The (Not So) Fantastic Voyage

By Meg Carter

It is instinct for us to want to know the story of a piece of sea glass. What was it? How old is it? What was it used for? Where did it come from? We are inclined to resolve these questions. As your collection of sea glass grows, so do the individual shards of mystery. One of these questions might be easier to figure out than you think. Pin pointing where a piece came from, or at least where it entered the water, can be easy to solve. The distance that sea glass travels in most cases is not very far.

The reason why sea glass doesn’t move much is fairly obvious - it sinks. Although water is a body in constant motion, the glass has weight and will always fall to the lowest point. As we may think that waves play a big part in moving objects, this is not exactly the case. Waves in the ocean move energy, not objects. When you imagine waves that could be tumbling sea glass you imagine that those waves move the water and glass in all directions, but this is not actually what happens. Water particles in a wave move back and forth perpendicular to the direction of a wave, but they don’t move greatly in the direction of the wave. The waves may move the glass slightly with each crash, but the overall movement over years, decades or even centuries is slight. A series of clues prove this theory to be true.

spectacle island

Photo courtesy of National Parks Service

We have learned that some of the best hot spots for sea glass are locations previously known as waste disposal areas. In these areas, for decades trash literally has stayed in the general area of the dump location. A great example of this is Spectacle Island. On this particular island located in Boston Harbor, MA, you can literally hear the glass tumble among the slow, gentle waves. According to the National Park Service website, this island has an interesting history. Over the years, the island has had a number of uses including farming, a glue factory, and a quarantine hospital until ultimately becoming a garbage dump. More recently, the land was covered with excavated dirt from a “big dig” which covered all the waste and it is now a state park. Not being exposed to harsh conditions has provided a safe haven for the glass to settle and stay put. It is important to note that Spectacle Island is a protected area and visitors are not permitted to take any sea glass from the island. It should still be on every collector's bucket list to see—it is quite the spectacle.

Not too far from Spectacle Island in Cape Cod an interesting story was reported by NBC just this past summer. A ring was found by a man searching with a metal detector. After some research on the name found on the inside, he was able to locate the owner. The ring was lost 47 years ago, in the same area it was found. Although this is not sea glass, it is evidence of how an object similar in size and weight stayed consistent in location.

bottle bottoms

Sometimes your finds will give you hints about location. Occasionally they are very obvious, like the manufacturer's location on the bottom of a bottle. For example, in my own collection I have two bottle bottoms that clearly show the location that the bottle was made—Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD. These two pieces were found on beaches in the Chesapeake Bay not far from either location. Based on the area they were found and the city they were manufactured, it is very clear these pieces didn’t travel far. 

blue sea pottery tiles
A collector that hunts the same beach, may locate the pieces to a unique object over time. It might take years, but piecing together an object like a puzzle, is certainly possible. When a distinct pattern or design is apparent, it can become something you purposely look for. One year you may find three pieces of the rim and later, the handle in the same pattern. Finding the other handle will stand out as you piece a candy dish together. Comparable to this theory, locating a similar item on a beach can indicate objects not moving far, such as tiles. A unique tile that is found on a beach will often reveal many of the same patterns over time. In both cases, the items are found on the same beach because they all entered the water together and stayed in the same general area.

lost and found stopper

To further support my theory, this remarkable story comes to mind: Many years ago, a customer reached out to me about a piece of jewelry they wanted me to create. The green sea foam stopper they wanted to use was extremely sentimental. The piece of glass had been found many years prior, but was lost, along with their entire sea glass collection and their home to hurricane Sandy. Amazingly, this prized piece was found again along their own beach months later. It hadn't traveled far. They swear it is the same beautiful stopper as the one they lost. Now a symbol of rebirth and starting over, it is held in a wire wrapped setting.

Of course, you will always find exceptions to the rule—some glass does travel far. This is typically glass that doesn’t sink. Fishing floats might travel great distances, even across the globe. Closed bottles that have enough air in them to float also have the potential to travel further. Practices such as dredging and beach replenishment can disrupt sand and sediment which can relocate pieces. Areas where a river meets a larger body of water may also affect the movement of pieces.

Next time you are standing along the shore, contemplating your latest find, consider that the original owner of that piece of glass may have been a beachcomber at the very beach on which you're now standing. They may have lived in the same town you do, and decades ago you may have even crossed paths. The piece of glass could very likely have been tumbling around that beach since the day it touched the water.

This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine January/February 2018 issue.

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