A Quick Peek Under Over-the-Rhine
Posted On: 10/16/2017 - 12:51pm, Posted By: Bob Genheimer, Curator of Archaeology
People often ask me where I find places to work. Well, sometimes it just happens during lunch. While walking back to my car on a beautiful March day in Over-the-Rhine, something caught my eye more than 200 feet away in a neighboring block – at least three areas of black soil eroding out of a disturbed escarpment at the edge of an empty lot. A quick walk confirmed my suspicions – each represented a deep feature at the rear or along the edge of a demolished 19th century house. The house once stood on Pleasant Street north of 15th, an area like much of Over-the-Rhine that is currently undergoing either renovation or the placement of new in-fill housing. One of the features was clearly a brick-lined cistern, but the two near the rear of the lot were of more interest because each exhibited a wide range of mid-19th century artifacts such as pottery, glass, buttons, and marbles.
After obtaining permission to investigate the features, Museum Center archaeologists, interns, adjuncts, and volunteers began the arduous task of exposing them and removing their upper sections that had been badly damaged by heavy equipment. The largest of the features, Feature 1, measuring nearly a meter in diameter, was a brick-lined privy or outhouse shaft (Figure 1). These shafts served not only as toilets, but also as the locus of household trash. Due to the nature of their use, privy shafts also served as the venue of unusual or secretive deposits. Unfortunately, the admixture of modern with 19th century debris indicated that the feature had already been excavated.
Figure 1. Remnants of a brick-lined circular privy shaft.
Figure 2. Excavating Feature 3 along disturbed escarpment.
Figure 3. Feature 3 after excavation. Note a portion of Feature 4 in foreground.
On the opposite site of the lot, a smaller, rectangular, wood-lined privy (Feature 3) was located. Measuring approximately 2 meters by 0.9 meters, this privy had only been partially disturbed by lot clearance, and had not been dug by modern excavators (Figures 2 and 3). In addition to architectural debris, this privy produced a significant quantity of pottery, bottle glass, butchered animal bone, marbles, buttons, metal, clay smoking pipes, and vulcanized rubber artifacts, all dating to the first half of the 19th century (Figures 4, 5, and 6). The most significant temporal diagnostic was an 1845 large cent that only showed moderate wear. Another wood-lined privy (Feature 4) was noted at the north end of Feature 3, however heavy equipment had nearly completely destroyed it.
Figure 4. Early to mid-19th century whiteware ceramics from Feature 3. Top (L-R): green and blue edge-decorated wares. Bottom (L-R): blue transfer and blue hand-painted wares.
Figure 5. Clay marbles from Feature 3.
Figure 6. Clay (kaolin) smoking pipe bowls from Feature 3. The bowl second from left is a “TD” pipe.
The remaining feature, Feature 2, was extremely interesting, but its original use remains a mystery. Located on the rear lot line, Feature 2 consisted of a large rectangular brick box about 1.6 meters long by 1.1 meters in width. Not only did the base of the box show evidence of extreme heat, it also exhibited a double crescent of bricks designed to hold a metal vat (Figure 7). Clearly, the feature was utilized to heat something in the vat, but what? In the absence of corroborating artifacts it has been hypothesized that it could have been used for rendering lye. Given the intensity of burning on the bricks and underlying soil and its potential use, it is likely this feature would have produced a lot of heat, smoke, and odor, and therefore could have been a nuisance at these tightly spaced 19th century urban lots.
Figure 7. Feature 2 with all contents removed. Note brick crescents for holding vats.
Of particular interest, each of the three features produced pottery wasters (production by-products) or kiln furniture from either a redware or yellow ware pottery (Figure 8). A check of historic records indicates that Uzziah Kendall operated a pottery at the head (near what is now Liberty) of Race Street from 1831 through at least 1853. For much of the first decade (1831-1841), he produced redware and stoneware, and from 1842 to at least 1853, he and his sons produced yellow ware. Considering his pottery was located less than 450 feet north of the features on Pleasant Street, the Kendall pottery is almost certainly the source of the wasters and kiln props.
Figure 8. Ceramic wasters and kiln furniture from surface near Features 1 and 2. Top: unglazed banded yellow ware vessel fragments. Bottom (L-R): redware sagger wads (utilized to stack kiln saggers) with a pumpkin-colored lead glaze; yellow ware kiln prop utilized to stack vessels in a sagger
These features on Pleasant Street are not isolated occurrences. They were visible because their profiles had been exposed by heavy equipment. In reality, they are present at nearly all 19th century urban lots. And, because some of these features can exceed 15, 20, or even 25 feet in depth, at least portions can remain at lots that have been heavily disturbed. So, the next time you are in Over-the-Rhine, think about what’s underneath.