Thursday, May 29, 2014

Shin Deep in Human Feces: What It's Like to Dig a Privy

     Today is going to be a rare post that’s not about weird foods, obscure horror movies, or my writing.  Instead, it’s going to be about my day job—archaeology.  As you can guess from the title, this is going to be scatological at times, so be forewarned.  So unless you have a strong stomach, you probably don’t want to be eating while you read this.  Also, I hope readers will understand that I’m trying to make this post accessible to both those with an archaeological background, and those with none.
     Before indoor plumbing was invented, or available to the majority of people, most folks used a small structure, usually separated from the main house.  Although the names for these buildings have varied from time period to time period, and country to country, the most common term in my line of work is a privy.  (My personal favorite name is the classy but vague term “necessary house.”)
     As odd as it may seem, privies are enthusiastically sought after by archaeologists.  That’s because they tend to be treasure troves of information.  They usually have quite a few artifacts, such as bottles and ceramics, since in pre-curbside garbage collection days it was often most convenient just to throw out trash in the same place as your, shall we say, personal organic waste.  These artifacts in turn help us to date particular areas, or sites.  Specific bottle and ceramic types were often used during particular time periods.  Sometimes it’s even easier, as it is when they have legible writing stamped or embossed on them.  Some dishes and plates have “maker’s marks” stamped on the underside, and quite often the manufacturer’s years of operation are easily learned.  And occasionally the data is received from the waste remains themselves.  Samples often reveal what people were eating (from seeds, etc.), or even some of their physical ailments (remains of intestinal parasites are sometimes identifiable, for example).
     My first experience with privies came at my field school, at the historic Spencer-Peirce-Little house in Newbury, Massachusetts, which dates back to the late 1600’s.  It was indirect and fleeting, as we sometimes washed artifacts found during a previous year’s privy excavation when the weather prevented us from digging.  Occasionally small pieces of indeterminate soil like matter would float to the surface of our washing pans.  These, we were told, were actually human waste remains.  So a little off-putting, but not that hard to handle.
     The next significant privy experience was many years later, in downtown Des Moines, Iowa.  It was across the street from the Polk County Courthouse, and a small jail.  (During lulls in traffic and when the wind was right, you could hear the catcalls and propositions from the prisoners.)  We uncovered, as I remember, two privies in our trenches.  We excavated these (finding a lot of artifacts) and took a few samples.  At the end of the day a coworker named Dave came up to me and said, “I know this sounds a little strange, but have you seen my bag of poop?”  Fortunately we found this missing sample.
     But by far the most memorable privy excavations were in downtown Buffalo, New York, very near the town’s City Hall.  The entire site dated to the mid to late 19th century and was comprised of several old building foundations and their accompanying yards and outbuildings.  (To “represent,” as the kids say (or as they did about 20 years ago, when my knowledge of slang basically stopped), my home state, we could see the statue of the only New Jersey-born U.S. President, Grover Cleveland, from our worksite.  In addition to being the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms, Cleveland is also (as far as I can tell) the only President to ever legally execute condemned prisoners, when he was serving as Sheriff of Erie County in the 1870’s.)  We worked on this job on several different occasions, but this part was done in December.  Since Buffalo isn’t exactly balmy in winter, we had to bundle up, and use PVC pipe framed, wood based, and heavy plastic sheeting walled shelters, which also were outfitted with portable propane heaters.  There were several privies on this job, but I mainly worked on just one.  It started out innocuously.  A trackhoe had removed much of the building rubble above, and we removed the rest by hand excavation.  The first foot or so seemed like regular historic city fill.  Then we got underneath this dirt cap, and into the privy fill itself.  It was pretty disgusting.  Despite the cold (even with the shelter and heater it was still pretty chilly) the odor was rank.  Bad allergies have left me with a very poor sense of smell, but even I found it very pungent.  Luckily, there were no recognizable separate pieces of feces, but the “soil” was still disturbing.  It was a dark brown color, and the texture was soft, and rather like pudding.  I was wearing field clothing, work boots, and double sets of gloves (latex ones and insulated leather ones above) but it was still pretty nasty to think about what I was standing in.  As I recall, we probably had jugs of water and dishsoap to wash with at breaks and especially lunch, but still, I ate things I could eat by only touching the outside wrapper, like a granola type bar, instead of a sandwich or something.  On the plus side, the privy was chock full of goodies.  Many bottles and ceramics.  Visible seeds, which found their way into a sample bag.  Even half of a coconut, which was presumably a rare food item at the time.
     The following summer we came back and did more work in the same general area.  This time, fortunately, the privies we uncovered and dug weren’t quite so literally crappy.  Evidently their grosser contents had been carted away by the men who did this for a living, selling the feces (known politely as “night soil”) to farms as fertilizer.  The remaining privy fill we dealt with seemed much more like regular soil, in every way.  Still packed with artifacts, though, which meant we had our cake and ate it too, if this expression can be applied to emptying ancient outhouses.
     Alas, it was many years ago, so I’m a little hazy on the details, but I do remember a few nuggets we discovered.  We recovered many “Dr. McMunn’s Elixir of Opium” bottles, for one.  It was a different time, clearly—when opium was legal to anyone, without prescription, and even marketed for children.  There was also a bottle which advertised that it was for treatment of “piles,” which is now an old-fashioned (and slightly uncouth, I think) term for hemorrhoids.  The samples revealed that the users suffered from whipworm and hookworm infestations.  Also, to return to the different ideas about drugs over a century ago, the pollen samples indicated a lot of hemp.  One more euphemism I find amusing—at the Christmas party following the winter leg of the job we were given jokey framed awards.  I received the “Best Historic Artifact” award for a nearly intact chamber pot I’d pulled out, which we called a “thunder mug.”
     I worked on several other privies, before and since, but none so dramatic.  But, despite the revolting aspects of privy excavations, I would eagerly do so again if/when I get the chance.  After all, to quote the famous children’s book, “Everybody Poops,” and digging about in the places folks do yields quite a bit of useful and interesting information.
     I’ll end with a few unrelated fun facts of a scatological nature.
1)      Des Moines means “of the monks” in French.  However, the root of this is quite different.  In 1673 Father Marquette met the Peoria Native American tribe near what is now the Des Moines river.  He asked what the name of their rival tribe was, and was told that they were the Moingoana.  Linguists have recently discovered that this was almost certainly an insult, as Moingoana meant “excrement faces.”
2)      I’d heard that the “Thomas Crapper invented the toilet” account was a bit of historic satire.  However, it’s sort of true.  There was an actual Thomas Crapper, an Englishman who lived from the 1830’s into the early 1900’s, who promoted public sanitation.  While he didn’t invent any of the versions of a toilet, his company did manufacture one of them.  Weirdly, the modern slang word “crap” does not come from his name—actually it’s just an older term, and so is a coincidence.
3)      Fossilized pieces of recognizable excrement are known as “coprolites.”  One of the most famous human examples is known as the Lloyds Bank coprolite, which is an unusually well preserved leaving at a 9th century Viking settlement in what is now York, England, which was discovered during construction of the bank in 1972.  In 1991, for insurance purposes, scientist Andrew Jones said, “This is the most exciting piece of excrement I’ve ever seen.  In its own way it’s as valuable as the Crown Jewels.”  If you’re interested in seeing it with your own eyes it’s on display at the JORVIK Viking Centre in York.


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