A Privy Full of Goat Skulls: The Archaeology of 936 St. Peter Street
Part of The City Beneath the City: Archaeology of New Orleans tour
In 2014, the University of New Orleans was invited to conduct archaeological testing at 936 St. Peter Street while the property was undergoing renovations. Below the surface layer, archaeologists discovered the opening of a privy shaft. The privy was brick-lined with a wood-lined base.
The privy deposit appeared to represent a single, rapid deposition, probably within the time frame of the 1860s. This rapid deposition likely happened at the time of a clean-out and renovation of the rear building, when the use of this privy was abandoned due perhaps to shifting use of the outbuilding. The privy fill contained a significant quantity of typical domestic debris from the mid-nineteenth century: ceramic tablewares, including whiteware, ironstone, and porcelain; chamber pots; glass bottles; and smoking pipes. What stood out most during the excavation of the privy was the abundance of animal remains, especially the number of elements from skulls. When a rough count was taken of the entire assemblage, the privy feature was found to contain a total of 147 Caprine (goat or sheep) skulls.
So, what could explain the heavy presence of goat and/or sheep skulls in the privy feature at 936 St. Peter Street? There are, of course, a number of cuisines in which brains are a delicacy, and dishes, particularly stews, in which goat heads play a prominent role, especially in African and Caribbean cultures. However, certain features of this assemblage taken together with other artifacts from the privy suggest that the faunal assemblage recovered from the privy at 936 St. Peter Street is representative of more than just urban diets.
An analysis of the butchery marks found on faunal material can indicate differences in patterns of faunal utilization. Analysts recorded the number of cuts, chops, fractures, shears, and saw marks present on each bone to determine if there were differences in butchery methods between different species. Most of the bones that were present were utilized as typical food sources and were from the postcranial skeleton. Some of these bones were either sawn or shorn (as with a sharp cleaver), marks that are typically made by a butcher or someone familiar with animal slaughter. However, an inordinate number of the butchery marks present on Caprine remains were indicative of cracking into the skulls to retrieve the brains inside, as evidenced by shearing and chop marks across the back of the skulls.
It is likely that the abundance of goat skulls and their associated butchery patterns represent the production waste from household-level tanning and hide processing, probably for use in fine leather work. Historical documents and ethnohistorical observations note the use of animal brains in the process of hide tanning, particularly when making buckskin. The sheer quantity of goat skulls in relation to other skeletal elements point to the likelihood that the goat brains were being put to a use in manufacturing rather than being consumed.
Some of the other artifacts from the privy also support the connection of the assemblage to leatherwork. An abundance of cuprous metal straight pins, some occurring in clumps corroded together, were found within the privy fill along with thimbles, buttons, and hook and eye fasteners. While these items are not atypical finds at urban sites, their abundance is suggestive. Likewise, household production is suggested by some other artifacts in the assemblage, including knives, folded strap-metal, and a lace bobbin, all of which may be associated with hide production and its associated activities.
The growth of industrialization and urbanization in the late-eighteenth century had far reaching impacts on developing cities. Urban centers, like New Orleans, rapidly became crowded and dirty. Modes of production were centered around the household with production typically taking place within household lots or near the residences of employers. But as the city continued to expand during the nineteenth century, concerns over sanitation and urban waste disposal resulted in the segregation of nuisance industries, such as slaughterhouses and tanneries, to the outskirts of town. Still, small-scale manufacturing persisted, with household-level production only loosely regulated, despite the potential health issues it could generate.
This historical shift from cottage to commercial industry resulting from urban growth provides a lens through which we may interpret the archaeological assemblage at 936 St. Peter Street. This property was a very small urban lot in what had come to be a distinctly residential area by this time, and it is not hard to imagine the foul mess that the work of splitting hundreds of animal skulls and extracting the brains would incur in a residential yard . The noisome byproduct, and likely the complaints from neighboring tenants, may explain the rapid deposition of the privy contents and the renovation of the outbuilding in the 1860s. Perhaps the landlord at 936 St. Peter and/or their neighbors were no longer willing to tolerate a back yard covered in blood and Caprine effluvia. Rather than cleaning out privy contents from this period, the landlord or new residents instead built a completely new outbuilding and privy altogether, burying the putrid cranial decay until archaeological excavations uncovered it a century and a half later.