Privy Investigations

Outhouses and other archaeological treasure troves lurk under Alexandria’s surface

December 22, 2011

What a Civil War privy might have looked like. (This is a model, not life-size.)

Modern toilets can barely handle a baby wipe, much less pencils, toys, sugar bowls and muskets. These were all found while excavating a 19th-century privy, or outdoor bathroom, where the Alexandria Courthouse now stands. Privies were treated as personal landfills and are revered at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum for their telling contents — even those contents, which tell us what folks ate and which intestinal parasites they carried.

While the privies captured our hearts (that musket was still loaded!), taverns, cemeteries, Civil War camps, plantations and Native American settlements also get plenty of love at this one-room museum, which opened in 1984 at the Torpedo Factory Art Center.

Highlights: The ceaseless construction in NoVa has an upside: These projects offer chances to dig at previously inaccessible sites. A 13,000-year-old arrowhead was found during the building of the Wilson Bridge. A parking lot on Lee Street yielded a hoard of pub accoutrements — a fife mouthpiece, chamber pots and posset pots. (Posset is hot milk curdled with alcohol. Which of those pots is grosser is up to you.)


The Peeps diorama depicts the death of Col. Elmer Ellsworth.

As is to be expected, there are several Civil War exhibits, including a Peeps diorama (created for The Washington Post’s annual contest) depicting the first Union casualty. Given that Peeps are indestructible, this thing’s destined to confuse far-future archaeologists. Near-future archaeologists (aka kids) will be captivated by the dog skeleton named Zark, pottery-shard puzzles and Civil War drummer boy display.

Gift Shelf: Books, Christmas ornaments, “I Dig Alexandria” tees ($12-$14). The Peeps diorama is not for sale.

Getting There: The King Street Metro station is about 1.5 miles away. Walk or take the free trolley.

Alexandria Archaeology Museum, Torpedo Factory Art Center, 105 N. Union St., Studio 327, Alexandria; 703-746-4399.
Holly J. Morris is Express' managing editor for features.
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