June 29, 2004

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 10:54 am

Holy ****! Archaeologists Dig Up Pennsylvania Outhouses

Four West Coast men have made a hobby of digging up old outhouses in the Bloomsburg, Pa., and Danville, Pa. areas looking for clues about life in the 1800s.

Mark Junker of Portland says the group has been making the trip for more than a decade, because development patterns mean Pennsylvania towns have more unexplored privies than out West.

Now, we here at ArchaeoBlog were all set to use this story to illustrate a number of interesting and useful archaeological concepts, such as dietary change, trash disposal behaviors, vegetative indicators of cultural remains, etc. And indeed, these connections could be made. However, we have come to believe that excavating any large deposits of fecal matter less than, say, 500 years old, is just plain wrong on so many levels, we hereby refrain from doing so. In other words, to those who would want to excavate these things, we implore you to Just.Say.No.

Okay, we will expound on one issue: identifying sites through an examination of vegetation. Human activity can change the soil and sediment in habitation areas. Often when one looks for sites, one looks for actual artifacts or landforms that indicate human origin. Obviously, pyramids aren’t naturally occurring objects so they’re a good indicator that people were there. But in many (if not most) cases, archaeological sites are entirely obscured by later plant growth, especially when there are no large standing structures, such as house walls.

Ground surveys and especially aerial or satellite photography can often help. When humans are active in an area, they are bringing in a lot of organic material and leaving much of it behind either in the form of trash disposal of food waste or excrement. Since much of this (especially the latter) makes a good fertilizer, sites can often be identified by especially rich areas of plant growth. Thus, one can examine aerial photos of an area and notice if any areas seem to be particularly lush with vegetation. If they seem to have a regular pattern there is a good chance humans were using the area.

The opposite is also the case. For example, on San Juan Island, WA, a rather extensive pre-colonial site lies in the present British Camp location. Much of this consists of a shell midden where literally tons and tons of shells were discarded near the shoreline after processing for food. The vast amount of shells not only changed the pH of the soil, but also drain much better than the surrounding soils, so much so that they dry out much quicker and therefore in the summer dry season the areas of shell midden turn brown much faster. Thus, one can trace the boundaries of the midden by observing the ‘brown line’. A picture would make this much clearer, but we haven’t any.

See here for a report on the San Juan Island work. The page linked here has some on the most recent work, but the entire online volume has a lot of good information on the history of the island and makes for a good and informative read.

Under the sea, archaeologist hunts history of shipwrecks

The sea holds on. The Despatch lies in shallow water, but it’s rolling Atlantic water, and the divers who went looking for her this week had to feel their way around.

Susan Langley , underwater archaeologist for the state of Maryland , said that visibility in the murky water was only a few inches. Still, with the help of side-scan sonar and magnetic readings, it was enough for her to conclude that the wreck is worth protecting from collectors and treasure hunters, and she will recommend the same to the National Park Service and to Virginia.

Basque house yields secrets

A small sewing pin. A shoe button. Lots of plum and cherry pits. A chewed-up, hollow bone fragment, probably a rabbit’s. Toy marbles, probably owned by Palmer, the little boy who used to live in the house.

By the bucketful, volunteer archaeologists are turning the Cyrus Jacobs/Uberuaga House into a hot archaeological dig in downtown Boise.

“It really personalizes history,” said Kathy Hamlett of Nampa, who is helping to recover artifacts from the site. “It just makes you feel closer to people from the past even if you’ve never met them.”

Copper pieces help track trade at early Jamestown

Two small pieces of copper are the latest evidence of early trade between the Jamestown settlers and the Powhatan Indians at the village of Kiskiak.

They were unearthed on Naval Weapons Station Yorktown, on the York River, by archaeologists with the College of William and Mary.

“By all accounts, copper was the preeminent prestige commodity circulating within the 17th Century Powhatan chiefdom. In fact, little else of a material nature is known to have distinguished rank and privilege within traditional Powhatan society as clearly,” said Dennis B. Blanton, former director of the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research and current head of archaeology at Virginia’s Shirley Plantation.

More on the Voynich document The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript

In 1912 Wilfrid Voynich, an American rare-book dealer, made the find of a lifetime in the library of a Jesuit college near Rome: a manuscript some 230 pages long, written in an unusual script and richly illustrated with bizarre images of plants, heavenly spheres and bathing women. Voynich immediately recognized the importance of his new acquisition. Although it superficially resembled the handbook of a medieval alchemist or herbalist, the manuscript appeared to be written entirely in code. Features in the illustrations, such as hairstyles, suggested that the book was produced sometime between 1470 and 1500, and a 17th-century letter accompanying the manuscript stated that it had been purchased by Rudolph II, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1586. During the 1600s, at least two scholars apparently tried to decipher the manuscript, and then it disappeared for nearly 250 years until Voynich unearthed it.

We believe we reported on this some time ago, but this seems to be a more detailed article.

Slave archaeology Dig unearths long-lost Downstate town founded by freed slave

Researchers have unearthed buttons, chunks of porcelain and about 10,000 other artifacts they hope will turn a remote western Illinois pasture into a national historic site marking the earliest known town incorporated by a black man in the United States.

Crews are to wrap up their first archaeological dig this weekend in a field about 30 miles southeast of Quincy, where historians say freed slave Frank McWorter launched his integrated frontier village New Philadelphia in 1836, a quarter century before the Civil War and other black-founded towns.

We reiterate what we have said before, that the archaeology of slavery in this country is a vast and highly interesting area of inquiry. Not only is it important for history’s sake, but it can elucidate a number of anthropological issues involving the displacement of populations and their experience surviving in an alien cultural environment.

He was lost? St George found in Welsh church

A medieval wall painting has been uncovered during renovation work at a south Wales church.

A life-size image of St George standing on a slain a dragon was uncovered at St Cadoc’s church in Llangattock Lingoed, near Abergavenny.

Discovered during recent renovations at the centuries old church, experts have described the painting as a “special find”.

The painting is thought to have been covered up during the Reformation.

And while on the subject of blogs. . .

On a non-archaeological subject but nonetheless relevant, we direct the interested reader to a recent essay by a friend of ours who goes by the name Nicholas Kronos and has his own blog here. While generally political in nature, Nick posted an excellent essay the other day on the concept of blogging in general which is well worth reading. An exerpt:

Why do so many people keep journals, diaries, and now blogs? It is from the irresistible urge in the soul of some human beings to communicate, conflicting with their concomitant fear of being misunderstood and having that communication fail. . .[W]hat if all the effort and frustration of putting one’s ideas and thoughts into an effective medium and sending them to the other worked–only to find out that a “failure to communicate” never was the problem to begin with. No, the problem was with you. It was not that no one understood you; it was that even understanding you did not lead to your love and acceptance.

We just do it to get attention, in case you were wondering. Fortune and glory, baby, fortune and glory. . . .


  1. After we paid for our kids summer camp counselor jobs we found it tough to recover! I totally agree with you!

    Comment by jon — October 2, 2005 @ 3:17 pm

  2. “excavating any large deposits of fecal matter less than, say, 500 years old, is just plain wrong on so many levels, we hereby refrain from doing so.”

    Don’t be totally silly. Unless no rainfall has blessed these old sites on a regular basis, the biological conversion process would be completed in 30-40 years tops.

    Crap in the floors of dry cave dwellings is another fecal matter.

    Comment by Phenmetrazine — July 5, 2007 @ 8:17 pm

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