To dig or not to dig

To dig or not to dig
Artifacts found from Leveille’s 50th dig on Queen Street. (Photo Tom Leveille)

By Kassidy McDonald

For the past 10 years, Tom Leveille has dedicated his career and field work to privy digs in Alexandria on the weekends. Most recently, Leveille completed his 51st dig in the city last month at a 19th century duplex on North Pitt Street. Although his excursions have yielded excitement from many community members, they’ve also raised the eyebrows of city officials.

Leveille, who has completed more than 500 privy digs in total, developed a love for archaeology during college. Leveille attended Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia for undergraduate studies where he planned to major in geology. One day he decided to buy a gold pan be- cause he “was enamored with the hands-on stuff.”

“There’s this little tiny creek off of 495 that you can pan for gold and apparently there was an old mill on that site. And I was shoveling stuff into a bucket one day and this old bottle fell out of the bank. And it had all this writing on it,” Leveille said. “I basically fell in love with it to the point where I changed my major in college to pursue archaeology instead of geology. And I basically have done it on the weekends ever since, sometimes more than once a week.”

Privy digging is a form of archaeological excavation where century-old outhouses are dug up. The goal of this dig is to find historical artifacts that were once discarded in the privy by people who have lived at the location of the home. Leveille said the outhouses were built of “wood, brick or stone” and “constructed at various depths.”

Due to the 19th century’s lack of local garbage pickup, people threw away trash and unwanted items in their outhouses and they became buried over time.
Alexandria’s plumbing system was interconnected for a long time, Leveille said, which makes it a perfect spot for privy digging because most old houses have them in their backyards, sometimes spanning across two properties.

“From the colonial time period all the way up until about the 1920s is when Alexandria utilized privies. The town had municipal wells, across the old borders, so it was up to each individual house to take care of their own property,” Leveille said.

This means that homeowners could just throw trash or unwanted items in their backyard privy and then not clean it out. Technically, privies aren’t supposed to have items in them because they were supposed to be cleaned out by the people that lived there, but as Leveille has found in Alexandria, that is not usually the case.

While some people welcome Leveille’s privy digging process, he found that others completely oppose the idea.

“Basically, what I do is I talk to folks that live in the early houses to see if they’d be [interested in] the idea of learning a little bit of history through the context of the people who lived there. It’s like a mixed bag in Alexandria, some folks really love the idea. Then other people have spent an outrageous amount of money on their gardens and would prefer it not be dug up kind of thing,” Leveille said.

According to Leveille, one can discern many details about the people who once lived there based on the artifacts, which to him is what makes the digs so special.

“You can tell what their children were sick with. You can tell what their favorite flavor of soda was. You could tell exactly what they ate for dinner for months on end,” Leveille said. “You could tell what decorations they liked on their pottery in their house. There’s just so many different things that you can pick out of their day to day life from the things they left behind that you can’t exactly tell from just looking at the house.”

Leveille has found particular success in Old Town, where he’s discovered many artifacts such as old bottles and pottery. He speculates that this is because the people who lived in Old Town were wealthier “once upon a time.” There’s no place quite like it for privy digging, according to Leveille. Leveille and his four-to- six-member team are adamant about sharing their discoveries.

“It’s not like some pirate raiders … or like a lot of like TV shows about people who do digging. It gets made out into some like pirate thing but yeah, it’s not like that. There’s so much of the stuff that comes out of these things that we always want everybody involved to be happy. Nobody’s paying us. We just do this because we like the history,” Leveille said.

Alexandria is one of the few cities in the country that has an Archaeological Commission that is dedicated to protecting and preserving the rich history of the city. The city has had professional archae- ologists working on staff since the 1960s.

They too enjoy the history found in privies from centuries ago and what type of stories it can tell, but the Alexandria Archaeological Commission has an opposing approach to
Leveille’s mindset.

City archaeologists prefer not to dig privies up if there isn’t an urgent need for repairing a sinkhole. It becomes important for the AAC, which is a citizen’s group, to preserve these privies because it “gives archaeologists and historians references to look back at if they find another, ” AAC Chair Ivy Whitlatch said.

The city’s website includes a step-by-step guide on back yard archaeology in Alexandria, and what to do if you encounter a privy or well on your property. The guide serves as a resource to residents to “show how you can save history, fix your sinkhole, and become one of Alexandria’s Archaeology Protectors,” according to the website.

Step three on the website specifically outlines the difference between the AAC’s approach and that of Leveille: they usually don’t dig.

“City of Alexandria Archaeologists won’t disturb or dig the area. We want to record the information and advise that the best practice is to keep the possible well or privy in place for future generations,” the site says.

City Archaeologist Eleanor Breen said the “primary role is to partner with residents to share info about Alexandria’s history.”

“If you are approached by a person asking to dig your yard who is not a City of Alexandria archaeologist, please call us at 703.746.4399,” the site says. Knocking on doors is the ap- proach Leveille and his team take most weekends when they want to dig in someone’s backyard.

The Zebra published an article about Leveille’s city digging efforts in 2020, which led Whitlach to write a Letter to the Editor in response, expressing her disappointment that incorrectly conducted digs often result in history not being documented.

“Finding old bottles certainly can be exciting, but if excavated properly, we can discover who owned them, what food they ate, and other details of their lives. Without context, objects, even the smallest fragments, are robbed of a great deal of their power to tell a story and help us learn more about our past,” Whitlatch wrote in her letter.

Whitlach said that the archaeologists are here to help. She encouraged homeowners to reach out to the city about a privy or well in their back yard, adding that Alexandria’s archaeologists are a great resource the city has made readily available to its residents.
The history behind these privies doesn’t only date to colonial times. Information on more recent eras, such as Alexandria’s Prohibition history, can be gleaned from bottles and other artifacts inside privies.

“It is not just always the early days of Alexandria [found in privies], there are stories from prohibition. It is a continuously evolved story under the ground,” Whitlach said.

Breen also emphasized the importance of keeping privies intact to better understand the Prohibition era in Alexandria.

“One of the many research questions we have is how did prohibition affect the use and discard of glass bottles in early 20th century Alexandria households? This and other questions are best answered from the archaeologically excavated collections curated with Alexandria Archaeology and possibly in buried features to be archaeologically excavated in the future. Wells and privies and all the artifact fragments they contain offer a snapshot into family life in Alexandria over many time periods,” Breen said in an email.

Although the AAC and Leveille’s team have different opinions on how to go about dealing with the privies and their historical artifacts, they share something in common: a love for history and a desire to share it with Alexandria’s residents.

For the AAC, this looks like recording and documenting information, keeping the privy in place for future generations and giving tours and lessons in Alexandria’s Archaeology Museum, located on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory Art Center, to teach residents more about the history behind the city.

For Leveille, this looks like giving artifacts to the homeowners of the properties he’s dug, sharing images of his finds on his Instagram page and eventually getting skilled enough with the team’s Go-Pro to livestream their digs for the public’s enjoyment.

“One of my dreams is making archaeology accessible to everybody. I feel like museums do a great job of letting people see kind of like the finished work of archaeology, or you know, whatever the given thing is the museum represents, but being able to watch it live is kind of a different perspective. I want to bring it to the table,” Leveille said.