Archeology Class Term Paper

Introduction by Maggie (eshrink’s daughter and official editor of the eshrinkblog: My dad is taking his archeology class seriously. Below is his class assignment. He has decided on a third career…he will be Ohio Smith…leave no outhouse left unturned.


September 14, 2014

Nancy Hamblin, Ph.D

Ohio University

Zanesville, OH 43701


Dear Dr. Hamblin,

This letter is written with two purposes in mind.  First, I wish to thank you for a very enjoyable learning experience under your tutelage, but my second reason is to ask for your expertise in helping me identify a recently discovered artifact.

Since I do recall from my class that context is important in identifying artifacts, let me explain how I came to be in possession of this one.  You may be pleased to learn that as a result of your inspirational lectures, I have decided to embark on a new career.  It is my intention to become Muskingum County’s top archeologist.  I believe that as I expand my sphere of influence in the field I may eventually be addressed as Ohio Smith.

To that end, I contacted a former patient who had told me of his hobby as a bottle collector, and that most of his prizes were found in excavations of the sites of outhouses near abandoned homes.  This person had been referred to me from a diversion program after he had been accused of extorting money from an elderly lady; however he had assured me that this was not true and he was very believable. He was quite gracious, and showed me his extensive collection of Zanesville swirl bottles, which I had been told were quite rare.  He even offered to sell me one at a very reasonable price. When I told him I preferred to make my own discoveries, he was so pleased at my dedication that he offered to sponsor me for membership in the Privy Prospector’s Society of Southeastern Ohio in spite of my lack of field experience.  There was of course a nominal initiation fee and dues, which seemed a bargain for the privilege of being able to consult with a group of experienced privy archeologists.  Sadly, when I later called him back to learn when the next meeting was scheduled, he informed me that the club had disbanded in a fit of jealous rage over his collection of Zanesville swirls, and that the club’s treasurer had absconded with the organization’s funds.

Although disappointed, my enthusiasm was undimmed for I was determined to become a top gun in the field of archeology.  I felt it was appropriate that I begin my quest by probing the sites which had been occupied by outhouses, since few people are old enough to have had as much direct experience as I have had.  As a matter of fact, I have fond memories of summer days in my grandparent’s two-holer (I don’t remember ever seeing both holes used at the same time, but I assume they were for emergency situations).  It was here that I learned to multi task for while performing normal excretory functions I was able to peruse the previous year’s Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward catalogs, and catch a glimpse of the lingerie section without being chastised.  Of course the catalogs were there to serve a more utilitarian function, and the glossy pages always seemed to remain after all the others were gone.

My experience was not limited to utilization, for I had been involved in the maintenance and logistics of the facility, which were not as simple as you might think.  Slaked lime was used liberally in order to minimize the odor and discourage flies.  These outdoor toilets came in different sizes and configurations, but were usually built on skids to facilitate moving them when the pit beneath them was nearly full.  A modest one-holer might be only four or five feet square while others were much larger, and more luxurious.  I recall visiting one in which the owner had installed modern toilet seats similar to those still in use today.  I found it to be a very useful innovation as it solved the splinter problem.   Privies  of course were built from wood, some painted and others not.  Although there was a popular metaphor used by some uncouth youth to describe a well-endowed young lady as “built like a brick s…. house,” I don’t believe such a structure ever existed.  Research done in preparation for my first expedition answered a burning question, which had haunted me for years (e.g. why the crescent opening in most privy doors?)  The answer I discovered is that it was a symbol representing the female gender, used in colonial days when it was considered very poor taste for women to use the same facility as men.  The men’s privy was identified by a star.  Apparently the tradition continued long after its symbolism was lost, and men became interlopers.

I vividly recall the day probably 70 or more years ago, when I was drafted by my grandfather to help move the privy.  Of course it meant digging the new pit, and since the soil was quite sandy, lining it with cast off boards from the local sawmill to prevent a cave in.  Precision was required in order to assure proper placement of the building over the pit.  This was made even more difficult by Jack, Uncle Cale’s white mule, who proved to be a recalcitrant participant when asked to tow the privy to its new location.

In those days when to waste was regarded as sinful, that which was unused was burned since there were no waste disposal services.  Therefore, that which would not burn was often deposited in the privy.  This would prove to become a rich source of artifacts for us modern day archeologists.  I realized that privy prospecting was unlikely to lead to discovery of prehistoric artifacts; however I felt the process of discovery was similar in all digs, and the experience would help me develop the skills needed to succeed in my newly chosen field.  I hope you have not been bored with all this information, but I found it necessary in order to establish my bona fides as knowledgeable or even expert regarding the subject of privies.

You taught us the importance of site selection, and I had no trouble with that as I had chosen the two abandoned villages of Irville and Nashport on State Route 146, which were only one-half mile apart from each other. Both were vacated in the late 1950s when the Dillon Dam was built.  Most of the houses in Nashport were moved a few miles west, and the community retained its identity. Although some of the houses in Irville were moved to other locales, there was no attempt to preserve the town itself.

Nashport was founded in 1827 by Thomas Nash who is said to have been a farmer and inn keeper.  His town was built on the banks of the Ohio Canal, which had opened to traffic in the same year.   This marvel of engineering that connected Lake Erie with the Ohio River was expected to stimulate commerce in previously inaccessible portions of Ohio.  Mr. Nash must have felt that his port, midway between the canal’s origin and termination, would be in a strategic location to profit from the boom that was expected to follow.  The success of the canal systems was short lived; however as they would soon be supplanted by the iron horse. The remnants of the canal are still visible. As a matter of fact, in my childhood, portions were populated by huge carp that I unsuccessfully shot at with bow and arrow.  I do look back fondly on those times spent on my Grandparents farm situated on the edge of Irville.

Nashport was also the site of an Adena Indian mound, which is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.  It stood behind Salty Settles General Store and had been plundered by souvenir hunters long before my time. I understand it was explored by professional archeologists in 1975, but am not aware of the yield.  Another larger mound could be seen from my Grandfather’s back yard. It sat atop the area’s tallest hill overlooking the valley.  I am told it has subsequently been discovered, but I am not aware if it has been excavated.  Collection of Native American artifacts (I am trying to be politically correct ) was considered the province of boys in those days, and we were often able to find arrow heads and spear points by following the breaking plow as it turned the furrows.  A couple of days later the arrow would be dragged over the ground to break up the furrows and this could be even more productive.   As you can imagine, finding one of these artifacts was sure to provoke feelings of wonder as to how it got there and what or who had been the target.

I have been unable to find any written history of Irville, and the only evidence of its existence is the cemetery that bordered the farm. My ancestors from at least three generations are buried there. However, there was a great deal of verbal history to be had in the back of Charley Railey’s General Store.  There was always a group of older residents who assembled six nights a week around the pot belly stove to discuss every subject imaginable, except for politics, which had been declared off limits do to the fact that the one democrat in the group tended to become belligerent in such debates.  My acceptance as an adolescent into this group was probably due to my rapt attention as they told stories about “the good old days.” I suspect they enjoyed an audience for already much of what they had learned from their parents was no longer relevant in a culture in which a burgeoning technology no longer relied on the color of the wooly worm to predict the weather

These loafers as they were called provided some verbal history of Irville.  In addition to the stories about various pranks perpetrated in their childhoods, they had much information about the village going back to the early nineteenth century; although they could not recall specific dates.  For example, Joe McCann said that the Nether’s house had once been a stagecoach stop and later was a stop on the Underground Railroad.  Others confirmed this was what had been told to them by their parents and furthermore they agreed that there had once been a tunnel under the road leading to a sister house on the other side of the main road to the village so that fugitive slaves could move from one house to the other to avoid the slave chasers.  Although all were aware of the mound in Nashport, they knew little of the natives who had originally inhabited the area.  I do recall talk of how arrow heads were so plentiful as to not be considered novelties.

With this background information in mind, I now set about to: 1) establish my goal for the dig, 2) decide upon the exact site, 3) procure the proper equipment, and 4) get appropriate permission, as per what I learned in your class. I felt that I would be able to finance the dig independently, which would allow me to proceed without delay.  My goal was to look for artifacts dating back to the canal days. Consequently, it would only make sense that I concentrate on the Nashport area and the area closest to the old canal bed.  As for equipment, I had a pick and shovel in the garage, a trowel, and several old paint brushes.  I did require a visit to the hardware store to buy a machete like instrument that the clerk told me was designed to clear brush.  I was unable to find a pith helmet, but a tour of the local Goodwill store turned up a well used felt hat, a near replica of the one worn by my hero Indiana Jones.  My only major purchase was for a metal detector, as I was confident that tin cans and other metal objects would likely have been discarded when the privies were moved. The area I planned to excavate was owned by the Muskingum Conservancy District so I asked a neighbor who happens to be a County Commissioner for permission to dig, and he said he didn’t care, but warned me to stay away from the Indian mounds.

Finally the preparations were complete and I set off on my virgin dig with great hopes that I would be able to contribute to the history of the region. I soon found that things change a great deal in a half century or more, and I spent a good bit of time searching for landmarks.  The bucolic countryside of my youth had become an overgrown forest, and was now virtually impassable except for occasional paths used by fishermen on their way to the lake.  The old road through the village was still visible and I was finally able to identify the steps to the Methodist church, which I had climbed many times often under duress.  From there I was able to proceed westward to where I thought the canal had been; although this section was not visible.  I found cutting through the thick brush and briars quite exhausting, and had no hits except for an occasional beer can.

As I was about to give up for the day, I entered a vine covered clearing and my metal detector suddenly came to life. I felt certain  I must have hit the mother lode.  Sure enough, my trowel immediately struck metal on the first thrust. And I was soon turning up rusted cans from only a few inches below the surface.  There were also many unidentifiable glass shards, and one intact “mason” jar inside of which was the artifact in question.

As you can see from the accompanying photograph, the object is about 7 inches long with a wooden handle attached to a pear shaped weighty end. Initially, I thought the bulbous end of the object must be stone because of its weight; however its texture is very smooth, there is crazing on the end of it and I since have noted a very small figure 9 where it is joined to the handle.  All this suggests to me that it is ceramic. The handle is perfectly round as if turned on a lathe.  It is made of a very dense hardwood with an irregular grain suggesting it came from the burl probably of a maple tree.  The narrow end is blackened in spots, but these areas do not have the appearance of having been charred, but rather look like some type of stain.  There are also a few spots of a white substance which can be scraped off with the fingernail.

Although this is obviously not a prehistoric artifact, I am hopeful that it may prove to be related to the history of the canal. It does not appear as something that would be effective as a weapon, and seems much too small to be used as a metate.  If you have any ideas or can suggest references which could help in its identification, I would be most grateful.  I was forced to leave the site prematurely after noting the vines in the area were poison ivy. I plan to return to complete the excavation when my recuperation is complete.  In the tradition of archeologists past and present I will not be deterred by assaults on my body by a hostile environment; consequently I did manage to make a brief visit to spray the area with weed killer.  I look forward to hearing from you if your busy schedule permits.



Darell Smith MD


Letter #2

Dear Dr. Hamblin,

You will be pleased to learn that I have been able to complete the identification of the artifact. I am well on my way to full recovery of the dermatitis venenata with the help of massive doses of corticosteroids, and was able to return to the site of my excavations.  Research regarding the poison ivy revealed that it can still be dangerous after it is killed; therefore I needed to take special measures to prevent another disabling rash.  The protective clothing was a bit uncomfortable since the temperature almost reached ninety degrees, but I remained determined to find the answer to the mystery of the Nashport artifact.

To that end I set to work and after several hours of careful excavations came upon 3 small pottery shards which appeared to be of the same material as the end of my artifact. They were nearly ½ inch thick, and when put together indicated they had been part of a small round dish which I estimated must have been about 5 inches in outside diameter.  There was some staining of the inside of the shards which appeared to be a match to those seen on the handle of my artifact.  Thus I concluded that this instrument had been used as a kind of miniature metate, but was much too small to have been useful as a tool for grinding grain.

The next layer uncovered produced an intact glass bottle with a ground glass stopper which would prove to unravel the mystery for I immediately recognized it as an apothecary bottle of the type used in medical facilities a hundred or more years ago.  It then dawned on me that my artifact had been used to compound medications, was a pestle, and the shards part of the mortar.

There had only been only one medical facility in Nashport, and I was dumbfounded to realize that I was beginning my Archeology career in the same place where I had begun my life as I realized this must be the site of Dr. Welles’ hospital. Dr. Welles was a beloved family physician who had added a couple of rooms to his office in order to deliver babies in a state of the art facility rather than in the home.  I was apparently one of his first deliveries there, and I am told my father, a truck driver at the time, participated by administering ether during the delivery. Dr. Welles subsequently committed suicide, but I deny any responsibility.   My last visit to Dr. Welles’ replacement was for treatment for a spiral fracture of the humerus sustained when attempting to mount Jake Davis’ draft horse by jumping from a fence post.

There was no doubt in my mind that fate had played a role in choosing a site for my first dig. Thank you for choosing not to respond to my first letter, as I take that as your confidence in me to solve the problem.



Darell Smith MD










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