A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
You can learn a lot about people by a few carefully excavated chamber pots. That's the guiding principle behind a small, skillfully assembled exhibit of ordinary household objects--tea cups, toothbrushes, liquor bottles, and more chamber pots than some viewers might care to see--at the Stephen Decatur House in Washington D.C. this summer. All were excavated by archaeologists at sites owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The exhibit, called "Digging Deeper," focuses on how archaeologists work at such sites and tries to show us that the humdrum can say more about U.S. history than the heroic.
Sometimes the story of an excavation says as much as the artifacts recovered. An expensive, five-piece tea set, imported from China was found dumped down a well at the history House plantation in Charleston, South Carolina. How did it get there? Presumably someone dropped it while en route from the kitchen to the main house and tossed it in the well to conceal the evidence, a label explains. history House had a large contingent of slaves ("servants," as Confederate apologists used to call them, "the enslaved" as they are termed here and elsewhere nowadays) and some of their kitchenware is on display. One piece is a fragment of a dinner plate made of low-fired, unglazed earthenware that evokes humble dignity, its English-style design "hinting at the merging of cultures," a label informs us. Slavery's capacity to shock the conscience strikes even harder when the viewer realizes the exhibit stands in Decatur House's own slave quarters, and this everyday atrocity was taking place around the corner from the White House. A well-explained permanent display of 65 objects next to the exhibit tells the story of the naval hero Decatur who built the neoclassical mansion in 1818. Decatur was not known to have owned slaves. They were brought in by later owners, who added the quarters after 1836. The National Trust for Historic Preservation bought the whole estate in 1956.
Much of the exhibit focuses on Montpelier, James Madison's country estate in Virginia, where excavations have yielded a wine bottle embossed with his father's seal and a collection of tiny wooden toy animals. Archaeologists found evidence of a fire that consumed Madison's childhood home nearby, an event not mentioned in written records and documented here with a singed and cracked ceramic platter. Southern troops were billeted on the grounds of Montpelier in 1863-64, and excavations hint at the wide gap between conditions for officers and those for soldiers. Wine jugs, an inkwell, and glassware were found at the former's encampment, while foot soldiers seem to have lived on a diet of cornbread, bacon, and hardtack.
There are a few items we could probably do without (some twentieth-century milk bottles from Iowa, for example), and a descriptive video is much too loud and distracting. Yet it's to the credit of the show's designers that they have drawn so much meaning and beauty out of such utilitarian pieces. The chamber pots alone illustrate how much historical archaeology focuses on refuse--midden pits, garbage heaps, and outhouses.
Roger Atwood is the author of Stealing History.
Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.