Digging up the past on Pierrepont Street
Scott Jordan in the 15' deep pit
Jordan with some of the unearthed treasures
Fragments from Brooklyn's past
A broken horse and a figurine
A bottle of Barry's Tricopherous for the skin and hair
Some of the intact bottles found in the dig
Just a few days ago, I had the great opportunity to check out an urban archeological dig in the back yard of a house on Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights. Built in 1852, the townhouse will undergo renovation shortly, but in the meantime, the owner has allowed urban archeologists Scott Jordan and Jack Fortmeyer to dig far down into what was once the outhouse pit in the back yard. The two are well known in Brooklyn. Over decades, they have unearthed countless unique artifacts in these abandoned privies. Along with coal ash and refuse, common household objects were discarded and used as fill to close the pits when, in the 1860's, Brooklyn started building its sewer infrastructure, making indoor plumbing possible.
The privy pit of this particular house was wider than others the two men have encountered. This may be because the house, along with its neighbors, was built at the same time, one for the original owner and the others for the owner's two daughters. It is conceivable that the family used one larger instead of three smaller outhouses.
It was freezing cold the day I visited the site, and the sun was about to set, but Formeyer, together with his son Eric and a friend, were still standing around the huge hole that they had dug over two days. Scott Jordan was inside the 15' deep pit, sending up bucket after bucket of wet earth, which the others heaved up with the use of a pulley. The crew had already recovered many wonderful objects, which lay on a blue tarp nearby. Broken cups and plates, fragments of mixing bowls, pickle jars, chamber pots, and pieces of glass. But the men also found unbroken bottles like the beautiful iridescent "Barry's Tricopherous for the skin and hair" bottle above. The most moving objects by far were a pair of legs from a doll, a delicate white porcelain horse which was broken in half and a lovely little statuette of a woman.
While we were waiting for Jordan to send up more treasures, Jack Fortmeyer, a retired fireman, reminisced about the many outhouse pits that he has dug up over the last 35 years. He doesn't remember them all. "Recently, I looked out of a back window of a restaurant on Atlantic Avenue, thinking that there probably is a pit out there. I asked the owner if I could dig in her back yard. She started laughing and wouldn't stop, so I asked her what was funny. She explained that I had already dug up the yard 15 years ago." Fortmeyer shook his head in bemusement. "I lose track" he said.
In addition to the outdoor privy, an old cistern was also uncovered in the back yard. Cisterns like this were used to gather rainwater run-off from the roof. The water was then used to clean or launder.
An old 'green' idea, which is making a come-back here in Brooklyn.