MEDICINE, MARBLES AND MAYHEM — NEW EXHIBIT AT THE CINCINNATI MUSEUM CENTER


A new exhibit on historical archaeology opens today at the the Cincinnati Museum Center! Its all about what you can learn from the contents of privies or outhouses. The exhibit is Medicine, Marbles and Mayhem and its a collaborative effort between Northern Kentucky University Masters of Public History and anthropology students and the Cincinnati Museum Center. Now, personally, I’ve never been all that interested in excavating privies, but it is absolutely amazing what occasionally turns up in these seemingly unlikely, but actually almost inevitable repositories of things people either wanted to disappear forever or things they accidentally dropped and just weren’t willing try to retrieve. So Im grateful to dedicated archaeologists, such as Bob Genheimer and his team at the Cincinnati Museum Center, for being willing to take there dirty jobs. One of the featured stories in the exhibit is The Policeman and the Privy. I wrote about this discovery in my column for the Columbus Dispatch back in 2006. That column is no longer available on the Dispatchs website, so I am re-posting it here with permission. __________________ Outhouse plunges researchers into mystery of policeman, schnapps Originally published in the Columbus Dispatch, 21 November 2006 Robert Genheimer, curator of archaeology at the Cincinnati Museum Center, made a remarkable discovery while excavating in a 19th-century privy in downtown Cincinnati. He and his team found a metal belt buckle stamped “POLICE,” 27 metal uniform buttons along with scraps of cloth, a pearl-handled .38-caliber pistol, 12 unfired bullets, and a police whistle with its chain. Scraps of a newspaper found near the uniform were dated April 1899. For Genheimer, “this is not just a data set. It is a look into the personal life of a longdead Cincinnatian.” A police officer appears to have ended his career by dumping his uniform and equipment down the shaft of an outhouse. Privies are fascinating time capsules for historical archaeologists. They often contain a variety of items that were accidentally dropped or casually discarded in a place that few would venture to retrieve them. The privy also is a private place where items could be discreetly disposed. Working with the Miami Purchase Association for Historic Preservation, Genheimer and his team excavated this privy in 1981. Since then, hes been trying to unravel the mystery behind this set of artifacts. The research became something of an obsession for Genheimer, and it’s easy to understand why. There is a compelling story waiting to be told. Who was this man and what circumstances might have driven him to do such a thing? Dumping his uniform in the toilet was a powerful symbolic act. The privy provides some additional clues. In the same level that contained the uniform, Genheimer found more than 40 complete or fragmentary schnapps bottles. Did this officer have an alcohol problem? Was he fired for that reason? Or was he drinking heavily because of job-related issues, which ultimately led him to quit the force in disgust? Or, perhaps, the schnapps bottles belonged to someone else who lived in the house. Genheimer acknowledges that “neither archaeology nor history will ever tell us the whole story” behind such a discovery. Nevertheless, it serves as a poignant reminder that the artifacts we recover are not just inanimate objects, but fragments of peoples lives, and each has a story to tell. It also demonstrates that archaeology occasionally can reveal episodes of remarkable personal intimacy. Genheimer presented a report on this work at the Midwestern Archaeological Conference held in October at Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. ____________________________ Since 2006, Bob Genheimer and his team have learned more about this no longer mysterious policeman. They know who he was and, while they may not know precisely why he left these objects in the privy, their research in the historical archives puts this dramatic act into context. I look forward to seeing the artifacts and learning more about this story and others at the Cincinnati Museum Centers new exhibit. Go soon! The exhibit only runs until May 26th! For more information about the exhibit, check out the museum’s webpage. Brad Lepper

Posted February 1, 2014
Topics: Archaeology

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