Maker’s mark.

I was grabbing coffee in Morristown, New Jersey this morning when I noticed some ceramic fragments scattered in some freshly-tilled topsoil in front of the Presbyterian Church in Morristown.


Having done a bit of historical archaeology myself, I pay a lot of attention to the debris underfoot. Wherever I go, I pay attention to building material, ephemera and trash. So the ceramic sherds sitting atop the garden soil in the church’s garden caught my attention — particularly the piece with a partial maker’s mark. I snapped a photo with my phone and started digging around online during my lunch break.


According to one resource, the piece was manufactured by Powell & Bishop, which made ironstone china in England between 1867-1878.

Context is important when dating artifacts, though, and I don’t think you can ask for too much here. It was pretty obvious to me that the garden had been freshly tilled with fill soil, which could have come from somewhere on the church’s grounds (it dates back to 1733) or anywhere in the Morristown area, really (George Washington hung out here!). The most likely scenario is the plate got mixed in with some construction debris and ended up on the church’s front lawn.

Snake Hill.


It juts up out of the swamp in Secaucus, stark and craggy and black, rubbing shoulders with the New Jersey Turnpike’s Eastern Spur.

Formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago, Snake Hill has loomed over the New Jersey Meadowlands in every form it’s taken: Glacial Lake Hackensack; the larch and black spruce forests that followed when the waters receded; the white cedar trees that grew in the marshland brought along by sea level rise. Snake Hill watched as indigenous people set up shop at the meadow’s edge, venturing into it to hunt and collect reeds.

It was there when the colonists and settlers came, felling rows of white cedar to build ill-fated bridges, to dike and to ditch the swamp. They called it “Snake Hill” because of the populations of snakes spotted slithering across the black rock, and mostly kept away for a time.

It hangs in the Montclair Art Museum, captured in John Parson’s “Snake Hill on the Jersey Meadows”” in 1871, a sailboat cruising past it on the Hackensack River at sunset.


Soon came the development. Snake Hill was at different times home to a poor house, a mental institution and a penitentiary, where prisoners were put to work quarrying the black rock. It was renamed Laurel Hill in 1926, but the name Snake Hill hung around, and many still call it that today.

Snake Hill is still there, next to the Turnpike.




Now it’s much smaller, by some accounts three quarters its original height and a fraction of its width. These days it looms over Hudson County Park at Laurel Hill, home to an astroturfed baseball field and a boat launch on the Hackensack River. An American flag flaps some 175 feet above sea level at its summit, but climbing the hill is prohibited now. When I visited this weekend, skirting the rock in a light rain, fences with “NO TRESPASSING” signs waved us away.

I have an idea in my head to recreate Parson’s “Snake Hill on the Jersey Meadows”” in a photograph at sundown, so I was doing some reconnaissance. I’m a shit navigator so I haven’t quite figured out where Parsons once stood among the reeds, though it’s likely that spot is now a piece of the Turnpike or a county road, or has been swallowed up whole by the phragmites and the muck.

To be continued, I suppose.

I always tell people, just imagine how difficult it is to be in public life and to get things done. I mean, imagine a painter, you know, van Gogh, he says, “I want to paint the Starry Night,” and someone says, “Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. Do we really need a 42 by 42 canvas? I think a round canvas.” And then the committee votes to be a round canvas. “Do we have to have a painting about the night, of the stars? I love day paintings. I like upbeat paintings and forget about night paintings, we want a day painting.” This is the way it goes. All of a sudden, there would be no “Starry Night,” and this is the way it goes.

— Arnold Schwarzenegger’s surprisingly accurate metaphor for how state politics works, as heard on the Nerdist podcast.