There is Something Fishy about this Privy

It’s official… the fish skeletal material recovered from the Saint’s Rest privy, the toilet associated with the first dormitory on campus contained walleye!

Walleye. Image source

Walleye. Image source.

Walleye are the largest member of the perch family and can be caught in shallow bays and inland lakes. As there are plenty of inland lakes surrounding East Lansing, it is possible that these fish were caught locally and served on campus. Also, walleye actively feed all year round, they can be caught during any season, however, it is easier to catch them during the early morning and evening, as that is their prime feeding times (MI DNR).

Walleye Teeth image source

Walleye Teeth. Image source.

When the privy was excavated, an immense amount of bone was recovered from the southwest corner. The bones were very densely packed, and excavators were under time constraints so the area was block lifted and screened back at the lab!

West Circle Privy after excavation.

West Circle Privy after excavation.

This privy was a permanent brick structure, a earth-closet type of privy, which means that it would have been cleaned out regularly, which may explain why the fish remains were packed tightly into the back corner, possibly out of reach as a result of the cleaning process.

So how do I know that they are walleye? To determine which species the fish remains were, I began at the MSU Museum, where in the collections is a small fish index. This has many different bone elements separated out and labeled by species. This allowed me to get a preliminary identification of walleye or sauger. However, as the index does not include every single fish bone, I wanted further verification. Luckily for me, Dr. Terrance Martin (Illinois State Museum, emeritus) was visiting MSU and was able to take a few minutes and look at the Saints Rest privy fish remains. He also agreed that they looked like walleye, but suggested that I verify the remainder of the materials against other walleye specimens. Unfortunately, the MSU Museum did not have any other walleye skeletal materials in the collections so I turned to another museum. This past week, a specimen loan from the Field Museum arrived, allowing me to take the material and confirm that it is in fact walleye! Below are some images of the fish remains, in comparison to the walleye specimen.

Walleye Dentary

Walleye Operculum

Walleye Operculum

Now that I have many of the previously identified elements confirmed as walleye, I am going to move forward on identifying the remainder of the fish remains, as I already have them sorted by side, counted, and weighed. In addition to focusing on the fish materials, I will begin looking through the mammal remains that have been uncovered on campus, including cow, pig, and sheep/goat with the goal of determining what type of meat cuts were present, and the proportions of species present within the archaeological contexts. Stay tuned for more updates on the Campus Archaeology animal bone identifications!

Resources:

DNR Walleye: http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10364_53405-216550–,00.html

More Than Just Nightsoil: Preliminary Findings from MSU’s First Privy (MAC Poster Presentation)

At the Midwest Archaeological Conference, Lisa, Amy and myself got the opportunity to present some of our preliminary findings from the privy that we uncovered during Summer 2015. Here, I’m going to share some of the findings from our poster, and the poster itself for those who are interested!

In June, 2015 during routine construction monitoring, the Campus Archaeology Program survey crew noticed a disturbed area of bricks and dark soil. The salvage excavation determined that it was a brick privy. This is the only privy we have unearthed on campus, and date ranges from diagnostic artifacts (1850’s-60’s) indicate that this privy was used during the earliest years of the university.

The Agricultural College of the State of Michigan was opened to students in 1855, and consisted of two primary buildings: College Hall, the main classroom and library space, and Saints’ Rest, a dormitory. Rapid development and the poor construction of the buildings led to new structures being built, old structures lost to fire, and expansion of the campus across the landscape. Despite finding many of these early buildings, the Campus Archaeology program hadn’t discovered evidence of any privies or earth-closets.

Privies at MSU

Privies were variably constructed from brick, wood, or stone as small, sturdy receptacles for human waste before the invention of the flush toilet. Due to their necessity and use by individuals from all social tiers, privies are located across all manner of sites.

Often, items were discarded into privies due to either intentional disposal or accidental loss. The assemblages in privies often reflect a mixture of artifacts that hint at daily activities and lifeway practices, but these spaces were not used as everyday trash pits. Through disposal of artifacts into the dark hole of the privy, peoples of the past were unintentionally creating a unique cultural assemblage. Archaeological excavations of privies have ranged from Australian convict hospital grounds that revealed medical treatments performed on prisoners (Starr 2001), to archaeo-entomological investigations of insect species to understand displacement of native fauna (Bain 1998), to tracing the use of nightsoil practices in early major American cities (Roberts and Barrett 1984). Even early anatomical techniques can be reconstructed through privy excavation; a report of a privy on the property of a 19th century doctor contained human bones with evidence of postmortem surgical incisions (Mann et al. 1991). Beyond material culture, privies also contain botanical remains that can inform of historical subsistence behavior.

Discovery and Excavation

Bottom of Level 1, West Circle Privy

Bottom of Level 1, West Circle Privy

The privy was discovered on June 2nd, 2015 during routine monitoring of construction. The location of the privy is approximately 10 meters southwest of the first dormitory, and had been protected over the last century by the roadways that covered it. The majority of the artifacts and the nightsoil were concentrated in the northeast quadrant.

The structure consists of a brick wall creating a sunken area about 2 meters by 2 meters, and 0.25 meters deep. On the western edge, there are two angled chutes leading into the sunken area and a central brick pier or pedastal. We conclude that the building had two stalls, allowing multiple people to use the privy at the same time, and two chutes to allow for dumping and removal of nightsoil. The shallow depth and chutes tell us that this was an earth-closet, rather than a privy.

Artifacts from the Nightsoil

Part of the large porcelain doll

Part of the large porcelain doll

Dozens of artifacts were recovered from the nightsoil in the privy. Many of these have been found in other areas on campus: buttons, medicine bottles, inkwells, combs, floral and faunal remains, and more. It also revealed a number of unique artifacts and assemblages that add to our understanding of what it was like to be a member of the 19th century Agricultural College of the State of Michigan. These unique pieces include an entire set of dishware, violin-shaped cologne bottle, and two dolls, one complete figurine type and another consisting of the bust. Here are some of the amazing finds from the privy.

The lack of privies on MSU’s historic campus has always been a mystery, and this first find represents a major boon to our research. Over the next year, we will be looking more closely into MSU’s Archives and Historical Records in order to learn more about privies at MSU, analyzing the artifacts, and determining a more exact date range for the building. This building, despite its mundane function, provides us a unique glimpse into life on MSU’s 19th century campus.

Interested in the complete poster? Download it here! 

Works Cited

Bain A. 1998. A seventeenth-century beetle fauna from colonial Boston. Historical Archaeology 32:38-48.

Mann RW, Owsley DW, Shackel PA. 1991. A reconstruction of 19th century surgical techniques: bones in Dr. Thompson’s privy. Historical Archaeology 25:106-112.

Roberts DG, Barrett D. 1984. Nightsoil disposal practices of the 19th century and the origin of artifacts in plowzone proveniences. Historical Archaeology 18:108-115.

Starr F. 2001. Convict artefacts from the Civil Hospital on Norfolk Island. Australasian Historical Archaeology 19:39-47.

Meet Mable – Fun with 3D Printing

Last Thursday was our second annual Apparitions and Archaeology Haunted Campus Tour. With the help of the MSU Paranormal Society we held a public tour with six stations across north campus. Although the weather was less than cooperative (on and off rain with temperature in the low 40s) 75 brave people took the tour. It was there that we officially introduced Mable.

Mable

Porcelain Doll found in West Circle Privy

During the excavation of the west circle privy in June we discovered a porcelain doll, who we have named Mable. She’s remarkably complete, and her hair style (flat-top) indicates that she dates to the 1860s. Finding the doll was both startling, and amazing. We don’t have many artifacts linked to children. A doll is also a wonderful talking point when explaining archaeology to young people. However, even though she glued back together wonderfully, she’s still very fragile. Enter 3D scanning and printing.

CAP fellow Blair Zaid previously discussed her foray into 3D scanning and printing last semester. We once again called on the expertise of the Lab for the Education and Advancement in Digital Research (LEADR) to scan and print Mable. Scanning the doll presented some unique challenges.

Brian Geyer conducting photogrammetry

Brian Geyer conducting photogrammetry

Mable is both delicate and top heavy. That made using the rotating scanner out of the question, so we turned to photogrammetry. Photogrammetry involves combining many still photographs of an object with precise measurements in order to build a 3D model. We were worried that Mable may have been too shiny, and that would cause distortion in the model. However we compensated for this by increasing the resolution of the photos.

 

Rendering the scan

Rendering the scan

color rendering

Color rendering

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We first printed Mable in solid white, but then decided to have some fun. 3D printing filament comes in a variety of colors, including glow in the dark. I figured that a glow in the dark doll head would be the perfect addition to our Haunted Tour. But we didn’t stop there. One of the fun things about 3D printing is that you can control the size of the printed object. So we scaled her down, and printed glow in the dark necklace pendants.

Mable printed in different sizes and colors

Mable printed in different sizes and colors

Mable in pendant size

Mable in pendant size

Glow in the dark prints

Glow in the dark prints

So now we have both glow in the dark, and standard white prints of Mable.  We plan to paint one of the white prints to match the actual doll.  Having 3D prints of excavated artifacts allows these objects to be handled by the public without fear of damage.  It’s also many peoples first time handling a 3D printed object.  3D printing is still new enough that although most people know what it is, they haven’t had the chance to encounter any prints yet.

We’re grateful for the hard work LEADR lab (specifically Brian Geyer) put into scanning and printing Mable.  We look forward to having more fun with the 3D printer.

Mable on the Haunted Tour

Mable on the Haunted Tour

Out in Back: Digging Into the History of Outhouses

MSU privy

Overhead image of the excavated privy

During the summer, CAP field crew members excavated the remains of a privy on campus. For those not in the know (including myself until a couple months ago), a privy is a historic outhouse. Historic archaeologists have great interest in privies because they often contain artifacts of the past that people tossed either intentionally or accidentally down the deep, dark hole never to be seen again (so they thought).

When I was talking to Dr. Goldstein about my CAP projects for this semester, she suggested I research privies. My plan was to read the academic literature about historic outhouses in addition to searching the University Archives for information about privies on campus. However, a quick google search of “historic outhouses” led me down an interesting path: I found many popular culture articles about amateur diggers who specialize in excavating outhouses. Some news articles even quoted the excavators as saying that they bought properties because they knew there was a privy on the site and they were intent on digging it. The more I read, the more I found – there is even an Outhouses of America website where you can buy a Kleenex holder shaped like…you guessed it…an outhouse. I began to remember some bits and pieces I’d heard over the years about outhouse races and outhouse building contests, but what really struck me was that many outhouse enthusiasts are also interested in excavation of the privies. I can’t say I blame them – I’d want to be involved in a historic dig too.

This all got me thinking about access to the historic past. I work at prehistoric sites mostly and it is a foregone conclusion that those sites can and should be dug only by experts who are sanctioned by the government. Anyone considered a non-expert who chooses to dig at the sites is in breach of the law and considered a criminal – seems reasonable! However, what about these historic outhouses? Is it okay to dig these because they are on private property or because they aren’t considered sites? I went to Deadhorse Bay in Brooklyn a few weeks ago and had the same thoughts. An historic landfill is leaking out into the bay, exposing old bottles, toys, shoes, plates, and more that visitors are routinely pick up and take home. Being there made me feel a little uncomfortable, like I was complicit in looting a place that had untold historic value (full disclosure: I went home with a dead horseshoe crab for my friend’s kid).

Anyway, I digress! I’m sure that in my search for more historic outhouse knowledge, I will come across more pop culture surprises. However, I’m going to move on to the next phase of my research and begin to search the University Archives for clues regarding the privies. Because they were A) necessary and B) probably built with college money, I would expect to find some record of them in the Archives. Perhaps these clues can lead CAP to a future excavation site!

P.S. I regret to inform you that the Outhouse Museum of South Dakota is closed, but if you are interested in a comparative international analysis you can still visit the Museum of the Outhouse in Nova Scotia: http://www.rossignolculturalcentre.com/outhousemuseum.html

It’s a Brick . . . Outhouse

The summer field season has continued to be busy. Last Monday, while making our routine monitoring rounds of the North Campus Infrastructure Improvements construction site we noticed a concentration of bricks and dark soil near the Museum. As previously mentioned, the first week of the season we located the partial foundation of Williams Hall near the museum, so a find in this area wasn’t surprising. However, what this new site ended up being surprised us all.

Monday afternoon was spent locating the limits of the brick concentration. Consulting some of the overlay maps, we hypothesized that this may be part of the northern portion of the old Engineering Shop. But it didn’t match quite up well enough to the engineering shop on the maps. Upon further reflection the shape of the structure (a 2 meter by 2 meter square) with close proximity to Saint’s Rest and concentrations of extremely dark soil lead us to one conclusion, that this was most likely a privy. This is the first historic privy that CAP has located.

Bottom of Level 1, West Circle Privy

Bottom of Level 1, West Circle Privy

Privy’s are always extremely exciting finds because they inevitably contain large quantities of artifacts. Throughout the life of a privy, objects are both inadvertently dropped into the holding tank, and intentionally deposited as a means of disposal. They also tend to be very intact because even after it is decommissioned it is avoided because no one wishes to disturb its contents. This privy did not disappoint in terms of artifact quantity and quality.

The top of the foundation has only been mildly disturbed by the construction. We worked to first expose all four walls of the privy before excavating the center, and east/west extensions. Once the ruble layer had been removed, a large night soil layer was encountered. Night soil is a polite term for the remnants of human waste that collects inside privies (and other areas). It is a very dark black making is easily distinguishable from the surrounding soil, and only slightly stinky. (We were later told by the Field School that they could smell us approaching for lunch)

Part of the large porcelain doll

Part of the large porcelain doll

 

 

Violin Flask Cologne Bottle

Violin Flask Cologne Bottle

 

 

 

 

 

 

The night soil layer produced an incredible amount of artifacts for such a small area. Some of what we uncovered includes whole plates, drinking tumblers, intact bottles, eggshell, a large quantity of fish bones, and two porcelain dolls (one large, and one small). Preliminary research indicates that this deposit is likely from the mid to late 1800’s, with everything examined thus far dating pre 1890. This is an incredible find and we look forward to analyzing the collection and reporting on it as we move forward.

Excavation Crew in Completed Privy

Excavation Crew in Completed Privy