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Secret Portwalk Dig Yields Buried Treasure
Portwalk under construction by Phil Cohen


The privy counsel

According to the Web site for the new Residences at Portwalk, the “sophisticated, eco-friendly” luxury units at 195 Hanover St. are located “in historic downtown Portsmouth.” To be more precise, they stand directly “on” historic Portsmouth, atop more than two centuries of previous occupation. Long before the demolished Portsmouth Parade Mall, and long before the ethnic “Little Italy” neighborhood that was later demolished by urban renewal, this parcel was home to residents of colonial Portsmouth. Their houses may be gone, but the cellar holes and privies remain.

“A privy is a treasure chest to an archeologist,” said Ellen Marlatt, who, with Wheeler and their small team, did the field work and initial analysis of the Phase II site. Because Portwalk opted to use HUD financing in the building of 36 new residential units, the detailed IAC assessment featuring the two privy sites had to be filed by federal law with Feighner at the Division of Historic Resources in Concord. Because the archaeologists were instructed not to release the report further, it has been there, out of sight and out of mind, since last July.

The front cover of the archaeological report, appropriately, shows a decorated redware chamber pot recovered from the nightsoil layers of the Portwalk dig. “Nightsoil” is a nice word for the human excrement collected by workers at night from cesspools and privies. Since our ancestors threw just about everything down the privy, heavy items and trash that were not collected sank to the bottom. Today, this prized material provides a time capsule of daily life during the heyday of New Hampshire’s only seaport.

Among the most prized items recovered was a green glass wine bottle with a “blob seal” stamped “Josa Wentworth, 1773.” This allowed archeologists to confirm that they were, indeed, digging up the relics in what had been the western back yard of a prominent Portsmouth resident. The presence of the name and date, according to the IAC report, “is probably unique in all of northeastern archeology.”

Early research suggests the other privy belonged to the family of Epps Greenough next door. Greenough (1737-1778) was born in Newbury, Mass., and married Abigail Moffatt (born 1739) whose father’s mansion, now the Moffatt-Ladd House, stands nearby on Market Street as a public museum. Historians know a great deal about the house that stood here because Greenough left a four-page will listing its contents. This privy, curiously, contained 54 well-preserved leather boot and shoe parts. There was also a smaller privy nearby made from a submerged barrel that the IAC report suggests may have been used by servants or enslaved workers in the household. The Portwalk archeology report and the items recovered will be of immeasurable value to future historians.



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Friday, February 23, 2018 
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