pies and used garden hoses to create mini rivers, which catastrophically overflowed. We buried toys (many a plastic army man went under) and junk (at least one discarded clothesline, as I recall).
I’ve been digging into the past ever since, not just in my yard but at school and at this magazine. In this issue we highlight a new exhibition that’s part of the Natural History Museum’s centennial celebration. Called Becoming Los Angeles, it documents the city’s history through artifacts from the museum’s collection. Photographer Henry Leut-wyler has shot some of our favorite objects from the show, including a hunk of wood from a Tongva canoe, a vial of water from the Los Angeles Aqueduct’s opening day, and Mary Pickford’s curls. This city is often accused of having no history, which is total malarkey, so the show will continue to rectify that myth. Chris Nichols, the magazine’s Ask Chris columnist, wrote the text for the photo-essay. In fact, he’s been recording L.A.’s past in our Buzz section and online in a project called The History of Los Angeles as Told Through 232 Objects. As for the number “232,” that’s how old L.A. will be next month. Check out the collection thus far at LAmag.com/objects, and send in your suggestions to [email protected]. The toy gun I found in my yard didn’t make the cut, but it has its own story, I’m sure. Everything does.