Under the site were 12 privy pits, or what we modern Americans might call brick outhouses. They are essentially holes dug into the ground, then lined with bricks, much like a well. Unlike a well, they did not contain anything life-sustaining: Our forefathers deposited their human waste and trash there.
Back then, no one in his right mind would go digging through the privies. About three hundred years later — Smithsonian reported the toilets were built in the early to late 1700s — archaeologists peeked in and, among the old waste, found more than 82,000 artifacts.
They had expected to find some artifacts, but this was shocking.
“We can tell the whole story of Philadelphia,” Yamin, the lead archaeologist on the project, told LiveScience.
As it turns out, the human waste in the privies created a gooey, sticky substance that coated the artifacts and acted as a wonderful preservation material, LiveScience reported. The result is an embarrassment of archaeological riches of just the things no one ever thought anyone else would see.
“The wonderful thing about doing this kind of archaeology is that we’re going where nobody thought we would be going,” Yamin said. “The people who were throwing this out in their privy certainly didn’t think we would come around and dig it up.”
The findings are extensive, as cataloged by a 481-page report released by the Commonwealth Heritage Group. Wig curlers, dishware shipped over from China, drinking tankards from Germany and animal bones from meals (tossed, not passed) were found in the privies. Perhaps most exciting, though, was a closer look at how our forefathers both partied and rebelled.
By using historical documents, archaeologists were able to ascertain that one of the privies was probably built about July 10, 1776, when a Benjamin and Mary Humphreys purchased a house on the property, National Geographic reported.
The findings were odd, though. Instead of the aforementioned household objects, the privy was filled with tankards, drinking glasses, punch bowls, smoking pipes and almost a hundred liquor bottles.
A quick glance at 1783 arrest records solved the mystery: That July, Mary was arrested for running a “disorderly house.” Or, in today’s parlance, an illegal brothel that included a bar.
One of the artifacts from Mary’s place was window glass with the word “love” etched into it.
That was not the case.
As they found and pieced together more shards of the window pane, they realized it read, “We admire riches, And are in love with i[dleness].” It’s a quote from Roman senator Cato the Younger that later appeared in an 18th-century play with strong political overtones — the play is about fighting against Julius Caesar.
The tavern was open the same year as the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The math isn’t difficult.
“This quote would have been known to people who were thinking politically in 18th-century Philadelphia,” Yamin told the magazine. “This man was writing a political message, which is so consistent with what we know was going on in the taverns at the time.”
Also found was a bowl depicting a British ship with the words “Success to the Triphena,” referring to a ship that sailed between the continents and was used to carry a petition to Britain asking for a repeal of the Stamp Act. The act placed a stamp duty on newspapers and other documents used by the colonists, but the money made from it benefited England itself. The act was one of the major factors leading to the American Revolution.
“It’s amazing that an artifact like this came out of the site where they’re building a museum about the American Revolution,” Yamin told National Geographic.
Although that’s the most intriguing find for laymen, there was much more contained in the privies: Print type from 18th- and 19th-century print shops shows fonts that were used at the time — no Comic Sans, unfortunately — and evidence of George Lippincott’s button factory which lasted from 1913 until World War II.
“It seems only fitting that such a complete story of the evolution of the city should be found on the site of a future museum,” Michael Quinn, president and chief executive of the Museum of the American Revolution, said in a news release. “These artifacts provide a tangible tie to Philadelphia’s past and help us tell the stories of people who lived right here before, during, and after the Revolutionary War.”
The museum itself, which is set to open April 19, 2017, will house many of the artifacts found right underneath it.