Bottles and Plates and a Cat – Oh My!

For five weeks in the early spring of 1980, Mid-Atlantic Archaeological Research, Inc. of Delaware conducted emergency archaeological excavations in downtown Baltimore at the site of the Federal Reserve Bank (18BC27). This section of the city was settled in the late 18th century and served as a residential neighborhood into the 20th century. The excavations revealed a number of late 18th- and early 19th-century privies and wells that were recorded and excavated during the short field session, which was made difficult by cold, wet weather and large construction equipment working at close quarters with the archaeologists.
Archaeologists working under less-than-ideal conditions at 18BC27.Figure 1.  Archaeologists working under less-than-ideal field conditions at the Federal Reserve Site.

For a number of reasons, artifact analysis and report preparation did not occur at the time of the excavation. The collections are curated at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab and recently an effort has begun to catalog and write up some of the archaeological features uncovered during the excavation.

Recent analysis of a rectangular brick lined privy pit has turned up a typical array of early 19th century artifacts—most of a black glazed red earthenware chamberpot (perhaps for use on those cold or rainy nights when going outside to the privy seemed too much), a grey salt glazed stoneware storage crock, several nice Chinese porcelain plates, some wheel engraved wine glasses, wine bottles, window glass and a nice assortment of seeds (the residents at this house seemed to favor cherries, peaches, grapes and pumpkins!).

But one group of artifacts was a bit unsettling – at least for a cat owner like me. Bones representing the complete skeleton of a grown cat were found along with all the other household debris in the privy. What was going on here? A little delving into archaeological journals reveals that this discovery was far from unusual. It turns out that cat remains are a fairly common occurrence in 19th-century urban privies like this one. Urban residents were left with few options for disposing of dead animals and often laws prohibited them from leaving them on the street or throwing them in nearby bodies of water. Throwing a deceased cat (whether a pet or a feral nuisance) into a privy was a handy way to take care of this problem. One has to remember as well that the current perception of cats as beloved pets has not always held true. Over the course of just the last three hundred or so years, cats have been viewed variously as disease vectors, as harbingers of bad luck and as manifestations of witches. Thus, what seems to readers today an ignominious ending in an urban privy would not have been considered such in the 19th century!

Figure 2. Formerly feral felines who did not end up in a privy!Kittens


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