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College dig reveals 19th century infection

  • Professor of Anthropology Jesse Casana left, and students Keira Byno, center, Elise Laugier work on excavating in June 2019 the privy once attached to the Ripley/Choate House at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. (Eli Burakian photograph)

  • Hazard & Caswell bottles from an apothecary in Newport, R.I., contained a medicinal concoction marketed as a cure for digestive and other ailments. The bottles are amongst the artifacts found in the privy once attached to the Ripley/Choate House at Dartmouth College. (Austin Chad Hill photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/6/2021 9:00:14 PM
Modified: 6/8/2021 7:02:42 PM

HANOVER — An archaeological excavation in the heart of Dartmouth College’s campus found evidence that a parasitic infection affected a wealthy Hanover household during the early 19th century.

Led by Professor of Anthropology Jesse Casana, a team of researchers, students, and community members worked to excavate a privy on what is now the front lawn of Dartmouth’s Baker-Berry Library, just north of the Dartmouth Green. Both tapeworm and whipworm eggs were present in the three samples of fecal matter found.

The findings on parasites were published in the June issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

“I kind of jokingly told Jesse that ‘if you happen to find any fecal samples that were preserved in the latrine during the excavation that you should save them for me,’” study co-author Theresa Gildner said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I didn’t really think anything of it.”

Prior to the 2019 “Digging Dartmouth” excavation, most research showed that parasitic infection was common in low-income, urban communities. Poor sanitation and medical care access, population density, and the ingestion of raw or undercooked meat are thought to have created conditions prime for parasites like tapeworm and whipworm.

That assumption is partly why the find matters.

“If you’re living in a wealthy household, presumably, you don’t have contact with as many people who may be infected, you may have access to resources, like healthy food or medical care, that can help keep you from getting sick or quickly treat infection,” said Gildner. “This is interesting, because these findings suggest that even this household (that) was very wealthy by the standards of the day, still seem to (have been) exposed to infection.”

The site itself has strong ties to Dartmouth, according to documents in Dartmouth College Library’s digital collections. Sylvanus Ripley, the son-in-law of Dartmouth founder Eleazar Wheelock, built the house attached to the privy in 1786. After graduating Dartmouth in 1771, Ripley became one of Dartmouth’s first professors as the professor of divinity.

The fecal samples date later than Ripley, to the 1830s and 1840s when Dartmouth graduate and college trustee Mills Olcott was living there with his wife and nine children. According to the study, Olcott “would have been among the wealthiest and most educated people in New England.”

Although they can’t be certain whether the Olcotts had parasitic infections, Casana and Gildner wrote that it is possible that parasites affected names as big as the Rev. Samuel P. Leeds, Dartmouth College President Nathan Lord and future statesman Daniel Webster, who was a Dartmouth student at the time. All three of them lived in or nearby the Ripley/Choate house in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Along with other medicine bottles, false teeth made of ivory, and finds indicating wealth, twelve Hazard and Caswell bottles marketed to cure digestive ailments were found. The Hazard and Caswell bottles were at the same soil level as the three fecal matter samples.

“One of the great things about archaeology is that it provides us a way of sort of revealing the history and the voices and the lives of a lot of people who are excluded from traditional histories,” said Casana. The evidence of those forgotten histories can be seen in things they found in the privy — wash basins and hair combs, makeup jars, and tiny toy teacups and plates.

Gildner said she views the results as a call to action because public health officials now have the tools to control parasite infection. Parasite infection is not a problem in the Upper Valley anymore, but millions of people around the world are still affected.

“I think there’s still a lot of work to be done, internationally, but even here in the US,” said Gildner. “The infections really aren’t restricted to populations that lived in the 1800s. It’s a very real global health concern today.”

Casana said it mostly just makes him feel “super lucky.”

“We live in a time of mystery and wonder when, you know, I got my (COVID-19) vaccine and I don’t need to worry about dying from a disease,” Casana said. “That’s an incredible fact of modern life we often just take for granted.”

More papers will be published on other findings from the same excavation, and future local digs are already planned. The Dartmouth Archaeology Station, a new facility near the Ledyard Bridge in Norwich will have an exhibition and visitor space in the front, and Casana said there are plans for a dig community members can participate in during September 2021, National Archaeology Month.

Jasmine Taudvin can be reached at jtaudvin@vnews.com.




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