The History of Brian Martin's Collection of Bottles
In 1986, landscaper Brian Martin noticed some men digging while riding his bike near the Spokane River, just east of Division Street. Intrigued, he decided to find out for himself what lay beneath the soil’s surface. After finding an old whiskey crock in perfect condition, Martin was hooked.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s Brian quietly excavated, washed and sorted over 15,000 discarded glass bottles and other materials from the site where the Riverpoint Campus is now located.** Most of the collection dates from 1900-1930, a time of rapid growth, and before city planners, waste management or environmental science; a time when industry boomed and the city’s refuse accumulated in unofficial dumpsites near the banks of the Spokane River.
Brian perfected his excavation technique: dig a hole as deep as 12 feet and descend using a flexible ladder, then dig laterally upon finding a layer of interesting material. He would haul up buckets of dirt hoping to reveal unbroken treasure, then hauled his treasures home by motorcycle. Brian learned ways to minimize the danger of descending into deep, possibly unstable holes and layers of rusty metal and broken glass. However another less visible threat was made known when samples taken c1990s in areas where Brian found many of these objects revealed soils contaminated with heavy metals and carcinogens. Digging in the toxic soil may have led to health issues that Martin later faced.
During the last days of his life, Brian Martin and Valerie Wahl reorganized and inventoried the collection to make it more accessible for public use. The collection has since been used for permanent installations at Saranac Commons and at Providence Sacred Heart Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, as well as a temporary installation at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture and a donation to its permanent collection.
It is time to disseminate what remains of the collection in a manner that honors Brian’s values: his concern for the health of the Spokane River and his desire for our community to understand a truth that haunts every item that we buy and then discard: “There is no such thing as away.”*
*From Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth by William Bryant Logan
**Though some of these bottles were collected near the Spokane River, the Spokane Riverkeeper reminds us of the importance of leaving the banks of our river, as well as any objects buried there, undisturbed.
Many found objects along our river are considered archaeological or cultural resources. For tribal cultures, cultural objects found along the river can represent the realm of sacred and spiritual. Their locations and the power they hold as objects are highly sensitive.
These objects, and the locations in which they are found, are protected by federal and state laws. In archaeology, there is an emphasis on leaving objects undisturbed so that they can be studied at the site of discovery. As travelers along the river, we should do the same.