ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
We read in the Nashville Tennessean about the discover of an old Spanish coin in the old Nashville City Cemetery. The coin is an eight reales, pieces of eight, that circulated widely in the United States in the first half of the 19th century. The coin was often cut into eight wedges, eight bits. Two bits made a quarter. And a famous slang phrase was born.
We read today that such a coin in mint condition can fetch $300. It's not a great fortune. But we were struck by who discovered it. Pat Cummins, staff archeologist for Cumberland Research Group, a company which specializes in mortuary archeology.
Mr. Cummins, mortuary archeology?
Mr. PAT CUMMINS (Staff Archaeologist, Cumberland Research Group): Yes.
SIEGEL: What is that?
Mr. CUMMINS: Mortuary archeology is a field of archeology in which we specialize in dealing with cemeteries, military relocations and cemetery restorations, both prehistoric and historic in nature.
SIEGEL: So you're not a grave robber?
Mr. CUMMINS: No, not grave-robbing. It's all done legally and according to both state and federal regulations.
SIEGEL: Well, what were you doing in the old national cemetery when you found the old coin?
Mr. CUMMINS: Well, actually, our firm has been contracted by the National Metro Historical Commission to come in and do a renovation of the cemetery.
SIEGEL: And where did you find the pieces of eight? Where was it in the cemetery?
Mr. CUMMINS: It was actually just in the subsurface dirt surrounding a small headstone. I thought it was a modern dime when I looked down at my foot, at this disturbed dirt around the headstone. And I picked it up. And lo and behold, discovered that it was, in fact, an old Spanish coin.
SIEGEL: Now, assuming that some contemporary coin collector didn't lose it recently in the cemetery, how might it have gotten into the dirt, near the surface?
Mr. CUMMINS: My guess is is that it probably slipped out of someone's pocket. And over time, it just found its way deeper and deeper into the dirt.
SIEGEL: You spend a lot of time in cemeteries, in old cemeteries?
Mr. CUMMINS: Yes, yes. We're on the job five days a week.
SIEGEL: Is there a lot of stuff lying around in the cemeteries that's just near the surface?
Mr. CUMMINS: We find lots of iron, metal artifacts of different types, bits and piece of old ceramics, cups and saucers and dishes and things of that nature, which tells us that the cemetery took on the persona of a park in the late 1800s. And so you would come out here on a Sunday afternoon and see people strolling and mulling about, and even having picnics here on the grounds.
SIEGEL: It is an American custom that's died out - picnic in the cemetery?
Mr. CUMMINS: Yes. I would say that it probably has.
SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Cummins, thanks a lot for talking about your work with us.
Mr. CUMMINS: Certainly. Thank you.
SIEGEL: It's Pat Cummins, who is staff archaeologist for Cumberland Research Group of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. It's a company that specializes in mortuary archeology.
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