Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Broken Pots

Broken Pots

Eager students of archeology are sometimes disappointed to find that there's a lot of digging in the hot sun involved in being an archeologist, and the beginners in the trade are assigned the job of assembling a lot of pieces of broken pots. The National Parks Service not only has a museum of old house parts, housed in the First Bank on Third Street, but it has established a veritable shrine of archeology across the street in the old visitors center. A great many elegant films and demonstrations are housed on various floors in three auditoriums, and the place is quite busy after Memorial Day when visitors throng.

Charles E. Peterson

During the rest of the year, the place is a working archeology project. Even so, the mechanical process is put on display in an intriguing way. A room behind glass windows on the first floor is filled with half a football field of tables, covered with millions of pieces of broken pottery busily tended by a large group of obviously happy folks having a good time being paid to assemble jigsaw puzzles. Unlike most archeology projects, this one is conducted in well-lit and air-conditioned comfort, with only a minor nuisance of having a lot of people stare at you through the window. Taken together with the museum of old house parts across the street, it's quite clear that this center aspires to be an internationally famous focus for world archeology. A large and complete library of archeology books isn't evident to a casual visitor, but it seems safe to guess it is somewhere to be found, upstairs.

There's a little secret here, once told to me by Charles Peterson the guru of such things at the Park Service. Most of these pot shards have been recovered from the privies of Society Hill. If you think about it, you can see that piped-in residential running water has put an end to an old tradition of throwing broken pottery down the toilet. It may even have made trash collectors become a necessary urban service. Well, anyway, the pottery looks brightly washed and shiny, even if broken. There are some other features that it seems best not to let your mind dwell on.

Originally published: Monday, May 21, 2007; most-recently modified: Friday, August 09, 2019