In this Sept. 28, 2017, photo, City of Boston Archaeological Program volunteers Tim Riordan, left, and Bob Sartini excavate a site that experts believe may have contained an outhouse used by Paul Revere.

Credit: William J. Kole/AP

Why You Should Care More About 17th Century Bathrooms Than You Do

October 4, 2017

An archaeological dig in the North End has unearthed a 17th century privy that could have been associated with Paul Revere. This may end up being an important discovery, not because it has anything to do with the famed Patriot, but simply because it is a very old bathroom.

Perhaps you saw the news last week about an archaeological dig in the North End that unearthed a 17th century outhouse, right near where Paul Revere lived. It’s what colonials would have called – and archaeologists still call – a privy. This generated all kinds of cheeky, shareable headlines, from “Paul Revere Went Here,” to my personal favorite, “No. 2 if By Sea.” But the puerile – if fun – nature of the story belies how crucial a discovery like this is for archaeologists.

"[Privies are] wicked important. They’re our holy grail,” said Mary Beaudry, professor of arcaheology at Boston University. “We can get so much information from each one of them.”

Really? From old, underground bathrooms?

“Privies are like shipwrecks,” said Beaudry, “in the sense that they’re time capsules.”

They’re “time capsules” because privies were often lined, and then sealed at the end of their lifespan. That keeps oxygen and bacteria out. And it also means the contents remain incredibly well preserved.

“It’s an environment that’s sealed,” said Beaudry. “And we can date it to a specific time period or phase of time.”

There tend to be two kinds of privies that are found: Ones that were cleaned out prior to being sealed, and ones that weren’t. Uncleaned New England privies are what Diana Gallagher wrote her dissertation about.

“People would say to me, ‘is that poop?’ and I’m like, ‘I hope so,’” Gallagher told me, laughing. “That’s what you’re looking for. That’s the only way you’re going to find some of that information.”

That information can be a veritable and varied gold mine. Preserved seeds, pollens, plant scraps and animal bones give all sorts of clues about what people were eating. Analysis of these items can reveal information about the food supply chain, and tell scientists whether people were, say, butchering their own meat and growing their own vegetables or buying their food at a market.

Archaeoentomologists can learn all kinds of things about contemporary bug life. And then there’s what Gallagher’s focused on: parasites, some of whose eggs remain easily identifiable and remarkably preserved after hundreds of years.

She started looking at these, she said, “to see if we could look at the health and hygiene not just of these specific sites but over time,” she explained. “Could we see changes?”

Spoiler alert: They could.

As for the “cleaned out” privies? They are often just as revelatory – as they were commonly used as underground dumpsters of sorts prior to being sealed off. And trash – especially old trash –  is any archaeologist’s treasure. One such privy, discovered under Endicott Street, turned out to belong to a 19th century brothel.

“This is, as far as I’m aware, the only known brothel that’s been excavated in Boston,” said Jade Luiz, who is analyzing the Endicott Street brothel privy for her PhD at Boston University.

Luiz says our understanding of 19th century prostitution is steeped in mythology – the historic record largely set by reformers or contemporary madams who had a vested interest in romanticizing the experience.

“It creates this very tangible tie,” she said. “We’re able to question and test some of those things that we see in the historical record in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to.”

The contents – from a large collection of feminine hygiene items to a bevy of toothbrushes (which weren’t very common at the time) to dozens of teacups –  begin to paint a picture of a largely mysterious chapter of Boston’s long history.

“Can I identify what it’s like to be in this brothel while it’s actively in use, for the guys visiting, the madam who’s running it, or the women who are living and working there?” said Ruiz.

Then there are the privy discoveries that can only be described as “neat.” Case in point: The oldest bowling ball ever found in North America was pulled out of the privy of a puritan Boston woman – from a time when bowling was illegal no less.

“It was promptly nicknamed by the people in the lab 'stinky' for reasons I don’t need to tell you in detail,” said Beaudry.

So, the next time you hear that a privy was found under Boston, don’t be too quick to laugh it off. As Gallagher points out, these lowly bathrooms offer invaluable insight into who we were and how we lived. And that’s no BS.

“I do find that with privy archaeology you start looking at one thing but it leads you out,” she said. “It leads you further out into the world. It does lead you to bigger questions.”

Below is a list of favorite local privies from Mary Beaudry, professor of archaeology at Boston University. The notes have been edited by WGBH News for clarity.

If there is something that’s piqued your curiosity lately, let me know about it. I’m always looking for story ideas and there’s nothing better than doing one that helps satisfy your curiosity. Email me at curiositydesk@wgbh.org.


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