Monday, June 24, 2013

Privy, or pigeon house?

For four days over fall break in 2012, a group of graduate students and volunteers came out to French’s Tavern. Among other activities, we excavated a 5’ x 5’ ft. unit to try to find additional post holes associated with the post-in-ground building we’d uncovered during the summer.  We succeeded in locating the three post holes; two of very similar size and fill and a third that looks very different. We didn’t have time to excavate them, but the two similar post holes are exactly in the right place to complete the circular arrangement of posts that we’d found earlier. Using straight walls to connect the posts would have resulted in an octagonal building, 7 ½ feet in diameter, with posts set at 3 ft. intervals. The wall facing due east was a bit longer at 3 ½ ft., and may be where the door was located.

Over the winter we processed the artifacts from the features that we had excavated to try to date the building. The post holes, which relate to the construction of the building, contained a variety of artifacts, including brick and daub, lime mortar, oyster shell, a lead shot, a straight pin, window glass, creamware, and pearlware. The post molds, which were filled when the building was no longer standing, contained similar artifacts, with the earliest date for construction, and destruction (known as the terminus post quem) set by undecorated fragments of pearlware. Pearlware was produced in England from 1779 to 1830. There are artifacts in the plow zone above the features that date later than pearlware. The fact that none of these items was deposited in the fill of the features suggests that the features were already filled in (and therefore the building was abandoned) before the later artifacts were thrown away. By this logic, our building probably stood sometime after the American Revolution and was torn down sometime before 1830.
Who was living on the property during this period? Thomas and Martha Jefferson sold the land in 1777 to their brother-in-law, Henry Skipwith. He might have built our octagonal building, but he already owned an extensive plantation, where he lived, in nearby Cumberland County (a place he called Hors du Monde). It is not clear why he would have built our structure. In 1798, Skipwith sold the portion of the property where our site is located to Francis Eppes Harris, Martha Jefferson’s cousin. Harris had grown up on land adjacent to Indian Camp and owned other property close by. Harris operated a store and a tavern on the property from 1798 to 1807. It seems likely that the construction of the octagonal building is associated with his ownership. 
The building we found stood about 100 ft. west of the west entrance of Harris’ store, which is annexed to the back of the tavern. What purpose did it serve? Historically, there are examples of small octagonal buildings serving as privies (outhouses) and as dovecotes or “pigeon houses”. Our building shows no evidence of a privy pit; however, waste may have been simply drained out into the yard, or been periodically collected from beneath the building, as was done at Poplar Forest. The archaeological footprint of the building is quite close in size to the surviving brick privies designed by Jefferson. Another possibility is that the building was a dovecote or “pigeon house” as they were known in the eighteenth century. Englishman Daniel Girton, in his 1785 book  The new and complete pigeon fancyer; or, modern treatise on domestic pigeons noted that:

“Pigeon houses of various forms and sizes, built of various materials, but mostly of wood, are to be seen in farmyards, the yards of inns and gentlemen’s courtyards, chiefly inhabited by pigeons kept for the table…”(Girton 1785:36-37).

He advised pigeon-keepers that round structures were preferable to square as they made it more difficult for rats to gain entry and made it easier for keepers to position a ladder when accessing nests, which were to be placed at least 4ft. from the ground. The size of the structure depended on the numbers of pigeons to be housed there.

How might we tell the difference, based on archaeological evidence, between the two building types, which had very different functions? Both would have generated significant amounts of waste, which would show up, on an undisturbed site, with high levels of phosphorus in the soil. However, the site continued to be used after the building was abandoned or torn down, so subsequent activities might have impacted soil chemistry. Artifacts specifically associated with privies or dovecotes would be few. Perhaps the best way of distinguishing between them will be to look at the broader landscape around them to see what other buildings, plantings, fencelines, or other features were associated with this building.

No comments:

Post a Comment