Urban Archaeology's Latest Find: Privy Rich in Colonial-Era Clues

Discovery of a centuries-old Boston outhouse is a prime example of mounting national efforts to unearth a historical picture of American city life

IT may only be a 300-year-old privy, but to archaeologists it holds a wealth of information about 17th-century Boston.

An excavation - what one archaeologist calls ``possibly the most significant Colonial-era find in North America'' - has laid bare the brick foundation and contents of an outhouse belonging to one Katherine Nanny, very late of Boston and Charlestown, once widowed, once divorced, and according to historical records, perhaps the target of a poisoning attempt by an abusive husband.

Researchers this week displayed artifacts from the privy that served her home from about 1670 to 1730.

Though digging up an outhouse may not sound as profound as, say, unearthing King Tut's house, listen to what Sally Pendleton of the Office of Public Archaeology at Boston University has to say:

``In an urban context, almost anything you find is significant. When you find a privy, which can contain evidence of many levels of cultural activity, it's very significant.''

Road project leads to find

The 360-cubic-foot holding tank was unearthed in advance of a major highway project in the city. It contains many objects expected to be found at the site that will yield fresh insights into 17th-century New England life.

It is symbolic of the way scientists across the country are piecing together parts of America's past through the rapidly expanding field of urban archaeology.

They are being aided by new technology and an ark-full of preservation laws that require authorities to save relics before moving in with backhoes.

From Maryland to California, states and even cities have passed laws that mirror the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. A key provision of the federal law requires that the impact on cultural resources be considered in projects involving federal funds or efforts to comply with federal regulations.

The law has played ``a tremendous role'' in uncovering significant archaeological sites, says Robert Brooks, president of the National Association of State Archaeologists.

The site here is one of four discovered as part of efforts to comply with the federal statute. It was initially surveyed in 1988 as plans were being laid to move the city's elevated ``central artery,'' a stretch of Interstate 93, below ground.

Ironically, the foundation for a pier supporting the elevated highway, which was built in the mid-1950s, came within inches of the privy.

Two years ago researchers dug sample trenches to find out if the site was worth further exploration.

Excited by what they found, but facing the onset of winter, researchers back-filled the trenches. They returned three weeks ago to complete the excavation.

Mrs. Nanny's privy, which dates only to about 40 years after Boston was founded, ``is the earliest privy I'm familiar with anywhere on this side of the Atlantic,'' says Lauren Cook, one of the principal investigators. The privy also served as a general refuse dump in the final years before its owners capped it.

Because the facility was below the water table, its contents rapidly became waterlogged, drastically slowing its deterioration.

As a result, says archaeologist Beth Bowen, artifacts that otherwise might have vanished with time are well preserved.

Among the items displayed at the site: pottery shards, a tiny tin bucket no bigger than a pair of thimbles; a pewter or brass spoon.

But what truly distinguishes this find, Dr. Cook says, not only is the historical period it represents, but the well-preserved organic materials it contains, such as seeds, bones, pollen, and insects. Archaeologists displayed a perfectly preserved pig's skull, complete with teeth, a large collection of seeds and fruit pits, and fish bones and scales.

Among the expected gains: a better understanding of how the early colonists exploited the harbor's resources; when they shifted from gathering wild fruit and vegetables and began domesticating native varieties; what they ate; and perhaps, whether an early case of wife-abuse involved an attempted poisoning.

Organic sleuthing

The ability to exploit the organic evidence that lies underneath American cities is a fairly recent development.

``Fifteen years ago, people would have gone through, collected the artifacts, and then gone away,'' says Lauren Cook, one of the principal investigators on the Boston dig. ``Since then, the study of the environment through archaeology has advanced significantly. The kind of information we hope to get you can't get any other way.''

``Archaeology has rapidly become a multidisciplinary science,'' agrees Dr. Brooks, referring to funding and help from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He cites the recent discovery of Colonial-era caskets in St. Mary's City, Md., that, because they were lead-lined and air-tight, provide scientists with samples of 17th-century air quality.

Given the growing interest from a range of scientists about what comes out of the ground in archaeological digs, plus the rapid growth in urban and suburban areas, the field of ``compliance archaeology'' is growing, says Louise Akerson, the archaeological curator at Baltimore's Center for Urban Archaeology.

``There is so much development and suburban expansion into large tracts of land,'' she says. ``As that happens, archaeological resources can be lost forever.''

``It's not realistic to try to save everything,'' she adds. ``But you have to think about land-management plans and work with city planning departments to try to at least record what is significant and important.''

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