Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My Ancestors Didn't Flush a Toilet?

Although this has been around for a some time, I only recently came across a whole new area for family research - privy archaeology! Yes, privy as in outhouse, backhouse, loo and any number of assorted other names.

While there do exist some less than honest 'looters' out there who sneak onto someone's property to dig for buried 'treasures,' there are serious amateur and professional archaeologists who excavate, with the permission of the landowner, very old privy pits to uncover various artifacts and family items. The idea is simple enough - in the days before indoor plumbing, families would dig a pit typically three to six feet deep, downwind of their homes, often in the back portion of their lot. Constructed above the pit was a small, hopefully private structure. Inside a wooden bench type seating arrangement was made with one or more holes, usually of varying sizes to accommodate different sized family members. This was the standard toilet for households. In fact, I'm sure many of us can at least remember this arrangement at cottages and campsites as we grew up.

The pits when 'filled' would be covered with dirt and gravel and a new pit was dug. Eventually time turned the 'contents' of these old pits into good, old fashioned dirt. But for reasons not fully understood, it seems that household and personal items also found there way into these pits. Archaeologists conducting a proper 'dig' can determine timelines and will unearth a variety of artifacts that can help better understand the lifestyle of the family who lived on the property. For instance, old medicinal bottles that might have contained an old-fashioned remedy or 'magic elixir' may tell the story of how the family dealt with illness, jewelery, plates and serving dishes, corsets, toys tossed into the pit by a mischievous sibling and even weapons have been found in these excavations. All help to make a connection to a family of the past.

I know that I would be excited to find items that belonged to some of my ancestors but somehow I take comfort in knowing that most of my ancestors arrived in Canada well after indoor plumbing was commonplace so I really don't have much of an opportunity to dig out my great-grandparents privy.

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