Digging into Little Rock's past: Early bathroom edition | Arkansas Blog

Friday, November 4, 2016

Digging into Little Rock's past: Early bathroom edition

Posted By on Fri, Nov 4, 2016 at 2:43 PM

click to enlarge Archeologists Elizabeth Horton (foreground) and Jodi Barnes measure the mysterious structure.
  • Archeologists Elizabeth Horton (foreground) and Jodi Barnes measure the mysterious structure.

Construction workers building a parking lot on the south side of Third Street between Pulaski and Cross behind a house being restored by Laura Winning and Carol Worley came across a huge convex concrete structure with a hole in the top and Winning, wanting to know what it was and getting the OK from her contractor, contacted preservationist Tim McKuin. He got them in touch with archeologists who, as it turned out, were in town for a meeting and agreed to come take a look.

Dr. Elizabeth Horton, the Arkansas Archeological Survey archeologist at Toltec Mounds State Park, and Dr. Jodi Barnes, survey archeologist at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, started digging the structure this morning. A deft backhoe operator bit off a bit of the concrete cap so archeologists could peer below. Horton said she thought she might find a privy — though an extraordinarily large one — but the bricks holding up the concrete cap in an arch ended just a few feet below the surface, rather than forming a deep circular wall.

Historic archeologist Jamie Brandon, who is stationed in Fayetteville, who was coming to town for a Preserve Arkansas event, arrived on the site around 12:30 p.m. and took a look. The bricks, he said, were late 19th, early 20th century. He wondered could it be a storm drain? A sewage tunnel? As backhoe operators continued to remove sections, Horton and Brandon picked up the artifacts found beneath — rusted cans and what Brandon identified as post-Prohibition whiskey bottles. The bottles were apparently dumped into the hole at the top of the concrete structure, apparently after the construction was no longer in use.

Sanborn insurance maps for the lot showed a substantial house on the lot in 1913 that had not been on the previous map of 1897.

Finally, the last bit of concrete lid was pulled off, and aha! The archeologists and crowd watching began to laugh. There in the muddy soil was an early 20th century toilet float. The well-off family that had built the house had created an indoor privy, under a back room. Apparently, before there were sewer lines in this part of Little Rock, folks just built elaborate substructures to contain waste for their indoor plumbing.

Not everyone stops construction to investigate a historic structure; Winning and her contractors are to be commended for letting the archeologists photograph and map the structure.

Construction on the parking lot will now continue, sealing over the fancy privy. Winning and Worley have restored the house at 1217 W. Third St. to sell as office space.

click to enlarge Brandon, flanked by Horton (left) and Barnes (right), with their treasure: a toilet float.
  • Brandon, flanked by Horton (left) and Barnes (right), with their treasure: a toilet float.

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