Anne Tobbe Bader and David W. Schatz
Corn Island Archaeology LLC

Urban archaeology involves the excavation of numerous buried cultural features that are commonly tightly situated within small areas, such as the rear yard of a narrow residential lot.  The privy, or outdoor toilet, is one feature type that yields hundreds or even thousands of artifacts each.  The deep privy vaults reflect the gradual deposition over time of material items that were thrown away by the occupants.  These features are full of artifacts that, in general, could not be burned or there was simply no practical dumping area, such as a hillside, conveniently located. These features provide a wealth of archaeological data that enables archaeologists to learn about the occupants of a residential or commercial lot at a specific point in time.  The individual residential lot, however, is the basic unit of a much larger entity…the neighborhood. For the last 25 years, archaeologists have been increasingly active in exploring the origins and development of the many neighborhoods of Louisville. Archaeological investigations have occurred in more than a dozen distinct neighborhoods across Louisville. These neighborhoods span different periods of time, but collectively, they point to the history of the expansion of the City outward.

Distribution of archaeological projects within Louisville neighborhoods

The excavation of multiple privies within any given location sometimes meets with opposition, especially by developers, and even public agencies, which have to foot the bill for the work.  One argument that is offered against the excavation of multiple privies relates to the abundance of extant archival data. It is rightly asserted that by researching city directories, deed records, chain of title, census data, local histories, Sanborn Insurance mapping, and more that the same level of information can be obtained, without excavation. It is true that these records can tell archaeologists much about who lived at any particular property, including with their age, race, nationality of birth, occupation, relative wealth, family size, and more.  There may even be some newspaper articles, genealogies, or other family and public histories to add some personal information to the dry facts of the public records. But what the archived data cannot provide is information regarding the day-to-day lives of the occupants of a lot.  The analysis of the artifacts recovered from privy context can provide information on, to name just a few examples:

  • Consumer preferences. Did the residents prefer local or imported goods?
  • Health and welfare.  The privies often yield information on diet, even which cuts of meats were used and how they were prepared.  Pharmaceutical bottles sometimes provide data on the ailments that required medicinal treatment.  At one privy in Louisville, a wooden leg prosthesis was even found!
  • Attitudes toward behaviors such as alcohol consumption, smoking, and more.
  • Dining practices.
  • Changes in consumer preferences over time, such as in the styles of ceramic tablewares.
  • Leisure activities. Toys, games, musical instruments, and other artifacts provide information on the activities that residents enjoyed when not working.
  • Religious beliefs. Even religious affiliation is sometimes evident in the materials remains, as reflected by holy water bottles and crucifixes found in features at Beecher Terrace and the 18th Street projects.
Non-local pharmaceutical bottle recovered from Beecher Terrace.
Crucifix recovered from Beecher Terrace.

In ideal situations, where the features are undisturbed and can be associated with distinct periods of use or associated with a family of long residence, the analyses of artifacts can also show microtrends in preferences and practices.  Totally aside from the artifact content, privy excavation can also inform archaeologists on sanitation practices, and its evolution. 

One other real concern commonly expressed about digging multiple privies at a site relates to the large amounts of recovered artifacts.  Not only do these excavated materials require time-intensive processing and cataloguing, they must also be stored or curated at an approved facility for possible future study. The artifact collections recovered from large urban projects are extensive and take up a lot of room in any curation facility. This translates into a costly reality and begs the question of how many privies really need to be excavated before there is an adequate sample of the artifacts that are typically contained within them.  Just how much is enough? 

The answer to these concerns is not straightforward. In a project of 384 residential, commercial, and public lots at the Beecher Terrace Archaeological Project in Louisville, it would be unrealistic to attempt to excavate the privies on each lot, especially considering that even the smallest of lots has been found to contain as many as seven privies….a potential 2,688 privies for the neighborhood!  Obviously, some sort of sampling is required in these circumstances.  But selecting the sample size must take under consideration several factors to achieve a good sampling of the neighborhood, for the following reasons.

Multiple privies and other features within one small residential rear yard at Beecher Terrace.

First, it is important to recognize that a neighborhood is an evolving and ever-changing entity.  It may have been established and populated by a group of people who came together at a particular period of time for similar reasons, such as proximity to their places of work, as one example.  This can be seen in the enclaves of potters who lived nearby the pottery, the butchers who lived near the meat producing areas of Butchertown, the brickmakers who lived in Smoketown near the kilns, the entrepreneurs who preferred ready access to transportation routes or near the river wharves such as in Portland. Where space allowed, neighborhoods expanded through time, sometimes taking on new characteristics.  Due to economic reasons, communities often transition from single family dwellings occupied for many years, to multi-family residences which were often occupied on a more transient basis and managed by banks or realty companies. But over time, the composition of the neighborhood inevitably changes as people move away for better opportunities, and new people arrive.

Second, there is internal diversity within neighborhoods. This may reflect the relative spatial diversity in which larger, grander residences of the well-to-do are aligned along the main street arteries, and the lower classes on smaller lots are crammed along the intervening streets and alley ways. Sometimes public ordinances dictated neighborhood diversity, as in the case of the northern portion of the California community near 18th Street in which African Americans were prohibited from populating the blocks east of 21st Street.  And it is often a simple case that people like to congregate and associate with those of similar ethnic, national, and religious backgrounds, as seen by the German Jews who lived in the area studied through the Scholar House project.

It is therefore important that any archaeological study of a neighborhood be predicated by prior extensive archival research to ascertain the composition of the community at various periods of time and the spatial distribution of the population within it.  A carefully considered research design needs to be drafted to focus the many questions that could be examined by archaeology, with the clear realization that any such program cannot address them all. The sample size must be large enough to address the research questions and cannot be simply based on a random percentage of the number of lots present. Within an internally consistent neighborhood of small size that was occupied for a short period, fewer lots and features may be sufficient.  But larger neighborhoods are inherently more diverse and will require a larger sample.

Approaches to studying urban lots often vary according to the scale of the analysis.  Integral to this is how best to define an urban “site”.  The question is tricky, for some of the reasons discussed above. While it might seem logical to base this determination of a “site” as a single city lot, it is known that lots are often combined or split apart throughout their use. Furthermore, this would result in a huge and unmanageable number of “sites”.  Comparing “sites” defined in this manner would have limited analytic value across a city, though it would be a useful comparative unit within the neighborhood itself.  Defining archaeological sites based on a city block has also been done for several completed projects in Louisville, but this is only a marginal improvement. It is argued here that the neighborhood is the best analytical unit to describe, characterize, and explain the development and growth of a city, and to compare the development of the of one city to another. To accomplish this, multiple privies must be excavated.  While the number of privies might not be large enough to demonstrate a statistically significant sample, it should be large enough to capture the diversity in composition revealed by the archival research. 

The issue of how best to study urban neighborhoods does not come down to a choice of either excavation or archival research. Both are required to achieve a result that is robust. By examining multiple lots in this way, the character of the neighborhood emerges. And slowly, privy by privy, the story of Louisville’s urban and suburban growth is revealed by archaeology.

Historic image of an urban neighborhood not far from Beecher Terrace.

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