Time traveling outhouse style

What a local archaeologist learned by digging up her 122-year-old privy

Courtesy of University of Colorado Museum of Natural History

When Rebecca Schwendler found her dream home in Lafayette, it’s safe to say that her eye for detail went well beyond that of the average homebuyer. It wasn’t just the porch or kitchen or period woodwork in the Victorian-era home that drew her to the closing table. It was all that plus a small wooden building in the backyard about the size and shape of the TARDIS used by the Doctor to travel through time. Yes, that’s a Doctor Who reference.

The old wooden structure was an outhouse not a police call box as in TV series, but for Schwendler, it was still a time machine of sorts. Once she was sure that no one had been meddling in the “night soil” as it’s politely called in scientific circles — “poop” if you’re a sixth grader — there was nothing else she could do but buy the place.

Schwendler is an archaeologist with a Ph.D. in anthropology, which means there’s no need for therapy in light of her pastime. Digging through the old feces pits of outhouses is important work for those of her ilk and we can all learn a good deal from their historical proctology.

“When you look at privies,” says Schwendler, “you can get a lot of useful information about the history of a place.”

Schwendler says the poo … er, history in her Lafayette privy dates back to when her house was built in 1892. Her research and privy-digging in 2010 indicated that the last loaf was pinched sometime in the 1930s. But even after the outhouse was no longer being used for its special purpose, it still functioned as a household dump of sorts until the late 1950s or early ’60s, which, for an archaeologist like Schwendler, is the equivalent of hitting the mother lode.

She says that all through history, people have thrown away very interesting things in their outhouses; things that can tell us a lot about the people and the times; things that they wouldn’t want other people to know about. It makes sense. Who would plow through their neighbor’s excrement to see what they were tossing down the hole?

“It’s not just finding old objects in the privies that make them important sites,” explains Schwendler. “It’s finding them in context. That’s why it’s important that archaeologists do the digging, not artifact hunters.”

One of the reasons that Schwendler lectures about her Lafayette privy — she will be speaking May 7, at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History — is to educate the public about the historical importance of privy sites and the proper way to preserve the information buried within them.

“In 2012 I heard about a guy who was going around digging up privies in Boulder,” says Schwendler. “He wasn’t an archaeologist. Once he had worked a privy, the information was lost forever.”

It’s true. Archaeologists and treasure-hunters have been butting heads all across the country when it comes to privy sites. As a result, the scientific community has begun to make the old outhouse locations a priority. Privy digging has become its own specialty within archeology. In 2000, the journal Historical Archaeology devoted an entire issue to privy digging.

There were many examples in that journal of the importance of finding privy artifacts in context. For instance, David R. Bush, who was then teaching anthropology at Ohio’s Center for Historic and Military Archaeology at Heidelberg College, was able to piece together the horrendous living conditions of Confederate prisoners of war being held on Ohio’s Johnson’s Island. By examining privy pits in context, Bush could tell what the prisoners were given to eat, what ailments they had and what medicines were offered for treatment. He even discovered escape attempts in the form of tunnels leading out of the privy pits.

While there was no one trying to escape from Schwendler’s Lafayette outhouse, there were plenty of important findings to be had. Schwendler says that her privy shed light on the people and the times in Lafayette.

Schwendler’s home has quite a history aside from its privy. The land the house sits on today was purchased by a furnituremaker in 1892 from Mary Miller. Miller was the founder of Lafayette who named the town for her late husband. A preacher later lived in the house, as did a union organizer from the area’s coalfields in the 1920s. So what kinds of things could the outhouse tell us about the lives of such people?

“I found that the people living in the house during the Victorian era [defined as 1837 to 1901] had a pretty diverse diet,” says Schwendler. “At the Victorian level I found butchered bones from cow and pig, big peach pits, a citrus rind which would have been rare, squash seeds and fish vertebrae. That’s pretty diverse.

“At the post World War I level, it was very different. I found some gnawed-on rib bones but mostly the food was canned — canned meat, canned vegetables. I think there was canned fruit. A real change.”

Another interesting factoid revealed from the privy: Victorians liked their opiates.

“The coolest, weirdest thing I found was a glass syringe at the Victorian level. When you learn about the Victorians you realize that they selfmedicated with all kinds of opiates for kids and adults,” says Schwendler.

Besides the syringe, she also found many patent medicine bottles, which also contained various elixirs comprised of opiates and alcohol to one degree or another.

She also tied her privy findings to the historical record of who had lived in her house and when. For instance, in the Victorian period, the preacher lived and eventually died in the house. She knows that he was very ill for quite some time.

So it makes sense that when she excavated the Victorian level she found not only the syringes and bottles of opiates, but also an articulated pig foot.

“At that time, such a pig’s foot would have been boiled to create a broth for someone who was sick,” she says. “That’s what they used as a treatment. The preacher was sick so it makes sense to find the foot at that level in the privy. We don’t know for sure that’s the story but it is a clue.”

In all, Schwendler found more than 100 artifacts in the old privy pit. A complete teacup from the Victorian era, pearl buttons, patent bottles, model T parts, cans for everything from food to hair-care products and much more.

If time travel privy-style sounds interesting to you, then Schwendler’s lecture at the museum might just be your ticket. If you know of a privy site that should be protected from artifact hunters, make sure that the historical society, landmarks board or even Dr. Schwendler know about it. It could turn out to be an important archaeological site.

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