Meet the ‘sea glass archaeologist’ who sells his art next to Sydney’s Big Fiddle

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Collecting sea glass is a popular pastime in Nova Scotia and enthusiasts spend hours scouring the province’s beaches for colorful, frosty shards, but few know their history.

This is where Mike Baran comes in. Since moving from Calgary to Cape Breton Island 14 years ago, Baran has been fascinated by treasures.

Known as the “Sea Glass Archaeologist,” Baran says he can tell how old a piece is and where it came from just by looking at it.

He sells his art in a shack next to the Big Fiddle on Sydney’s waterfront. He spoke to CBC Information morning Wednesday.

Information Morning – N.S.8:07Meet a sea glass archaeologist and learn how he traces the origin of his finds

Mike Baran has made a hobby of collecting pieces of colored glass from beaches. He calls himself a sea glass archaeologist. CBC’s Rose Murphy spoke with him about her unique craft of unearthing the history behind pieces of sea glass.

This is a condensed version of the interview that has been edited for clarity and length.

What is a sea glass archaeologist?

By looking at the pieces of sea glass and studying the glass over the years I have become what is called a sea glass archaeologist in the international community because I can use the little clues on those little shards of glass to trace them back to their origins and the people who left them there many generations ago.

How did you get into this in the first place?

About 14 years ago I just wanted something different in life – I wanted a more meaningful existence connected to nature. So I sold my house in Calgary and moved to the Canadian Maritimes.

2008 was quite a difficult year for the global economy as a whole and unemployment was very high. And there I was – no work at all – and I started finding all these beautiful little pieces of sea glass.

Mike Baran sells his sea glass art from a shack near Sydney’s Big Fiddle (Marine glass archaeology/Facebook)

I put ten things on Ebay for $0.99 and only one thing sold – it was a nice little marble, and it actually sold for $36. and so began the path to sea glass archeology and being a beach professional.

How do you know the age of a piece of glass?

Fortunately, the history of glass, in North America in particular, is actually quite definitive over the past two centuries.

Through repetition and doing this every day of my life, it kind of becomes muscle memory, where you just look at something and you just recognize where it came from and then you can trace it back to the origins.

What types of sea glass are the most common?

Unfortunately, most of the types of glass we encounter on the beach are what I call consumer drink bottles, and these are the colors of clear, green and brown glass that someone would have left on beaches. And then the water and the waves come in and they pick it up and tumble it and break it into little bitty bits. And they just assimilate to the pebbles and become one.

There are places all over the Canadian Maritimes where people would dump their trash – known as a landfill or trash creek – into the ocean, and there we can find all the most amazing and beautiful colors of the world. You can find beautiful bits of red that were made with gold chloride or you can find beautiful blues that come from old train signal lenses. I find beautiful thick pieces of turquoise from old Hemingray insulators that would have been on top of telephone poles many generations ago.

Baran says these sea glass shards are from an old Hemingray telephone pole insulator. (Submitted by Mike Baran)

And [I find] any old artifact someone might have dumped on shore – even unique colors like uranium glass that fluoresces under the spectrum of a black light.

What are some of the most unique things you’ve found?

I once found a piece of handle from a mug, and after diligent research traced it back to something made in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1880s by the Atterbury Glass Company. It’s amazing to think that someone would have brought this mug by train or horseback to Cape Breton Island 140 years ago to help work in the coal mines, where it was lost in the sea for me to discover.

Another amazing artifact that I once found is known as the Token of Saint Michael. A Saint Michel token was a lucky charm for local fishermen. And I didn’t really know it until all the locals started telling me stories that a fisherman wouldn’t be caught dead without the token of Saint Michael. Finding it on the shore tells me a fisherman probably lost it in one of the 25,000 shipwrecks that have taken place. [in] Nova Scotia over the past 500 years.

How do you know if a beach will be good for sea glass?

We’re not going to find sea glass unless we have people. So the best way to find sea glass is in those old mining communities where everyone would have just thrown their trash into the ocean.

The formula is that one bottle per person per year went to that shore for that area. So if 20,000 people lived there, we can estimate that 20,000 bottles would have gone to this area – this ocean – until around the 1960s, when garbage collection started.

The way you talk about this – looks like the beach glass doesn’t travel as far from where it enters the ocean?

I learned that sea glass stays permanently in the same place it was thrown.

I have a YouTube video where I’m at Table Head in Glace Bay – and that’s where [Guglielmo] Marconi sent his first transatlantic signals – I found a nice little piece of yellow glass, then by researching I was able to match it to one of his transistor tubes he was using at that exact location in Table Head 119 years ago.

Near the Low Point Lighthouse on Cape Breton Island I find these very thick pieces of yellow glass and have traced them back to the old Fresnel lens that was installed in this lighthouse about three or four generations – and I can’t find it anywhere else but a few hundred meters from this area.

If anyone was interested in getting into marine glass archaeology, how would they go about it?

I don’t think there’s a real path to becoming a marine glass archaeologist – it’s really a career that I made up for myself and kind of pushed back.

If someone really wanted to become a sea glass archaeologist, they would have to spend a lot of time researching and loving what they do – loving bottles, loving glass and just, you know, [immersing] themselves full time in this.

Social media and the internet are a great way to do research. So I would recommend, if you want to learn more about marbles, you can join a marble collectors guild, or if you want to learn more about uranium glass or even antique glass, you can just join a guild of antique collectors on a group such as on Facebook.

There are a lot of great sea glass groups, like mine, where people can send me a picture of what they’ve found and ask me, “Hey, what’s the origin of this find?” and I’m always happy to share my knowledge with them.

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