Long-drops from long ago

It’s something so mundane that it forms a part of our everyday lives and it’s as inescapable as death and taxes. Even though we spoke of it last week on the blog, it’s something people don’t often speak about and it’s something we all have a very private and personal relationship with. In fact, this topic harbors so much taboo that it’s widely considered impolite to discuss one’s poo. I’m sorry!

Our evasion of our natural bodily processes was probably not always the norm. The Romans gifted us the first predecessor of a plumbed “toilet” – which consisted of a flowing water channel over which a series of hollow seats were sometimes built. But the Romans didn’t break down any of the aforementioned taboo walls… (in a sense, because they never built any walls in their latrines anyway). Instead, their public toilets were a communal affair, where a one handled their daily task sitting alongside his neighbor. They shared not only their sounds, smells and over all experience, but they even shared the cleaning sponge stick – the ancestor of our disposable toilet paper (side note – this is where the phrase ‘don’t get the wrong end of the stick’ derives).

However, when considering the attitudes of our conservative Victorian ancestors, it’s not hard to imagine the air of confidentiality that surrounded their ‘bathroom’ visits. The emergence of this modern western concept of privacy and secrecy during these practices is probably largely due to the evolution of the latrine structure itself, which eventually developed from a hole dug in a field to an enclosed, single occupancy arrangement. In this secluded situation, outsiders don’t specifically know what is taking place during these intimate moments and society sort of lost the concept of what was considered normal bodily functions. As result, secrecy, euphemisms and comical deflection ensued. [Insert toilet humour here].

We’re going to dive into these messy issues today as we discuss this less than glamorous topic of the Victorian privies/long-drops we have found. Before the days of flushing toilets and hand sanitiser, the citizens of 19th century Christchurch usually took care of their “business” in outhouses in their backyards. These tended to be situated at the rear of their property, within convenient stumbling distance of the house for ease of night-time visits (Butcher & Smith 2010).

An archaeologist sitting in a cesspit. Image: H. Williams.

We’ve found quite a few of these features on Christchurch archaeological sites, and it appears that it wasn’t just private human waste that was being deposited down the loo. The plethora of rubbish we find in them is very similar to the refuse found in domestic rubbish pits, an indication that privies were also used as a place to discard normal household items like table ware dishes and broken glass bottles. What is not always immediately apparent is why privies were used as a garbage disposal shoot in every case. Our data seems to show that the Christchurch Victorians often filled in their long-drops with household refuse when they ceased to be used. It also seems very logical that in the possible haste that one can sometimes be under to relieve oneself, or while fumbling about with way too many layers of intricate Victorian clothing, something might accidentally drop from a pocket down the hatch. If this had happened to me, I personally wouldn’t have gone reaching into a long-drop to fish out any lost possessions. But as well as that, it’s possible that this dark (and conveniently open), hole in the ground offered an opportune receptacle to throw out the odd plate fragment that someone may have accidentally broken… perhaps wanting to hide the evidence from a mother or wife?

… But the evidence doesn’t always stay hidden. Us nosy archaeologists come snooping 150-odd years later and we don’t tend to mind getting our hands a little dirty (once this ‘matter’ has decomposed). We will find the things that have been dropped in deliberately, accidentally or sneakily, although we may not always be able to tell the difference.

A typical privy showing how these features look when first found, half sectioned and then fully removed. This one had timber at the base. Image: J. Garland.

The image above is a typical example of an excavated long-drop. In this case, no structural features such as building foundations or post holes were found surrounding the privy, but it was almost certainly originally covered. The feature itself was roughly square in shape, and relatively deep when compared with the (much shallower) features that were found elsewhere on the section. This suggested that it was dug for a purpose (at this point we need not mention this purpose) other than rubbish disposal, a great example of a dis-used latrine that was filled in with refuse at a later date.

A collection of some of the unfortunate ceramic forms that had been dropped off down this loo. Image: J. Garland.

An archaeological deposit of toilet rubbish… or deposit of rubbish toilets? The image on the left shows an in situ deposit that was almost exclusively broken up sanitary ware (wash basins and toilet pans etc). The picture on the right is one of these fragments up close, which was made by Doulton and Co. ca. 1882-1891. This feature was found on the site inhabited by the Taylor and Oakley firm, who exhibited “toilet seats and other articles, painted and artistically decorated” at the Christchurch exhibition in 1884 (Star 12/1/1884: 4). It is likely that this assemblage represents broken or wasted stock from the commercial enterprise which had been deliberately smashed for easier disposal. Image: H.Williams and J. Garland.

Even if any of these forms represented broken items that had been hidden down the toilet, our finds aren’t getting anyone in trouble 150 years later. Where these clumsy individuals may have gotten caught out is when these privies were cleaned and emptied. Previous research on domestic archaeological sites the in U.S.A indicates that the typical life cycle of a privy included episodes of deposition and cleaning. The regularity of cleaning would depend on the rapidity of filling and this would naturally be related to the size of the privy, the number of users, and the kinds of deposition (Lee Decker 1994: 356). This research also suggests that some privies may have been filled in as short a time as six months, while other studies have suggested that the filling process extended over a period of several decades (Lee Decker 1994: 356). Such clean outs of privies may have been performed by a member of the household rather than a licensed ‘night soil man’ (Lee Decker 1994:356). Hamish Williams has discussed the night soil man on the blog before, – he told us that “the cargo of this fantastic public servant was collected from one’s property in the wee hours, carted away then dumped on the fringes of town. From 1886 in Christchurch, a specially converted tram was employed between the hours of midnight and 5am to take tanks of ‘night soil’ waste out to the Council’s newly established ‘rubbish reserve’ in Linwood (Alexander 1985:11). This service cost a household seven pennies a week (Clark 1878:14).”

Recently, I had the privilege (?) of analysing an artefact assemblage that came from a very special (probable) privy in Central Christchurch. Shown below, this latrine was located on the property of Cyrus Davie and his family. Davie was an early European settler to Christchurch and was employed as the town surveyor in Christchurch’s infancy. The first family home on his section was constructed by 1855, and the long-drop or cesspit feature in question was conveniently located near the site of this dwelling. This likely privy feature was identified as such because privies/long-drops are generally narrow and deep, while cesspits are generally wider then they are deep (this one had properties of the latter but due to the extent of the earthworks planed on this site, it was not able to be excavated completely).

The stratigraphic profiles of the privy feature. Image: S. Dooley.

What’s extra exciting about this site is that we found two additional, irregularly shaped deposits of dark soil, containing artefacts that were ‘scat-tered’ everywhere. These deposits were located elsewhere on the section and were identified as probable deposits of night soil (human waste). The archaeological contexts and artefact similarities identified between these deposits and the privy feature suggested that they were temporally related and it’s likely that the two night soil deposits represented clean out waste from the long drop. We also found a Thomas Hide and Edward De Carle token in one of these deposits. This may represent one of those items that were accidentally dropped down the throne, never to be seen again. After all, who actually wants to throw their money down the toilet?

One of the probable night soil deposits. The cross-section of the feature is shown on the left, and the feature after excavation is shown on the right. Image: P. Mitchell.

Wasted money… This Thomas Hide and Edward De Carle token was found in one of the night soil deposit features. It would have been used in lieu of normal currency (across the ditch), for this Melbourne Based grocery, wine and spirit merchants between 1857 and 1861 (Museums Victoria 2017). Image: J. Garland.

As mentioned, privy features are a type of deposit that can accumulate over a long period of time, but the artefacts from this example appeared to have been recovered from the same stratigraphic layer. The two night soil deposits were found in a relatively secure context – underneath another building on the property that were known to have been constructed by 1862. If these features do relate to a privy and the associated clean out deposits, the privy would have been conveniently located to the east of the main Davie house, while the privy clean out deposits would be located much further away from main house. This would have been preferable for smell and hygiene reasons.

So, while it seems most likely that this wealth of human excrement once belonged to the Davie family, they were not the only 19th century inhabitants of this section. For one short year, in 1881, the Davies leased their home to none other than Sir Julius Von Haast (the German explorer, geologist and the founder of Canterbury Museum). So maybe, just maybe, the archaeologists who excavated these features were privy to the private fecal matter of one of New Zealand’s most famous European settlers.

Chelsea Dickson




Alexander, M., 1985. Rails in the roads – the steam and horse tram era in Christchurch. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Transport Board / Tramway Historical Society.

Butcher, M. & Smith, I., 2010. Talking trash: classifying rubbish-bearing deposits from colonial New Zealand sites. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 1(1): 43-61.

Clark, W. 1878. Drainage Scheme for Christchurch and the Suburbs [Online] Available at: http://canterbury.royalcommission.govt.nz/documents-by-key/20110929.36

Garland, J., Webb, K. J., Haley, J. and Bone, K., 2015. The Music Centre, 150, 154 and 156 Armagh Street: Report on Archaeological Investigations, Vol. 1. Unpublished report for The Music Centre.

LeeDecker, C. H. 1994. Discard Behaviour on Domestic Historic Sites: Evaluation of Contexts for the Interpretation of Household Consumption Patterns. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Vol. 1(4): 345-375.

Museums Victoria Collections 2017. [online] Available at: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/55261 [Accessed 09 October 2017].

Williams, H., Garland, J. and Geary Nichol, R., 2016. Christchurch Justice & Emergency Services Precinct archaeological report. Unpublished report for the Ministry of Justice.

Wilson, J., 1989. Christchurch: swamp to city. A Short History of the Christchurch Drainage Board. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Drainage Board.