During an archaeological survey at Ashland, the estate of politician, farmer, and horse breeder Henry Clay in Lexington, Kentucky, historic archaeologists discovered an old privy used from 1860 to the 1920s. Filled with thousands of artifacts, it was remarkable for the number and variety of ceramic vessels it produced: more than 900 in all. In this segment from Historic Archaeology: Beneath Kentucky’s Field and Streets, Dr. Kim McBride discusses the discovery and analysis of the artifacts archaeologists found in the Ashland privy and nearby slave quarters, and how the analysis of vessels provides insights into upper class life in the Bluegrass.
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Henry Clay was one of the most important political leaders of his day. Born in 1777, he moved to Kentucky in 1797. He was a lawyer, and in 1803, he was elected to the state legislature. He went on to become a United States Senator, Speaker of the House of the United States House of Representatives, and Secretary of State.
Nicknamed “The Great Compromiser,” Henry Clay is remembered as the author of the Compromise of 1850, a package of five bills intended to keep a balance between slavery and anti-slavery interests in the new territories of the United States. The Compromise of 1850 eased mounting tensions between the North and the South for several years, delaying the outbreak of the Civil War.
Henry Clay was also a farmer and horse breeder. He established an estate on the outskirts of Lexington, where he built a mansion for his family in 1809. He named his estate Ashland because of the many ash trees on the property. The estate’s main cash crop was hemp, which was raised and harvested by enslaved African Americans owned by Henry Clay. Today, Ashland is a National Historic Landmark. Thousands of people visit Ashland every year to see the home of this famous statesman and to learn what life was like before the Civil War.
Have you ever wondered how people learn about the past? Sometimes there are written records, like property deeds, wills, newspaper stories, letters, or journals that historians can study to find out what happened in the past. In the case of a famous politician like Henry Clay, there are thousands of written documents. These are called “primary sources” because they come from the time that is being studied. When someone writes a feature article or a history text book telling about the past, that is called a “secondary source” because it is based on the information found in the primary sources.
But not all the information about the past is included in written records. The written records often leave out interesting information about day-to-day living. For example, what was life like in the grand mansion at Ashland? What kind of dishes did they use? What did they eat for supper? What was life like in the slave quarters? These are the kinds of questions that are usually not answered in the written records. How else might we learn about the past?
Archaeologists are scientists who are trained to locate, identify, and interpret artifacts from the past. Artifacts are objects made or used by people, as opposed to fossils, which are the fossilized remains of living things (animals or plants).
Where do archaeologists find artifacts? Sometimes in very unusual places. Archaeologists who were looking for artifacts at Ashland found an amazing collection of artifacts in the privy. A privy is an outside toilet. Privies were also used as places to throw away discarded items, like broken dishes or toys. Archaeologists can learn a lot about how people lived by sorting through the things they throw away, so archaeologists always check privies to learn more about the lifestyles of people of the past.
Most of the artifacts found in the privy at Ashland were dishes, some of which were very fancy and expensive. Since the privies were used many years ago, all the human waste has turned into dirt, so it is not a nasty job, as it might sound. The archeologists researching the plantation expected to find some artifacts in the privy, but they never dreamed of finding such a collection!
The artifacts were carefully recovered, sorted, cataloged, and taken to the laboratory, where they were analyzed. The archaeologists were able to fit many of the pieces together to see what the dishes had looked like before they were thrown away. They were also able to determine where many of the sets of dishes were made. The archaeologists also found pieces of broken dishes in the slave quarters of the estate. By comparing the dishes found in the privy, which came from the main house, and the dishes from the slave quarters, archaeologists were able to make some educated guesses about life on the estate, both in the main house and in the slave quarters.
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