Recording the Feature
Archaeologists excavate not only to find artifacts, but also to identify their context, since where the artifact is foundcan be even more important than what the artifact is. For instance, a teacup found in Privy 507 is just a cup for drinking tea. But when you find it with other pieces of a matching gilded tea set, fancy dinner plates and cut crystal goblets, you may be able to identify a household in which ‘keeping up with the Jones' was of great importance.
To preserve information on an artifact's context, and the processes by which an archaeological feature was created, archaeologists go to great lengths to record the feature's stratigraphy. Archaeological features are recorded using black and white and color photographs before, during and after excavation. Excavators are videotaped discussing the feature they are working on, and pointing out unusual points about its construction or stratigraphy. Detailed drawings are made of the feature both from the plan view (i.e. from above) and the section view (i.e. from the side). In addition, archaeologists try to observe the feature closely as they excavate it, making notes on Context sheets about the textures or colors of soils, types of artifacts found, excavation techniques used, and samples taken so as to help the researcher back in the lab understand the feature.
Working down through the layers of Privy 507, the archaeologist takes notes and makes observations that reveal the privy’s lifetime of use. It had been built into the sand dunes bordering San Francisco Bay, and lined with redwood boards to stop the sand caving in. During its lifetime of use as a latrine, the privy accumulated “night soils” or primary privy fill that would have been regularly mucked out and hauled away for uses such as fertilizer. The privy was abandoned and filled in about 1871. Once the privy had been abandoned as a latrine it began to be used as a dumping area for household refuse. Context 651 at the bottom of the privy consisted of the remaining primary privy fill mixed in with dense quantities of household refuse. Sand and silt then crept in to form several layers, before Context 668, which contained large numbers of artifacts was created. The artifacts in this context were found in distinct concentrations: perhaps they had been carted out from the house in bucket loads and poured into the now-disused privy. Other layers of silty sand mixed with artifacts accumulated on top of Context 668, gradually filling the privy hole. A brick footing was cut into the upper layers of Privy 507, possibly as part of the outbuilding shown on the 1887 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map. Over time buildings were removed, the land was leveled and covered with gravel and asphalt, and the area of Privy 507 was transformed into a parking lot.
As they are pulled out of the earth, the artifacts themselves give the archaeologist a snapshot of Privy 507’s users. The manufacturing methods of the bottles indicate that they were dumped into the privy sometime in the 1870s. Delicate gilded and hand-painted porcelain cups suggest that the privy’s users may have been well off. Butchered bones indicate a diet rich in beef, pork, fish, and mutton. Once back in the lab, research and analysis combined with the archaeologist’s field notes will refine these first impressions into a more substantial, detailed portrait of the users of Privy 507.