- Associated Press - Sunday, December 20, 2015

DEADWOOD, S.D. (AP) - When archaeologists spent four summers digging and sifting through the remnants of this community’s Chinatown a decade ago, they uncovered a treasure trove totaling a quarter-million artifacts that traced the history and mystery of the mining camp’s early Asian settlers.

The Rapid City Journal (http://bit.ly/1ljRHOV ) reports that those 40 soil sleuths, including professionals from the South Dakota State Archaeological Research Center in Rapid City, discovered handguns, clothing, bracelets, hair pieces, ceramic teapots, construction materials from Chinese and black boarding houses, opium paraphernalia, window glass, pots and pans, poker chips, a Masonic badge, metal objects from pitchforks to the wheel of an ore cart, and even gold-crowned human teeth.

“It’s almost mind-boggling what was unearthed and what it represents,” said city of Deadwood Archivist Mike Runge. “Basically, the assemblage they uncovered represented everything a person would use, wear, eat, buy and discard from the time they got up in the morning until they went to bed at night - everything you would have needed to live in a 19th century frontier community.”

But even after months of archaeological investigations spanning 2001 to 2004, those dedicated dirt-diggers didn’t fully understand what the inhabitants of Deadwood’s once-bustling Chinatown had brought with them from their motherland.

Only now, with the assistance of two California experts in Asian coins, are local historic preservation officials coming to realize that some of the artifacts unearthed in this 140-year-old town are nearly 1,000 years old.

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Numismatic news

Among the myriad artifacts buried beneath Deadwood’s Main Street were some 220 coins, including pennies, half-dollars and a rare three-cent piece dating to the 1850s. Miraculously, copper alloy Chinese coins with distinctive square holes also were uncovered, according to Runge.

But shortly after the coins were unearthed, it became clear that they were suffering from a numismatist’s nightmare known as “bronze disease,” which, left untreated, would eventually cause the coins to disintegrate. So in March 2014, the city of Deadwood dedicated $4,400 to send the entire batch of coins to Maryland for a cure.

The Maryland Department of Planning Conservation Laboratory x-rayed the coins, removed corrosion, desalinated and applied corrosion inhibitors under a vacuum, then covered each coin with a protective coating as part of the conservation process.

Last summer, confident they had protected the Chinese currency, Runge and Deadwood Historic Preservation Officer Kevin Kuchenbecker sent high-resolution images of each to Asian coin experts Margie and Kevin Akin in Riverside, Calif., to determine exactly what they had. Last week, the city received a preliminary report from the duo.

“We had some understanding of these coins,” Runge said. “We knew they were Chinese, but by having the Asian coin experts examine these, we learned that we actually had Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese coins - three different countries represented.”

But the greatest surprise was found in the age of some of the coins, he said.

“Typically, with American currency, if you put your hand in your pocket and pulled out coins, those probably would span about 40 years,” Runge said. “With the Chinese coins that were unearthed, these are spanning several hundred years, with the oldest being nearly 1,000 years old.”

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Shao Sheng reign

According to the Akins, the oldest coin in the Deadwood collection traces its origins to the Shao Sheng dynasty, and was cast by a Chinese mint between 1094 and 1097. While this specific coin was only made for four years, it was produced in great quantities and remained in circulation for centuries, they said.

“Actually, while they may seem very foreign and exotic, they are very typical of Asian coins recovered from cities where there were Chinatowns,” Margie Akin said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “It’s not as rare as you might think. There is evidence that some of these coins remained in circulation for more than 2,000 years.”

Nonetheless, the Akins noted that photos of three of the Chinese coins discovered in Deadwood would appear in their new book, “Numismatic Archaeology of North America,” to be published next spring.

The Akins said that most of the Chinese coins dug from Deadwood’s dirt were not used as currency, but as game pieces in such diversions as fan-tan, a popular pastime played in Chinatowns throughout the American West. Others, they said, served as talismans or decorations.

“The coins never went out of usage,” Kevin Akin said. “When a coin could be dug out of the ground by someone, they would put it on a red string. A string of 1,000 would be worth approximately one silver dollar. Groups of coins tied together with red string had to do more with the spiritual life of the Chinese.”

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Brass and zinc

Of the 187 images of coins they examined, the Akins said roughly half were Chinese and made of brass, while the remainder were Vietnamese and made of zinc. There also were two Japanese coins. In addition to serving as good luck charms and gaming pieces, similar to poker chips, the numismatists said the Asian coins had more practical uses.

Some coins were an integral component of medical kits used by the Chinese, and much of the world’s population, Margie Akin explained. When combined with oils, the Chinese used coin-rubbing to treat colds, flu and other illnesses, she said. Vietnamese coins were boiled to get zinc into the water, which was then gargled or applied to the skin to relieve irritation, she noted.

Runge said the Chinese artifacts and coins, an assortment of which likely will eventually be placed on display in the museums of Deadwood History Inc., as well as the town’s new visitor information center, were providing historians with fresh insights into the 200 Chinese who lived and worked in Deadwood around 1880.

“It’s a wonderful time capsule of an early mining camp up to the early 20th century, one of the most intact and complete collections in the state of South Dakota on a specific era,” Runge said. “These coins are pretty special.”

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Information from: Rapid City Journal, http://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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