In a Philadelphia basement a family buried their pet dog and hamster with a doll’s head. More than 200 years later, archaeologists excavated the basement and found the curious burial ground. Why did the family bury their pets inside their home? What significance did the doll head have? No one knows, but a group of archaeologists working on the Digging I-95 project are studying a plethora of artifacts to learn about the lives of Philadelphians from the 1800s.
Working for the URS Corporation and led by Doug Mooney, these archaeologists are excavating sections of I-95 to ensure that valuable history is not destroyed when construction on the freeway begins. So far they have found many informative (and strange) things left behind by 19th-century Philadelphians. On July 17 I went to an exhibition at the First Presbyterian Church of Kensington to see what they dug up.
Many of the objects on display were made of glass. The neighborhood being excavated was once inhabited largely by employees of Dyottsville Glassworks, a major glass factory in the 17th century. During breaks or after work, workers would use their glass-blowing skills to create personal projects known as “whimsies.” Researchers have identified many of these objects in the I-95 site, including toys, glasses, and even lactation aids. The archaeologist presenting the glass lactation aid was not entirely sure how it was used. “It looks extremely uncomfortable,” a spectator commented.
Another archaeologist was using UV light to show what elements a drinking glass was made from. One of the glasses glowed yellowish-green under the light, indicating that it contained uranium. “Don’t worry,” the archaeologist assured onlookers. “There is not enough uranium to harm you. Unless you were to grind up the glass and eat it.” Uranium and other elements were used to add color to glass before the danger of radiation was fully understood.
At another table, an archaeologist explained how they recreated cologne recipes by cross-referencing labels on the empty bottles they found with the ingredients listed in historical books and magazines. According to The Virginia Housewife, making Hungarian Water requires “one pint spirits of wine, one ounce oil of rosemary, two drachms essence of ambergris.” It smells sort of like incense.
We’ll be talking to Doug Mooney and Deidre Kelleher (an archaeologist doing work at Philadelphia’s Elfreth’s Alley, which is right down the road from CHF) in August’s Distillations podcast about archaeology and chemistry. To listen to previous episodes of Distillations, look for it on iTunes or go to CHF’s website.
By Jacob Roberts