It sounds like the start of a joke, but it’s true: You can learn a lot about Baltimore history by looking through old toilets.
That is what Evan Woodard, 35, also known as Salvage Arc, and his friends have been doing nearly every weekend for two years now. The guys excavate old privies around the city, prying up concrete and asphalt and digging down through layers of soil to discover artifacts left by those who lived here more than a century ago. It turns out there are old privies just about everywhere in the city — and each is a portal to the past.
Thunk, scritch. Thunk, scritch. Thunk, scritch.
This is the sound of the earth opening in a parking lot in West Baltimore’s Seton Hill neighborhood. On a recent Saturday, Woodard and crew use a metal pole to start the dig in a lot belonging to the Urban League of Baltimore, which has invited them. Once a row of small brick homes stood here, facing the Orchard Street Church, and each had a small privy, or outhouse, behind it. “It was basically the house’s trash can before there was trash pickup,” Woodard says.
The sharp green smell of broken ivy roots seeps up from the hole. The guys set up a tripod to support ropes to haul up buckets of dirt. There’s Matt Palmer, a missions defense system designer; Chris Rowell, an antiques dealer; Phil Edmonds, a bottle collector; Ryan McCloskey, an architect; and Patrick Treece, a vet tech. Edmonds’ partner, Eileen Kurtz, welcomes onlookers who have come to observe the dig, which Woodard promoted on his Instagram account to mark the two-year anniversary of his privy-digging initiative.
As the men work, a brick circular tunnel appears inside the hole, the walls of a privy built at least 150 years ago. The dirt is fine and sandy and, to answer the most pressing question, does not at all smell bad. The earth has reclaimed the human waste and other organic materials that once filled the hole, turning it back into soil. What remains is the ephemera of human life: medicine bottles and marbles, dishes and dolls, pipes and makeup pots.
Thunk, thunk, clang. Thunk, thunk, clang.
Woodard emerges from the hole covered in a fine scrim of dirt and sweat, yet smiling radiantly. Despite the August heat, he has the buoyancy of someone who is delighting his inner child. He grew up in Laurel, a history buff since childhood. He is not a professional archaeologist; he works in cyber security and was, until recently, the head of cyber security for the Ravens. (He now works for a Washington, D.C. law firm.)
He and Palmer have been friends since 2006, based on their shared love of adventure. The two have explored abandoned buildings, prisons, tunnels and coal mines. The two friends briefly fell out of touch, but at the height of the pandemic in 2020, Palmer discovered that Woodard was living just a few blocks away from him in Patterson Park. Perhaps he wanted to start adventuring again? Another friend mentioned that he had discovered an old privy in the yard of his Fells Point home. The rest is history.
Woodard scours old maps to discover probable sites of abandoned privies, then seeks the permission of property owners to dig. The outline of many of these old privies can be spotted through asphalt, a slight depression about the diameter of a car tire. Most were in use during the 1800s. When the city switched to a sewer system following the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, homeowners were told to clean out their privies, fill them with ash, dirt or bricks and cover them up. Most have remained that way for more than a century, each containing clues to the people who once lived nearby.
“All the research I do for my regular job taught me how to do the research for this,” Woodard says. In addition to studying maps and land plats, he delves into the stories of pottery, patent medicines and other objects that the crew discovers. He restores old vases like real-life 3-D puzzles and has recently taught himself to refurbish antique tools, cleaning an old hatchet head in an electrolysis tank and attaching it to a new handle.
Woodard and his friends cover the costs of materials for the dig, and they fill and patch the hole, making the site more stable for the future, he says. For Saturday’s dig, they spend about $50 on bags of cement to fill and cap the hole. The guys divide the finds between them, but donate notable items to the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Woodard recoups some of his investment by making and selling candles fashioned from antique bottles and pendants created out of broken pottery.
The crew has unearthed fantastical objects across the city, particularly in older neighborhoods. There was a hex bottle in Mount Vernon filled with hair, nail clippings, teeth, pins and a tiny cutout of a human figure. They found an old pistol in this same row of privies in Seton Hill. Woodard says he would love to dig up the area around the Popeye’s parking lot in East Baltimore near Johns Hopkins Hospital, which is also one of the oldest inhabited areas of the city.
Swoosh, dump. Swoosh, dump. Hey!
Woodard triumphantly holds up the first find of the day, a shard of blue-and-white pottery. “We’re going to start rolling now,” he says.
He places it on a folding table where a crowd of about a dozen people has come to view the results of the dig. A bunch of bricks come up from the hole, apparently used to fill up space when the privy was closed.
“Those are handmade bricks,” says Edmonds. “Sometimes you can see fingerprints on them.”
Now Palmer is about 12 feet down into the hole and the dirt is coming up more quickly. The guys take turns sifting the dirt in a series of metal screens they crafted. They dump the dirt in one tray, vigorously roll it back and forth and scan the remaining contents. As a mountain of sandy soil grows beneath the trays, objects start arriving more frequently.
There’s a white cosmetic pot marked with the “Mum” brand and manufactured in Philadelphia. The bowl of a clay pipe, decorated with intricate swirls. The neck of a champagne bottle, iridescent with age. (The Seton Hill area was once the hub of the city’s French immigrant community, Woodard says, and many people brought bottles of champagne and perfume from their homeland.) There are the heads of two ceramic dolls, flowing hair and cherubic cheeks, eyes crusted with dirt. An inkwell. A small blue bottle of Bromo Seltzer, once manufactured here in Baltimore. A fragment of a comb. The soles of two tiny shoes, improbably still not completely absorbed into the earth.
“It’s a socially acceptable way to go treasure hunting as an adult,” says Katie Labor, 32, a doctoral student from Riverside, inspecting the table of artifacts. “These little things are seemingly worthless, but tell us about who used to live here. It makes you wonder what else lies beneath us.”
Meesha McDonald, 29, a radio producer from Randallstown, bends over the tables of objects, inspecting tiny bottles that once held perfume and patent medicines. “It makes me wonder about the people who used these things, what life was like for them back then,” she says. “It speaks to their class and how much money they had.”
Woodard walks to the table again and again, each time hoisting new objects proudly, like an obstetrician showing off a newborn baby to excited family members. There’s a bottle of medicine — dark, oily and still corked — marked “George Weller, pharmacist, Baltimore, MD.” A glass syringe. A rat’s skull. A vial that once contained Mrs. Winslows’ Soothing Syrup, a morphine-laced medicine for teething babies that tragically led to many deaths.
The objects that come up from the hole are cool to the touch, but the air in the hole is hot and humid, the guys say. “It’s womblike,” says Palmer. After a long day of digging, nearly all of their muscles are sore. Their fingernails never look clean, no matter how much they scrub. But that doesn’t matter now. There is still so much soil to shift through.
Rattle, rattle, scrabble, scrabble, clink, clink, crash.
The frames roll back and forth. Droplets of sweat fall from the men’s faces. Fragments of pottery, including the curved handle of a pitcher, clink into a bucket. There’s a candy dish decorated with purple and green. Buttons. A vertebra of an animal. And then a set of dentures, one tooth missing. “This probably fell out of someone’s mouth right into the privy,” Woodard says.
Rowell, the antiques dealer, has been digging privies like these in the city for decades. Once there were several teams of guys that would do this, but now there’s just this crew, he says. They keep in touch with groups who do similar work in other old cities, including Philadelphia, Camden, N.J., San Francisco and London. “Some of them are very pretentious, and I’m like, ‘Dude, you dig in the dirt all day. Calm down,’ ” says Rowell.
Then the call comes from down in the hole: the bottom. It’s about 18 feet deep, not as big as some of the privies on the block the team has dug before. Not the most exciting hole they have excavated, but a pretty satisfying Saturday morning. Woodard takes a swig of Pedialyte, surveys the artifacts laid out on the table and invites some onlookers to peep down into the depths. Soon it will be time to start refilling the hole, mixing up concrete and closing this door to the past.
“It’s the thrill of the chase,” says Woodard. “It’s like gambling but less expensive.”