"Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future?" Jacqueline Kennedy

Friday, January 07, 2011

Digging Up Fragments Of The Past In A Backyard On Pierrepont Street

Digging up the past on Pierrepont Street

Jack Fortmeyer

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


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.

You may want to check out Scott Jordan's just released book Past Objects available here.

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.

An uncovered old cistern, which once caught and collected rain water

A look inside the cistern



Anonymous said...

I think its great that these guys can dig-up the past. Now adays we spend to much time in the present without learning whatever we can from those that came before us. However, a pit 15 feet deep without any protection to prevent to walls from falling in seems like a high price to pay for an education from the past

Yojimbot said...

Wicked cool stuff! I think your horse figurine is really a dog.

Katia said...

Wait, let me look at the photo again....
Horse? dog? Could it be a Greyhound?
What do others think?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Katia. I have been jonsing to see where these guys dig. I've been in the Atlantic Tunnel. Workers discarded old clay pipes etc.
That 15 foot wall isn't going anywhere. It's frozen solid. Too bad they haven't found old granny's tin box of gold!

Anonymous said...

What heppens to these artifacts?

Katia said...

No gold-filled box, at least not while I was there.

This pit was filled "professionally" as Eric Fortmeyer explained to me. The original home owner must have hired someone to have it filled in all at once with rocks and heavy dirt in the 1860's. That made this hole more difficult to dig out again.
In less affluent neighborhoods, the pit would have been filled in over time with coal ash, trash and broken household items. Coal ash is easier to dig, Eric said.

As far as the found items, the home owner gets to keep a few.
I suppose Fortmeyer, Jordan and the rest of the crew divide them amongst each other.
You can see found items from other digs on Jordan's web site:


Anonymous said...

It is cool stuff.
But for the concerned reader worried about the deep hole, the outhouse pit has a structural stone wall all the way down. This isn't like digging an open hole 15 feet deep.

Meredith said...

Archaeology is really cool, and Mr. Jordan and Mr. Fortmeyer should share their findings with others interested in the material record of our city's past by properly recording and publishing their findings. The context in which artifacts are found can often tell us more about the people who used them than the artifacts themselves. I fear that Mr. Jordan and Mr. Fortmeyer are not recording an analyzing this extremely important information and that it is now lost forever. I encourage these men to contact the staff at the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, members of The Professional Archaeologists of NYC, members of the Metropolitan Chapter of the NY State Archaeological Association, and/or many other professionally trained archaeolgists at area universities who would be happy to help them with proper recording and publishing.

Joan said...

Meredith is right on. It would be wonderful if the goals of the collector--to amass goodies to keep, trade, or sell--could be aligned with those of the professional--to amass the information these goodies reveal about the lives of those long-gone households that used the backyard privy. But that would be a more perfect world.