Jay Gingrich: Treasures in the Deep

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“So much of our local history is underwater. The longer it’s down there, the closer it comes to being destroyed,” says Jay Gingrich, the former owner of Portsmouth Scuba.

Gingrich, an experienced diver, has outfitted and trained much of the local diving community. Born an Amish Mennonite in Pennsylvania, Gingrich attended New Hampshire College and studied business. With his proximity to the ocean, Gingrich was soon introduced to scuba diving. He instantly fell in love. Gingrich started the shop in 1989 and ran it for 27 years. Portsmouth Scuba continues to sell equipment and offer scuba certification courses. On top of his contribution to the New Hampshire Seacoast’s diving community, Gingrich has discovered numerous historical artifacts in local waters. From Native American tools to shipwrecks, to 400 year old bottles, Gingrich has unearthed some of NH’s most well hidden history.

“I think [these discoveries] are part of the allure of living where we do as well as of diving. It’s finding these things that our ancestors have utilized at one time and then taking the time to appreciate and understand and to try to fathom what life might have been like,” says Gingrich, commenting on the value of the area’s history. Portsmouth Scuba is filled with a mix of high-tech dive gear and 300 year old artifacts. He explains what his findings suggest about historical lifestyles. A ceramic pipe, one of many that he’s found, highlights a number of cultural and technological hallmarks of its time: its brittle consistency implies the poor kiln techniques and it’s short lifespan was typical of cheaply made pipes in the 1700s.

Gingrich’s passion for discovery has paired well with running Portsmouth Scuba. The shop has served local divers for nearly 30 years, offering diving certification courses and scuba equipment. In addition, Gingrich would often freelance underwater repairs for the Coast Guard and local boat owners.

“Jay is a fantastic person in so many ways. I hug him and tell him I love him when I see him. Our bond, from day one, hasn’t been through contracts, it’s been through handshakes…that’s how business was run years ago. If your word doesn’t carry, neither does your business,” says Portsmouth Scuba’s current owner, Chuck Oxendine, who speaks fondly of Gingrich’s role in the business. Oxendine shadowed Gingrich for two years before purchasing the business.

With Portsmouth Scuba in his rearview mirror, Gingrich has more time than ever to explore local waters.

“I was out back of my house, doing some digging. I came up with this stone that was not indigenous to the area, that looked like an enlarged pear. I knew automatically that it was something the Native Americans had made… Lo’ and behold it was something that we refer to as a plummet that dates back six to eight thousand years. You have to realize that that’s how long, post-last Ice Age, people have inhabited this area…That blew my mind.” Gingrich has an appreciation for the mysteries that arise from many of these artifacts. The plummet he found is present in many North American indigenous sites, yet archaeologists still puzzle over their purpose. He comments on this reality, remarking on the mystery that surrounds artifacts that would have been an everyday tool in past civilizations.

“I haven’t seen what [Gingrich] has excavated from the river, but I’m sure it’s very fascinating and certainly lends all sorts of information to what was coming and going,” says Elizabeth Farish, Chief Curator at the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH. Farish recognizes the importance of preserving local history, though she also stresses the importance of following archaeological procedure. “Archaeology is a science and there is a process. There are many constraints that dictate the definition of context and the ability to maintain certain layers so you can confirm and determine various time periods that would help you to understand how these artifacts got there, who might have been using them, and facts surrounding the object.”

Gingrich’s own work, while not conventional archaeology, provides a compelling look into our past, one that he finds particularly gratifying.

“When you see the basic things that they created, we realize that perhaps their lives were not all that blissful–as ours are today. Being able to appreciate the things that they utilized is a step back, you actually touch something. When you realize it’s something that hasn’t been seen or touched in hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, to me it’s a religious experience…it’s highly addictive,” says Gingrich.

A number of times, Gingrich comments on the life that these objects seem to have, particularly in his many “coincidental” findings. “In the blackest of black, you put your hand down and you touch something. You pick it up and it’s something that’s been there for 400 years. So, why?”

The fascination with New Hampshire’s physical history is not shared by everyone, Gingrich feels. “It’s a shame that more people don’t take interest, and for that matter that the government doesn’t take interest to conserve these things that are disintegrating,” he comments.

While Gingrich has a personal mission to retrieve and preserve our marine past, Farish continues to work to preserve Portsmouth’s above-water history. “When I moved to Portsmouth, it was right before the city had really sort of tipped over. For me, that feels like a loss of identity…I’m preserving pictures and stories and sort of the essence of this waterfront city. It’s important work to do…The economy is doing really well and there’s a big building boom. With that comes, unfortunately, the destruction of structures,” says Gingrich.

In the meantime, both Gingrich and Farish’s associates at Strawbery Banke continue in their respective battles against deterioration and modern building development.