Bottle and Privies in North Dakota: An Indigenous Archaeology

My Friday afternoon house cleaning was interrupted last week by a knock on my door. A 20-something guy in a sleeveless t-shirt and jeans asked if I was an archaeologist and if I would look at a couple of artifacts that he had purchased. I’m a curious guy, so of course I wanted to see the artifacts (and the last few times people have asked me to identify interesting artifact, they’ve ended up being pretty weird things and that’s even more fun). I’ve found that North Dakotans, in general, have an interest in archaeology and history 

Needless to say, I couldn’t identify objects that he had acquired, but as we talked, he explained to me that he made a living excavating 19th and 20th privies and selling and trading the bottles that he finds in them. He explained that he had excavated over 500 privies in his career, how he found them, and that he did so with permission of property owners. 

My gut reaction was the same as any archaeologist might have: “ugh, please don’t do that.” Instead, I asked him frankly whether me telling him to stop would cause him to stop. He said “no.” At that point, I felt like we could have a more open conversation about his methods, practices, and goals. I’m assuming, for the most part, that he was being honest with me about his approach to finding privies and that his reasons for excavating them. 

1. Passion for Bottles. He explained that his real motivation to dig up privies was not to make himself rich on excavated artifacts, but because he just really liked bottles. This wasn’t some kind of naive passion either. He clearly understood the history and typologies of glass bottle making in the region and could identify, date, and link bottles to particular places of manufacture and circulation.

2. Methods. His approach to finding privies was remarkably sophisticated. I let him prospect in the backyard of my late-19th house. He used a home made spring-steel probe with a hollow handle and started with depressions in the backyard working outward from an axis formed by the backdoor of the house. As he worked the backyard with his probe, he described the various sounds that the probe made as it passed through subsurface levels identifying some the grinding noise as “stove ash” and unsuccessfully searching for a lightly compacted area that would be the house’s outhouse. 

He also described successful efforts at using the old plat books for towns and then going to the now abandoned townsites and mapping in the individual lots on the ground. Then, it would be possible to find the location of the houses and their privies for excavation. This is a genuinely sophisticated and thoughtful approach to mapping a site prior to excavation.

Finally, he has started to take GPS points for each of his privy sites over the past year or so, mapping in over 100 privies that he’s excavated in the Red River valley and he can, in many cases, connect bottles to particular sites.  

3. Excavation. It is clear that his excavation practices are not stratigraphic, but this isn’t to say that he didn’t make careful observations about the formation processes that created privy shafts and their deposits. For example, he understood that privies were sometimes cleaned out leaving layers of earlier material on the bottom. And he recognized the different shapes of privy pits and the levels of backfilling and post-abandonment activities that formed a cap on the privy,

In short, his understanding of stratigraphy and formation processes demonstrated that he wasn’t just digging holes looking for artifacts, but recognized how artifacts made their way into deposits and how artifacts served to date individual depositional events.

4. Publishing. We talked a good bit about his collection of bottles from the Red River valley in eastern North Dakota and his desire to make his collection better known. While one could assign questionable motives here – a desire to improve the value of his collection or to gain renown or whatever, our conversation demonstrated a certain earnestness. He wanted to publish his collection because he understood its value, and he recognized its value because as a collector and a kind of archaeologists, he noticed a gap in the academic tradition that he used to identify and date his finds. Publishing his work is a way to make what he does useful and to preserve his work for future generations.

 

While I don’t condone his methods, I found his approach to his passion fascinating and I was impressed with how developed his methods and practices were. His work demonstrated a deep familiarity with a very limited kind of archaeological context and gave me renewed appreciation for the wide range of indigenous archaeological practices in use. My hope is to encourage him to give his records over to an archive, to publish what he knows, and to think about how to make his collection serve the public good. We’ll see how far I get!

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