History Stories

In the summer of 2014, archaeologists from the Commonwealth Heritage Group were excavating a site located at the corner of South Third and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia, the future home of the new Museum of the American Revolution. In the course of the work, they found a dozen circular shafts dug into the ground and lined with bricks, similar to how a well might be built. Yet instead of clean, fresh water, these particular holes had been designed to contain human waste; they were privy pits, better known today as outhouses.

The privy pits, which served both private residences and businesses, had been sealed up and covered by several eras of construction, most recently some 19th-century buildings that were demolished when the first Visitor’s Center for Independence Park was built on the site in the 1970s. The archaeologists determined that one of the privies was built around July 10, 1776, the date when a couple named Benjamin and Mary Humphreys purchased a house on the property, on a street then known as Carter’s Alley. (Less than a week earlier, delegates from the 13 American colonies had signed the Declaration of Independence just two blocks away, at the building now known as Independence Hall.)

museum of american revolution, archaeology, excavation site

The excavation site. (Credit: Sarah Jane Ruch/Museum of the American Revolution)

When the researchers looked inside the Humphreys’ privy pit, they were intrigued to find not the standard trash you might expect from a normal colonial home, but a mess of drinking tankards, punch bowls, drinking glasses and an abundance of liquor bottles. They found the solution to this mystery in an arrest record dating to 1783, which showed that Mary Humphreys was arrested for operating a “disorderly house,” a euphemism for an illegal tavern frequented by prostitutes and their clientele.

Taverns–both legal and illegal–were centers of colonial American life and often served as hotbeds of political discussion and activity. Among the more interesting artifacts found inside the Carter’s Alley privy pits was a piece of window glass etched with the word “love,” which the archaeologists eventually pieced together with other glass shards to form an etched inscription: “We admire riches, And are in love with i[dleness].” The quote, from the ancient Roman senator Cato the Younger, had appeared in an 18th-century play about the rebellion against Julius Caesar, a political work that would have been of particular interest in Revolutionary-era America.

Researchers also uncovered a broken blue-and-white punchbowl emblazoned with a picture of the Tryphena, a brigantine ship that had carried the colonists’ petition contesting the Stamp Act (which placed a tariff on newspapers and other documents used by the colonists) to Liverpool from Philadelphia in 1765. An inscription on the bowl reads “Success to the Triphena.”

Items recovered from the site of the tavern. (Credit: Sarah Jane Ruch/Museum of the American Revolution)

Items recovered from the site of the tavern. (Credit: Sarah Jane Ruch/Museum of the American Revolution)

The Commonwealth Heritage Project cataloged the 82,000 artifacts found in the 12 privy pits in a 481-page report. Most date to the years surrounding the American Revolution, between 1775 and 1783. During that period, of course, Philadelphia served as headquarters of the Second Continental Congresses, which acted as a de facto government for the new nation by mustering army troops, directing military strategy, assigning diplomats and writing treaties.

In a fortuitous (if somewhat disgusting) turn of events, several centuries of human waste formed a gooey, sticky substance that effectively preserved the artifacts, which surely no one at the time believed anyone would want to see again. “The wonderful thing about doing this kind of archaeology is that we’re going where nobody thought we would be going,” lead archaeologist Rebecca Yamin told LiveScience. “The people who were throwing this out in their privy certainly didn’t think we would come around and dig it up.” As for the stink factor, Yamin said: “It doesn’t smell like fresh human waste, thank goodness, but it does have a characteristic smell.”

An archaeologist examines the relics from the excavation. (Credit: Sarah Jane Ruch/Museum of the American Revolution)

An archaeologist examines the relics from the excavation. (Credit: Sarah Jane Ruch/Museum of the American Revolution)

Alongside the outstanding finds from the Revolutionary era, the privy pits also contained more ordinary (but still historically significant) artifacts, including wig curlers, supplies from the tanneries that made up one of Philadelphia’s earliest industries and shards of red earthenware pottery made by known local potters. They also yielded objects from later periods in Philadelphia’s history, including pieces of printers’ type associated with the city’s growing press industry through the 18th and 19th centuries; the foundations of the city’s first skyscraper, the Jayne Building, erected in 1850; and a large assortment of seashells linked to a local button factory, which operated from 1913 to World War II.

A selection of artifacts from the excavations is expected to go on display in the Museum of the American Revolution, scheduled to open in April 2017. “It seems only fitting that such a complete story of the evolution of the city should be found on the site of a future museum,” Michael Quinn, the president and CEO of the museum, said in a press release. “These artifacts provide a tangible tie to Philadelphia’s past and help us tell the stories of people who lived right here before, during, and after the Revolutionary War.”

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