Lost and Found in Provincetown

By Kirsti Scott

buoy on the beach in cape cod

Tools, pipes, pottery, scavenged wood, glass, and doll parts are among the many artifacts that are exposed by the retreating tides in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the oldest continuous art colony in the U.S. Beachcombers find these fascinating objects, dating from indigenous peoples to the 21st century, along the shores of this town, situated at the very tip of Cape Cod.

map of cape codThis spit of sand was visited by the Vikings in 1004, Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602, and by the Mayflower and her passengers in 1620. Though the Pilgrims found the area inhospitable and pulled up anchor, many others found it full of opportunities.

provincetown waterfront beaches

The deep harbor protected by a hooked finger of land attracted fishermen, smugglers, and other entrepreneurs to Provincetown. By the time Provincetown incorporated in 1727, the town boasted one of the largest fishing and whaling fleets.

beach wharf cape cod

With stability and prosperity, the town developed more than fifty wharves, which handled daily waterfront business and were home to a bounty of businesses to support the growing population. Through all of these transitions, the harbor was the most obvious place to dispose of unwanted rubbish, and until the 1930s, the harbor served as the town dump.

beach marbles and pipes from massachusetts beaches

Discarded relics from the past that have been tumbled in the waves still wash up in the harbor and along the beaches of this fishing and whaling outpost. In the mid 2000s, Amy Heller, an artist with deep local roots, was passing by a Provincetown gallery when her eyes caught something unusual: The artwork in the window was nestled in a deep bed of beach pottery pieces.

frozen charlotte porcelain dolls found on beach in cape cod

For Amy, the sight brought back memories of the Provincetown summers of her childhood. That moment led to a friendship with artist Gail Browne, and together they have just released a book showcasing six contemporary Provincetown artists whose work is also inspired by their personal beachcombing collections.

book from beachcombers in cape cod

Lost and Found: Time, Tide, and Treasures is a historic narrative of Provincetown as told through these beach-found objects, antique photos, vintage postcards, and stories handed down through generations. Their beachcombing finds provide tangible evidence of a connection to the past, transporting beachcombers to a different time and place. This collection of beach finds illustrates the rich personality and history that defines this vibrant community at the edge of the world.

sea marbles and glass stoppers from beachcomber's collection

The artists in Amy and Gail’s book have been collecting from Provincetown beaches independent of each other for decades, and have amassed collections based on their individual aesthetics, drawing artistic inspiration from the beauty and wonder in their finds. The book contains nearly 500 photographs, plus interviews with the artists. Through photos of their finds and whimsical stories from local history, the book takes you on a visual trip through Provincetown history.

Lost and Found: Time, Tide, and Treasures was written by Amy Heller and Gail Browne and published by Schiffer Publishing in May 2020. The featured artist/beachcombers are Judy Berkowitz, Betty Bodian, Varujan Boghosian, Paul Bowen, Gail Browne, and Amy Heller. You can purchase the book at bookstores and online at schifferbooks.com and Amazon

foggy dunes in cape cod

Though beachcombing in Provincetown is unregulated, please respect the archeological nature of these beaches, their artifacts, and the people who made their homes here. Walk lightly, and no shovels, please.

A vintage cabinet holds a museum of Browne’s many decades of beachcombing. She and artist Amy Heller collaborated on a 2020 book that shares their beachcombing experiences as well as those of four other artist-collectors: “Lost and Found: Time, Tide, and Treasures.” Last October, the Cape Cod Museum of Art staged an exhibition about them.

Read more about Gail Browne and Amy Heller in "Treasure Hunt" by Jura Koncius the Washington Post.

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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2021 issue.

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