Monday, November 14, 2011

Every artifact, prehistoric or historic, has the potential to tell a story. One of my duties as an archaeologist is to identify and interpret the artifacts discarded or lost on the sites that I work at.

During my last dig, Allen and I were finishing digging out the dirt at the base of an outhouse pit. Down at the very bottom, hidden in the poopy green dirt, was a weird hard rubber item. It was roughly a rectangle with rounded corners, and in cross-section it was S-shaped. We puzzled over what it was, guessing that maybe it had something to do with undertaker who lived at the house.

Top view

Side view

Fast forward to yesterday, when my boss sent me an article about a historic cemetery in Virginia to look at (I am busy collecting information on one of Tucson's abandoned cemeteries). One of the photographs in the article was of a hard rubber artifact found in the burial of a 54-year-old woman. It was identical to the artifact we found, it turns out the item was a pessary.

A pessary is a medical device used by doctors on women who suffer from a prolapsed uterus. Basically, their uterus end up outside their body (I wouldn't advice doing a Google image search on this). This problem was somewhat common in the 19th century due to the large number of children a woman might have, as well as the wearing of corsets, which exerted pressure on the internal organs. The pessary was inserted into a woman’s vagina and manipulated until it was in the correct position, “the object of the pessary is to sustain the uterus in its normal position without fixing [the pessary in a permanent position]…” If used correctly, it prevented the uterus from descending outside of the body.

Smith-Hodge pessary, from a 1903 textbook (see page 198).

The introduction of a foreign item into the human body could cause health problems due to lack of cleanliness and the 1903 gynecological textbook states that the woman using the device should regularly douche. This may explain why we found so many douche kits at the site- there were perhaps 20 or 30 of them. Another item we found, which we thought was a baby pacifier, may very well be an anal pessary.

Isn't archaeology exciting? I learned a new word and briefly explored 19th century gynecology, all in the name of science.

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