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Colonial Privy? Paul Revere's Outhouse Excavated in Boston

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Paul Revere is famous for his midnight ride, but now he might be celebrated — at least among archaeologists — for the contents of his outhouse, according to news sources.

On Sept. 26, archaeologists began excavating what appears to be a Colonial privy just outside the house of Nathaniel Hichborn, a cousin and next-door neighbor of Revere, according to a podcast produced by Boston's Museum of Science, the Smithsonian reported.

The likely outhouse has a rectangular shape, measuring about 4 feet by 6 feet (1.2 by 1.8 meters), Joe Bagley, city archaeologist of Boston, said on the podcast. In addition to using privies for, ahem, answering the call of nature, Colonial Americans also used them as trash cans, often throwing out papers and broken household goods, the Smithsonian reported.

"You'd fill it up with you-know-what, and then also your household waste, because everyone threw their trash out into that," Bagley told CBS. "We're hoping to find the individuals' waste themselves, which we can get seeds from what they were eating; we can find parasites, find out what their health was."

The excavation of the clay-lined toilet has already revealed some treasures, including the handle of a beer stein and pieces of coal, according to CBS. Doug Cope, a CBS reporter at the dig, snapped photos of the finds, tweeting, "Piece of beer stein from the 1700's found at archaeological dig outside Revere family property in the North End" and "pieces of coal found."

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"We love finding privies," Bagley told CBS. "We think we have one. The only way to find out is to dig down into it and see if it has that night soil – that kind of smelly, dark soils which are now composted and not that bad, but they might have a stench still, a little bit."

In 1650, Boston passed a law mandating that privies extend down at least 6 feet (1.8 m). But it's still unclear whether this one is that deep, although Bagely hopes it is: "I hope it's six feet deep, because that gives us the best opportunity to find a lot of things from multiple families," he told CBS.

Outhouses are a boon to archaeologists the world over. For instance, an ancient Jerusalem latrine contained the remains of Crusader excrement, which was infested with parasitic eggs, including those of whipworms (Trichuris trichiura) and giant roundworms (Ascaris lumbricoides). The finds showed that health conditions were wanting back then, Live Science previously reported.

Human parasites also infested the Roman Empire, according to a study of latrine soil, coprolites (fossilized excrement), burial dirt and textiles, Live Science reported in 2016.

Original article on Live Science.

Laura Geggel
As an associate editor for Live Science, Laura Geggel covers general science, including the environment, archaeology and amazing animals. She has written for The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site covering autism research. Laura grew up in Seattle and studied English literature and psychology at Washington University in St. Louis before completing her graduate degree in science writing at NYU. When not writing, you'll find Laura playing Ultimate Frisbee.