The Archaeology of 19th-Century Medicine in Troy and Albany, NY


Elevated concentrations of heavy metals in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century privy nightsoil samples raise questions related to historical medicine use. Historical evidence of medicinal practices demonstrates the frequent use of heavy metals in medicine. Previous archaeological studies of medicine have used medicine bottles to examine the potential differences in access to medicine across class. However, due to the difficulty of interpreting medicine bottles as evidence of medicine use, the studies have failed to provide a thorough explanation of how people of any class truly approached medicine. The objective of this investigation was to provide a novel approach to the archaeological study of health and medicine through the examination of ingredients once present in historical medicine bottles collected from archaeological contexts. In particular, the focus of this study is concentrations of mercury in privy nightsoil as evidence of the ubiquitous use of heavy metals in medicines throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Nightsoil samples from 18 features at six archaeological sites in Albany and Troy, New York, were analyzed for mercury content. The study revealed consistent and prevalent use of mercury as a medicinal therapeutic for over a century between 1785 and 1899. The results indicate that despite the differences in access, people from a range of social and economic classes were seeking similar therapeutic effects from the ingestion of cathartics, laxatives, and other strong substances.

Cite this Record

The Archaeology of 19th-Century Medicine in Troy and Albany, NY. Tracy Miller. Masters Thesis. University at Albany, SUNY, Anthropology. 2011 ( tDAR id: 381454) ; doi:10.6067/XCV8H994X6

This Resource is Part of the Following Collections

Temporal Coverage

Calendar Date: 1785 to 1899

Spatial Coverage

min long: -73.761; min lat: 42.637 ; max long: -73.727; max lat: 42.675 ;

Individual & Institutional Roles

Contact(s): Tracy Miller

Record Identifiers

New York State Museum Accession Number(s): A2003.23

Hartgen Archeological Associates, Inc. Project Number(s): 1997

New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Unique Site Number(s): 00

New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Project Review Number(s): 00PR02006

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