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Fri, Sept. 20

Archaeologists came ... saw ... and concurred

Traveling has a way of broadening one's knowledge and spicing up one's spectrum. And I got a little dose of that recently while traveling through Montana.

Wife Pat and I spent one night in Missoula, and the next morning I picked up a copy of the appropriately named Missoulian, whose front page featured a story – complete with a 7-inch by 9-inch color photo – telling about the discovery of the latrine members of the Lewis and Clark expedition used almost 200 years ago.

(You've probably already heard about this, because the wire services picked it up. But I felt a certain exhilaration in being right there at the point of discovery.)

Anyway, the inch-deep grabber headline read "Potty stop," and the less-imposing headline below it advised that "Latrine believed to have been used by Lewis and Clark expedition uncovered beside Lolo Creek." Now, I'm sure that you have two burning questions in the above regard: 1) Who cares? And 2) How did they arrive at the Lewis and Clark connection?

The answer to the first question is easy: Archaeologists care, that's who. Coming up with something like that is like catnip to them, if you dig me.

However, the answer to "No. 2," if you'll pardon the euphemism, requires some analysis.

Reporter Sherry Devlin ex-plained that scientists dug a 1-meter-square hole "in a never-tilled meadow beside Lolo Creek."

And every 10 centimeters, the archaeologists stopped to test the soil for telltale mercury. I say "telltale" because, in Devlin's account, "Whenever they felt poorly, soldiers on the 1804-1806 expedition took laxatives known as Dr. Rush's Thunder Clappers. The pills were 60 percent mercury, so induced immediate and lasting diarrhea, which Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush believed would cleanse the body of all infirmities."

Now if this sounds like the cure is worse than the malady, I understand. But "it didn't matter what you had," noted Dan Hall, a historical archaeologist for Western Cultural in Missoula. "Syphilis, constipation, a wound. If you were in need of medical care, they fed you Dr. Rush's pills."

The "Eureka-this-is-it!" latrine discovery gained credence from journals penned by expedition leaders Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who noted that three soldiers were sick during the expedition's encampment beside Lolo Creek from June 30 to July 3, 1806. "So we know that for three days, three guys were sitting on the latrine," Hall noted, "and that if this was the latrine, there should still be mercury in the soil and we should be able to find it."

And find it they did in an effort that Hall compared to "looking for a needle in three haystacks."

Hall said there were skeptics "who said we'd never find anything out here, that too much time had passed, that mercury vapor analysis would never show anything. So this is pretty exciting."

In fact, "It's about as much excitement as you can get standing over a 200-year-old latrine."

As I said before, archaeologists are indeed an excitable breed.

Contact Jerry Jackson at

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