IT may only be a 300-year-old privy, but to archaeologists it
holds a wealth of information about 17th-century Boston.
An excavation - what one archaeologist calls "possibly the most
significant Colonial-era find in North America" - has laid bare
the brick foundation and contents of an outhouse belonging to one
Katherine Nanny, very late of Boston and Charlestown, once widowed,
once divorced, and according to historical records, perhaps the
target of a poisoning attempt by an abusive husband.
Researchers this week displayed artifacts from the privy that
served her home from about 1670 to 1730.
Though digging up an outhouse may not sound as profound as, say,
unearthing King Tut's house, listen to what Sally Pendleton of the
Office of Public Archaeology at Boston University has to say:
"In an urban context, almost anything you find is significant.
When you find a privy, which can contain evidence of many levels of
cultural activity, it's very significant."
Road project leads to find
The 360-cubic-foot holding tank was unearthed in advance of a
major highway project in the city. It contains many objects
expected to be found at the site that will yield fresh insights
into 17th-century New England life.
It is symbolic of the way scientists across the country are
piecing together parts of America's past through the rapidly
expanding field of urban archaeology.
They are being aided by new technology and an ark-full of
preservation laws that require authorities to save relics before
moving in with backhoes.
From Maryland to California, states and even cities have passed
laws that mirror the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. A
key provision of the federal law requires that the impact on
cultural resources be considered in projects involving federal
funds or efforts to comply with federal regulations.
The law has played "a tremendous role" in uncovering
significant archaeological sites, says Robert Brooks, president of
the National Association of State Archaeologists.
The site here is one of four discovered as part of efforts to
comply with the federal statute. It was initially surveyed in 1988
as plans were being laid to move the city's elevated "central
artery," a stretch of Interstate 93, below ground.
Ironically, the foundation for a pier supporting the elevated
highway, which was built in the mid-1950s, came within inches of
Two years ago researchers dug sample trenches to find out if the
site was worth further exploration.
Excited by what they found, but facing the onset of winter,
researchers back-filled the trenches. They returned three weeks ago
to complete the excavation.
Mrs. Nanny's privy, which dates only to about 40 years after
Boston was founded, "is the earliest privy I'm familiar with
anywhere on this side of the Atlantic," says Lauren Cook, one of
the principal investigators. …