Source: philadelphia weekly
Date: February 28, 2007
Byline: Sarah Wilson
Dig This Dirt
An archeological investigation suggests our ancestors were a bunch of pervs.
Privy to history: Mara Kaktins' research requires her to hang out in a centuries-old toilet.
Found objects: Kaktins has unearthed-among other curiosities-a sexy pipe tamper (above) and a tiny pipe in the shape of a monkey (below).
Philly is lousy with lofty historical sites. Independence Hall, where the founding fathers did their thing, is one of the most historic buildings anywhere.
But what about the residents of Philadelphia who were too busy scrambling for survival to worry about the social contract and taxation without representation? What's their story?
An archaeological investigation underway in the block between Pine and Spruce and Third and Fourth streets sheds some light on what life might've been like for Philadelphia's debtors and drinkers.
Temple graduate student Mara Kaktins is busy excavating a privy pit associated with one of Philadelphia's alms houses. Archaeologists know the house was commissioned in the early 1730s and decommissioned in the early 1760s, when it was torn down and tenement houses were constructed in its place.
Digging in the basement of a standing 1780 house, Kaktins unearths what was once trash but is now treasure. She started work on the site last fall, and hopes to have it completed in the next four months.
Kaktins spends her days digging through layers of what is essentially "250-year-old poo," and her nights analyzing and cataloging the finds. About 15 to 20 chamber pots have been removed, indicating an institution rather than a private residence. One of the pots has initials scratched into it, which suggests the residents were territorial about their little toilets.
Spoons engraved with initials, along with tin cups, bone combs and copious amounts of cheap redware ceramics, confirm the deposits in the privy pit were associated with the poor house. Kaktins has also found a bottle with the date 1750 and the name John Pole stamped onto the glass. Pole was a wealthy pewter merchant, and was probably a benefactor of the alms house.
Alms houses were a place for people who couldn't pay their debts, so the residents were generally taught a skill and given work to do. Kaktins suspects the tenants of this poor house were put to work making shoes, since she's found evidence of leather working and a well-preserved 250-year-old piece of footwear. She's also found enormous numbers of cherry, peach, apple and squash seeds, which suggest there were orchards on the grounds that the tenants would've been responsible for maintaining.
Although numerous animal bones and all the seeds give an idea of what the residents ate, Kaktins plans to study the soil for evidence that Philadelphia's poor suffered from intestinal diseases. She also plans to run tests on the 250-year-old human hairs she's found to test for evidence of lead, mercury — often prescribed as a remedy for venereal diseases — or opiates.
Although she won't know if the tenants had drug problems until the tests are completed, previous archaeological excavations of the privy pit where Kaktins is digging have turned up at least one pipe, carved to look like a monkey, that has an unusually small bowl and might've been used to smoke some kind of drug other than tobacco.
A 1976 excavation yielded a pipe tamper, used for packing tobacco into a pipe bowl, that depicted a couple in the throes of passion. It makes the phrase "digging in the dirt" a delightful double entendre. Kaktins says the tamper, which is in perfect condition, was found in a jar of ink thrown deep into a privy pit, implying that its owner was trying to hide it.
But the pewter pipe tamper is hardly an anomaly. A 1958 archaeological excavation of a privy pit at Carpenter's Hall turned up an identical brass pipe tamper depicting the same unseemly entwining legs and anatomical details.
Although two such objects might not sound like much, archaeologists think it is. "I think it's spectacular," says David Orr, a research associate at Temple's Department of Anthropology who's serving as Kaktins' adviser on the alms house project. "In the little archaeology we do, we've found two singular examples of popular art."
Daniel Roberts, president of John Milner Associates, a leading historic preservation firm, and co-author of The Buried Past, a book about the city's archeology, says, "It's very coincidental that two were found." Roberts has also noted that since the two pipe tampers seem to have come from the same mold, they were presumably mass produced and easily purchased.
The Carpenter's Hall pipe tamper dates from between 1770 and 1794. Roberts adds that since it was found near where "the founding fathers were gathering," that "it's not too much of a stretch to think one of them might have owned it."
An even more revealing relic that no one reads much about in history books is the life-sized wooden phallus that was found in 1968 in a privy pit near the east wing of Independence Hall. Thought to date from the mid-19th century and carved in tremendous detail, the phallus has provoked a flurry of speculation over its possible use. Some have surmised it was "an anatomical lecture prop."
Orr quickly dismissed that option, noting that it was found in a privy pit, where people would've had the privacy of a closed door. This, as well as the detailed nature of the object, suggests it may have been used as a portable substitute for the real thing.
Over the years archaeologists in Philadelphia have found sawed-open human skulls, the bodies of people who may have been buried alive and even more disturbing clues to a pornographic past. A dig at New Market East turned up the remains of two human infants who were apparently dumped in a privy pit. These are thought to be the children of unwed mothers who may have been prostitutes and servants who could've lost their jobs if their pregnancies were discovered.
Back in the world of less lurid archaeology, the Park Service employees at Independence Hall are rolling up their sleeves for some serious work. Jed Levin, research director at the Independence Living History Center Archaeology Lab, expects a busy spring spent working with the 1 million artifacts yet to be processed from the excavation of the site of the National Constitution Center. Two new archaeologists have been hired, and the volunteer program is being expanded. So far only volunteers with archaeological experience have been accepted, but that's changing.
In the next few weeks the park plans to start accepting volunteers, and expects to have the first group in and working by next month. If the discoveries remain as spicy as they have been, recruitment should be no problem.
Sarah Wilson is a PW intern.