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Excavations Begin on Paul Revere’s Privy

Archaeologists in Boston hope the outhouse will reveal the diet and detritus of the families that lived on the site

(City of Boston Archaeology)
smithsonian.com

On Monday, archaeologists excavating at the Paul Revere House on Boston’s North End began digging in what they believe is a privy reports CBS News.

According to a podcast produced by the Boston's Museum of Science, the privy was first located this summer behind the Pierce-Hichborn house, the home of Revere’s cousin Nathaniel Hichborn immediately adjacent to the Revere’s own home. The house, the fifth oldest in Boston, dates to 1711, and its grounds have never undergone archaeological excavation.

Joe Bagley, city archaeologist of Boston, explains in the podcast that preliminary excavations at the small strip of land next to the brick house showed evidence that two other homes stood on the spot before the Pierce-Hichborn house was constructed. They also found a 4-by-6-foot small brick rectangle, which was likely an outhouse.

While finding a privy might sound like bad luck for an archaeologist, it’s actually a historical honeypot. Not only do the composted contents offer some insight into what people ate, the toilets were often used as garbage dumps, where papers, broken household goods—and even secrets—were tossed.

“You’d fill it up with you-know-what, and then also your household waste, because everyone threw their trash out into that,” Bagley tells CBS. “We’re hoping to find the individuals’ waste themselves, which, we can get seeds from what they were eating, we can find parasites, find out what their health was, but then everything else that they threw out from their house.”

On Tuesday, the team of professional and volunteer archaeologists cracked open the privy, beginning the process of digging into the clay-lined potty. Bagley tells CBS that in 1650 Boston passed a law requiring that privies go down at least six feet. “I expect that, at most, we'll have to go down that full six feet,” he says. “I hope it’s six feet deep, because that gives us the best opportunity to find a lot of things from multiple families.”

So far, the dig has found some fragments of pottery, a piece of a beer stein and some coal. Bagley tells CBS if they begin to find thousands of artifacts, they will know they have found a real treasure. In the podcast, Bagley also says the team found a couple of rare spots of undeveloped ground from the 1600s, something that has not been discovered in Boston in 25 or 30 years. He hopes those will yield artifacts from the city’s Puritan age.

Only in recent years have archaeologists gotten over a centuries-old aversion to ancient potties, according to Chelsea Wald at Nature. That's proven to be a boon for the profession because new excavations in privies have been flush with historical finds. Last year, for example, the Museum of the American Revolution catalogued 82,000 artifacts excavated from 12 privies found on the museum’s building site, including items from an illegal tavern and a windowpane inscribed with a quote from a popular play. 

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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