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An Artifact of Safe Drinking Water January 22, 2002
by Charles L. Fisher, Aaron Gore, and Nancy Davis

[image] Water-filtering jug found in a ninteenth-century cistern (Courtesy New York State Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]

Today, Albany, New York, supplies high-quality water to its residents, but this has not always been the case. As in many other American cities during the 1800s, rapid growth resulted in numerous problems with water quality. Archaeologists from the New York State Museum have discovered an unusual, perforated stoneware jug in a brick cistern that provides evidence of residents' efforts to protect themselves from unhealthy water.

The jug was found during the recent construction of a parking garage for New York State employees in Albany, when archaeologists from the New York State Museum were called to investigate several underground brick structures. Archaeologists excavated them--finding artifacts dating between 1880 and 1900--and discovered that the interiors were parged, coated to be watertight. This led to the conclusion that these were cisterns, used for individual homes constructed there in the mid-nineteenth century.

Brick walls divided the cisterns into three or four interior compartments that would have let heavy particles settle out of the water. After the incoming water filled the first compartment, the cleaned water would flow over the top of the wall into the next compartment where the process was repeated. In this way, the water would have been relatively free from large objects before it reached the last compartment.

In one cistern, archaeologists found a densely packed layer of charcoal over and around a stoneware jug in the final compartment. The stoneware jug, 14 inches high and punctured with tiny holes, was on a layer of gravel at the bottom with a pipe containing a tar-like residue connected to the top. After the larger particles were allowed to settle out of the water in the other compartments of the cistern, a pump connected to the jug's pipe could have been used to draw the water through the charcoal and the preforations of the jug, filtering it before it was brought into the house for use.

Receipts saved by the city water department indicate that the houses were connected to the city water system by the 1850s. So why did these houses have brick cisterns for water storage, and why were the cisterns then abandoned at the turn of the century? With help from the city water department, archaeologists went to the city water system records to find an explanation for this filtering system.

The rapidly growing population of Albany in the nineteenth century required more water than the earlier system could supply. In 1875, a station was built to pump large quantities of water from the Hudson River--the point of discharge for many communities' sewer systems. The Albany pumping station drew up the river water and filtered it through a mere copper screen before delivering it to the city residents.

This shift to the river as the source of water impacted the health of the inhabitants. More than 500 cases of typhoid were reported in 1891 and 600 cases the following year. The city responded by constructing a modern sand-filter water plant in 1899. This was a major improvement, but the water contained high coliform levels until the regular addition of chlorine to the system began in 1909. Some individuals responded by maintaining earlier systems of collecting water in cisterns for use, insuring clean, drinkable water for their families by constructing innovative, charcoal filters to treat their water before bringing it into their homes.

Charles L. Fisher, Aaron Gore, and Nancy Davis, New York State Museum

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America