Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Shooting Up in the Old West Volume 55 Number 3, May/June 2002
by Eric A. Powell

A syringe found beneath charred floorboards in a late nineteenth-century Nevada boomtown has given archaeologists an unprecedented glimpse of health care (or perhaps recreational drug use) in the Old West. Julie Schablitsky, an archaeologist at Portland State University, excavated a house in what was once a small, ethnically diverse neighborhood between Virginia City's Chinatown and its bustling red-light district. Documents show that in the 1870s the house had been a dressmakers shop and the home of an English immigrant family. But records were silent on occupants prior to 1873.

While excavating beneath the floorboards, she came upon a glass hypodermic syringe, along with six metal needles. The syringe tested positive for morphine, which was in widespread use during the period. "It was no problem to get morphine, in fact, it was cheaper than alcohol," says Schablitsky. On a hunch the morphine residue might offer more information, she had the artifacts tested for DNA, which, thanks to the arid climate, was still on the syringe and some of the needles.

Analysis showed the syringe was used by at least four people, both men and women, one of whom might have been of African descent. While Schablitsky considered the possibility that a group used the syringe to inject morphine recreationally, a more likely scenario is that a doctor working in the house once relied on the syringe to treat multiple patients. A urethral irrigator, used to relieve symptoms of venereal disease, was also found. Schablitsky points out that a doctor's office near the red-light district would have done a brisk business.


(Julie Schablitsky) [LARGER IMAGE]

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America