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Digging deeply into privies’ secrets

May 5th, 2014 by Lynn

    BALLSTON SPA — History can be a filthy business.

    At the National Bottle Museum, a tall, illuminated case displays the depths to which some people will go to uncover the details of the past.

    Labeled “Privy Pit c. 1860,” the exhibit documents a 1991 dig by Roy Topka, a veteran bottle collector who serves on the institution’s board.

    “I am amused at how often I have to explain to people what they are looking at,” said Gary Moeller, museum director.

    Before municipal dumps, outhouses served as landfills for urban dwellers.

    A bottle originally used for mineral water and found in a former privy is on display at the National Bottle Museum in Ballston Spa Tuesday, April 29, 2014. (Jason McKibben -

    The museum’s graduated display chronicles the ground-depth measurements where Topka found discarded items, primarily bottles, during the excavation of a Capital District pit toilet. Bottles of various shapes, colors and sizes hang from monofilament line at various heights, denoting their former position in the waste hole.

    For Topka, the dig is the Holy Grail of outhouses. Of the more than 1,600 excavations he has conducted around Albany, Troy and Schenectady, the collector rates this one near the top.

    “That one would be called an exceptional privy. Probably half the digs, you find next to nothing — everything is broken or there is nothing in them at all,” Topka said.

    Burrowing through 150-year-old sewage and trash seems like an odd method of research. But for historians who are willing to dig deep, outhouses can reveal forgotten tidbits.

    History is told through more than the valuable artifacts people pass down from generation to generation. The everyday items they throw away also tell a valuable tale.

    “Since the 1960s, we’ve realized it’s the story of average, ordinary people that most needs telling. Give me a privy, a backyard dump or a filled-in hole, and let me tell the story that might be worth telling,” said archaeologist David Starbuck, professor of anthropology at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire.

    ‘Dirty deeds done dirt cheap’

    When Topka knocks on people’s doors, he isn’t trying to sell magazine subscriptions or solicit religious converts. He wants to dig up the backyard.

    “I do a lot of door-knocking. Usually, I wait until Saturdays to see if I see someone working outside in the yard,” he said. “I tell them what I do and introduce myself. One out of 10 will give me permission, if I’m that lucky.”

    Although the strategy seems odd, Topka manages to convince around 25 homeowners a year to let him into their yards for his amateur outhouse excavations.

    He scours neighborhoods he believes are likely to have 19th-century sites, based on his knowledge of regional history and prior digging experience. Once he gets approval from a homeowner, he uses his deductive skill to narrow down a location for his dirty work.

    “With experience, you can tell, but you don’t always know for sure — sometimes you can be about 95 percent positive. You never really know until you start digging a hole,” he said.

    Intuition plays a big role in his treasure hunts.

    “I’ve improved over time. You learn by what you feel in the ground. That gives you the clues you need,” Topka said.

    He probes the soil looking for signs. Many privies were lined with wood, stone or brick. As he digs deeper, if he finds an outhouse site, items start to emerge in the soil.

    “You will find things like common marbles, china doll heads, porcelain doll dishes and you will occasionally find false teeth,” he said.

    Topka surmises many of the items fell down the privy hole by accident. Other artifacts probably were discarded with hopes they would never be seen again.

    “I have found bawdy items from the Victorian era — obscene little statues of people doing obscene acts,” he said.

    Bottles are his pay dirt

    “I’ve found bottles that go back as far as the mid-1700s. I enjoy finding bottles that were never known to exist — something that no one knew about. Sometimes what I find are the only remnants known of a business that existed in the mid-1800s. Some of the things I find aren’t listed anywhere — the only existence is that shard of glass,” he said.

    Courtesy photo Collector Roy Topka excavates a privy site in Schenectady in search of bottles. The outhouse pit, which was lined with field stones, dated back to around the 1850s.

    The digs are a laborious process and can take up to nine hours to complete, depending on the dimensions of the original privy.

    “The average pit is about 3 by 4 feet and about 8 feet deep. But they can be full of rocks and roots,” Topka said.

    The human waste generally has decomposed in the more than 100 years since the sites’ original use.

    “I have dug a few where they were sealed off with caps of lime and sand in between, and there still was discernible poop. But that is very unusual,” he said.

    A good yield for a privy dig would be 10 to 15 bottles, but Topka often leaves empty-handed.

    “It’s a lot of work, and there’s little reward. Probably half the digs, you find next to nothing — everything might be broken, or there is nothing in them,” he said.

    He has unearthed a number of bottles with historical value, but few items are worth much money.

    “I have found things that might go way up into the hundreds, but usually, if they have any value, it’s between $1 and $5,” he said. “Condition is very important, and chips and cracks shoot that right down.”

    ‘Good riddance’

    David Starbuck has fond memories of an outhouse he refers to as the “three-holer.”

    “When I grew up, the water source was a couple of springs. During dry times, we would have to head out to the three-holer,” he said.

    The archaeologist, who has led excavations at Rogers Island and Fort William Henry, still lives on the 18th-century Starbuck family farm in Chestertown that had a communal outhouse on the property for generations.

    “Not too long before my father died, I saw him taking it down. I was horrified. I had a real sentimental attachment,” he said.

    Although indoor plumbing has been a standard for more than 100 years, the outhouse is more contemporary than many people think.

    “Modern folks think of them as incredibly antiquated. But if you didn’t live in a municipal area, that’s what you used until the early 20th century,” he said.

    It’s not uncommon for properties to have more than one privy hole. Homeowners would often abandon sites.

    “Once a hole got really filthy, they would dump trash in it and fill it in. Then they would dig a new hole,” he said.

    Most of Starbuck’s excavations have been pits that are more than 100 years old. He warns that any privy dig — even locations that haven’t been used for a century — can be unpleasant and possibly unhealthy.

    “You really want to wear a respiratory mask when you dig these things. The stuff that gets into your lungs — holy cow. One time, I was sick for a month or so after a dig from the stuff I breathed into my lungs,” he said. “Powdered feces is not great for your system — and exactly what bacteria could be in there, I’m not sure.”

    During an excavation at Rogers Island, Starbuck and his team uncovered a full-sized latrine.

    “This would have been from the 1750s. It was about 8 feet long, and they had put all sorts of garbage in it. We found butchered animal bones and buttons and other trash,” he said.

    The discovery offered clues about the soldiers’ daily lives not available from other sources. For Starbuck, privy sites and dumps are historically significant. Even modern landfills can reveal details about our culture.

    “I’ve listened to plenty of people say that no archaeologist would ever dig a particular spot. But the things that archaeologists dig today and might dig in the future are so different from just a century ago. Even recent material tells a story of our society. Modern dumps are being dug by archaeology students. There is no time cut-off for what is interesting or important,” he said.

    As a history buff, he understands the appeal of amateur digs. As an archaeologist, he discourages the practice, which can contaminate a location and leave it undocumented for further study.

    “If all the artifacts are fished out from a site and just mundane things are left behind, we can’t tell the whole story. We are interested in anything physical that might add knowledge to the past,” he said.

    Starbuck asks collectors not to disturb historic places searching for antiques to dress up the mantel.

    “Archaeologists can be real party-poopers,” he said with a chuckle.

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