DEER ISLE — Come spring, Mariners Memorial Park is prime butterfly-watching territory: you might catch the pale blue wings of the spring azure, which is partial to the dogwoods that dot the preserve, or the tiger swallowtail, which prefers the nectar from pink and red flowers.
You might also, if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of Dr. Bert Yankielun, Antarctic adventurer, author, engineer, inventor and snow shelter expert, sweeping the ground with his metal detector and waiting for the “beeps and boops” of discovery.
“I am not a historian. I am not an archaeologist. I am an engineer,” said Yankielun, also known as “Doctor Why,” after a group of schoolchildren had difficulty pronouncing his last name. “I use scientific and engineering techniques to discover things.”
Yankielun, who holds more than 25 patents (for things like a “low-cost time domain reflectometry system for bridge scour detection and monitoring” or a “method of detecting accretion of frazil ice on water”) began looking for buried treasure at the request of members of the Evergreen Garden Club, which maintains Mariners Memorial Park as a wildlife sanctuary and memorial to those who have lost their lives at sea. The 23-acre park was once part of the Morey Farm, and it was this that prompted members of the club to call Dr. Why.
“The club had started doing a cleanup and rehabilitation,” said Yankielun, and had rediscovered “a cellar hole in the ground lined with rocks, fieldstones, under the foundation of a house.” As a community service, he offered to go for several hours a week “and just sweep around the park and see what I could find.”
Anything of significance was photographed, catalogued, placed in a plastic bag and handed over to the Garden Club, with the promise that it will, at some point, be available on display for the community to see.
“I think to date I’ve found 57 artifacts,” said Yankielun. “None of them are worth anything as far as money,” he added, but they do help tell a story. “Puzzle pieces of history,” he added.
Mariners Park posed a particular challenge, said Yankielun, because “It changed hands over time — it was a homestead, pasture, farmland, orchard — and about 50 years ago the Garden Club took possession of the property and they’ve turned it into a recreational area.” That has made for what Yankielun referred to as “a lot of cross-century contamination”: barbecue debris, bottle caps, pull tabs, pieces of foil from chewing gum wrappers. “Along with finding treasures, I’m cleaning up the property.”
A bit of searching, however, still revealed plenty of historical relics: the brass cover clasp of a book, from the mid-1700s to late 1800s; a mourning brooch, popular in the Victorian era, large “dandy” buttons (circa 1700s), a fragment of a boxwood ruler and a rosette from a horse’s bridle.
“The metal detector, by its name, detects metal,” said Yankielun, who uses other techniques, such as GPR (ground penetrating radar) and Lidar (light detection and ranging), to search for old gravesites and other soil disturbances, old foundations and cellar holes and the like. When hired to look into a site, he uses a combination of techniques, including historical maps and Google Earth, to figure out a good place to start.
“Sometimes it’s very obvious,” said Yankielun — an old cellar hole or foundation, for instance. “I’ll search that in a grid pattern, what I sometimes call ‘mowing the lawn.’ I always look for features where people may have been. If there’s a well on the property, I always walk back and forth between the well and where the house was. Old cart paths (which my Lidar can detect in the woods), I’ll walk those, because that’s another place where people spent a lot of time.”
The metal detector can’t reveal old gravesites or cart paths, said Yankielun, but it “can tell iron from lead, aluminum, gold and copper. Copper is a very highly conductive metal … silver is even more conductive than copper.”
“That gives me another different indication. Lead gives me yet a different indication,” he said.
“People call it dirt fishing. There are days when you’ll find incredible things and there days when you find nothing.”
Among the items the explorer has unearthed at Mariners Park are a metal heel plate, with a delicate heart cut out of the middle, from a woman’s shoe; a “Braided Hair” penny from the mid-1800s, a mouth harp, pewter spoon fragments and a brass shoe buckle, all of which he has cataloged and will turn over to the Garden Club.
“What a thrill I found a couple of weeks ago!” said Yankielun. He had unearthed a crotal bell, also known as a rumble bell or jingle bell, the kind once affixed to horses and wagons.
“I pulled it out of the ground, poked the dirt out of the inside,” said Yankielun, still a bit awed, and “I heard its sound for the first time in 200 years.”
For more information on Yankielun’s work or to speak with him about field work and consulting, visit doctorwhy.com.