Archaeologists working at one of the oldest historic homes in Boston have uncovered a privy that may have belonged to the family of Paul Revere. And while it may seem unusual to be thrilled over an outhouse, the find may yield some intriguing colonial clues.
The discovery was made by a team working on a site adjacent to Revere’s North End home. The Pierce-Hichborn House, as it is known, was owned by one of Revere’s cousins, shipbuilder Nathaniel Hichborn, and built in 1711. Excavations revealed the foundation of a rectangular brick structure measuring 4-by-6 feet, a typical size for an outhouse. The privy was also clay-lined, a common practice used to prevent decomposing materials from leaching into the surrounding soil.
In addition to human waste, recovered seeds, soil deposits and traces of decomposed foods are likely to provide information about Colonial-era diets in the region. According to Joe Bagley, Boston’s city archaeologist, it’s a unique insight. As he told a local CBS News affiliate, “We can get seeds from what they were eating, we can find parasites, find out what their health was.”
But it wasn’t just food and human waste that went in to privies; they served as all-purpose trash receptacles, with items like pottery, animal bones and personal items getting tossed in as well. Just last year, a treasure trove of artifacts, some 82,000 in all, were discovered in a series of privies excavated as part of the construction of the recently-opened Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. Those artifacts helped shed light on what types of businesses might have once stood on the site, with finds including seashells used by a button shop, a window pane, punch bowls and drinking glasses from an illegal tavern and printing supplies likely belonging to an engraver.
Among the artifacts already discovered at the Boston site are animal teeth, coal and the handle to an 18th-century German beer stein. And the discoveries are likely to get even more interesting. As Bagley told Fox News, “Every inch that we go back deeper, we’re working our way further back in time,” he said. “We’re down 2 feet now, so we still have a way to go.”
It may take a few weeks to fully excavate the Boston privy, thanks to a 1650 city law that required outhouses be dug at a minimum depth of 6 feet. And though that’s a lot of potential excrement to sift through, the team is actually looking forward to digging that deep; as Bagley told a local CBS News affiliate, “I hope it’s 6 feet deep, because that gives us the best opportunity to find a lot of things from multiple families.”
While one of those families will undoubtedly be the Hichborns, whose multi-generational ownership of the house lasted from 1781 to 1865, there’s no guarantee they’ll discover any artifacts that belonged to Revere himself. Early news reports claiming that the outhouse had belonged to Revere are misleading, according to Bagley. Revere owned the house next to the Hichborns for nearly three decades, but he and his family lived there only intermittently for much of that time. And, based on earlier excavations at the site, archaeologists seem certain that Revere’s personal privy was likely dug up and destroyed centuries ago, and a different house now stands where it once was. “It’s definitely not Paul Revere’s privy,” he said.