Use deep seeking metal detectors to locate privy pits and antique bottles

By Michael Bernzweig

Thirty years ago, antique bottle collecting was an enigmatic pursuit limited to the dedicated few. Today, it is a fast-growing hobby that is appreciated by many. It’s interesting to ponder… what lure do bottles have for the collector? They are seemingly meaningless old objects. Quite the contrary, antique bottles have an individuality that places them in the realm of folk art. When bottles were made by hand, no two were identical. Machines started to manufacture bottles just before 1920; therefore, many collectors are not as interested in machine-made bottles. The antique bottles most highly prized by collectors were made before 1912. Since the variety of antique bottles is astonishing, most connoisseurs collect entire categories of bottles.

Types & Categories of Antique Bottles

There are distinctions in bottles that make them extremely valuable. This includes their colors, embossed designs, and the shape/markings on the base or the neck of the bottle. These features help determine their origin and time frame. Some hobbyists collect only ink bottles; many seek only bottles of a certain color. Popular antique bottles contain medicine, poison, whiskey, bitters, and perfume.

Whiskey flasks are among the most popular categories of bottles to collectors. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, the glass whiskey flask was an integral part of men’s attire. The ornateness of his flask was an indicator of his wealth. They can be found in colors such as green, olive-amber or even a rare sunburst design. Poison bottles are another popular category. Poison bottles were often embossed with a warning to prevent their accidental intake. However, many people couldn’t read. So, in the 19th Century, glass manufacturers created the poison flask with a cross-hatched rough surface alerting to the dangers within. Cobalt blue poison containers are a favorite of beginning collectors because they are somewhat easy to find. Be sure to read our article entitled “best metal detectors for finding antique bottles” for tips on getting started bottle collecting with a metal detector.

Why are Bottles Found in Privy Pits?

Attics and basements can be lucrative spots for the bottle collector. But the real treasure troves are old privy pits or outhouses. This is where garbage was disposed of. One source gives an example of a housewife sneaking off to the privy pit to indulge in a stiff shot of whiskey—then disposing of the evidence. Another scenario: coins falling out of men’s and boys’ trouser pockets. Because there was no formal dump or garbage pick-up, people dug pits for their trash. Dumps were located in their own backyard—most often in a privy pit. Bottle diggers are also looking for communal or “town dumps.” These were usually located in the main part of town, accessible to local residents. A new bottle digger may wonder if it’s safe to dig into old outhouse pits. Experienced diggers assure us that it is—body wastes decompose rapidly and are not harmful after only a few years. Dedicated bottle hunters talk about finding small fortunes in the pits, including bottles, coins, guns, and other relics.

What Is a Privy Pit?

Privy pits are used as dry or outdoor toilets without a water supply. An outhouse pit or dry toilet does not require water to flush away waste as a traditional toilet does. Instead, privy pits rely on the natural decomposition process to break down waste.

A privy pit is a hole in the ground used as a toilet. It is usually located in a backyard or other outdoor area as an outhouse. The human waste is deposited into the pit, and then it decomposes over time.

Privy pits are usually located a few feet from the back door of a house or other building. Privy pit disposal is a common method of waste management in rural areas where there is no indoor plumbing. Locating an old privy pit can lead to some exceptional metal detecting finds. The traffic volume to and from the area was exceptional when the outhouse pit was in use. It is not uncommon to locate a pit privy when working on new construction sites. While the typical diameter of the pit can vary, a 3-foot opening is common. A cesspool is a large open pit that collects sewage and even wastewater. They can still, to this day, be found in many areas worldwide.

Digging for a Privy Pit

Privy digging is not as complicated as it may seem. The first thing you need to do is find a location for your pit. It should be a few feet from the back door of your house or other building, and it should be in an area that gets sunlight. Find a site where the groundwater table is deep enough that the pit will not flood and keep rainwater from entering the pit. 

Once you have found a location, you can use a metal detector to ensure no metal material may be hard to excavate or that may be of value once dug up. Privy diggers will also use a spade or a post-hole digger to excavate the hole. Based on how many people are going to use the privy and how often they will use it, the size of the hole is going to be determined. 

Once you have found a good location, you will need to dig a hole or vault that is approximately four feet deep and three feet wide. The hole does not need to be perfectly round, but it should be big enough for a person to comfortably sit on the privy. The pit walls should be sloped so that they are easy to climb out of.

After the hole has been dug, you will need to build a base for the privy. This can be done with a cement or concrete slab or with some other type of material. The base should be big enough to support the weight of the privy and the person using it. Some tips for privy digging and maintenance include:

  • The privy pit should be at least 100 feet from any drinking water wells.
  • The hole should be lined with stones, bricks, or other materials to prevent collapse.
  • A wooden box or barrel can be placed over the hole to act as a seat.
  • A lid should be placed over the privy pit to keep animals out and to reduce odors.
  • The privy pit should be emptied when it is 1 foot from the top of the vault.
  • You can also place a layer of soil, leaves, or other organic matter on top of the waste to help with decomposition.

Unlike indoor plumbing with a septic tank and sewage leach fields, there is no need for a watertight seal around the privy pit. In fact, it is actually beneficial to have some drainage around the privy so that water can seep in and help break down the human waste, commonly referred to as night soil, to reduce odor. A privy seat is a toilet installed in an outhouse without a sewer connection. Some areas refer to this type of toilet as a septic tank. It is, however, important that pits are constructed properly to avoid rainwater pushing waste into the surrounding groundwater or drinking water supply.

Waste in the Middle Ages

A privy vault is an underground chamber used for human waste disposal in England during the Middle Ages. They were usually located outside town walls and consisted of a pit dug into the ground, lined with stone, and covered with a wooden lid.

Why Do Archaeologists Find Privy Pits Interesting?

Privy pits are a common feature of many archaeological sites. They are often found near houses or other buildings, and they can tell us a lot about the people who lived there. In the early 1900s, ash, dirt, and other materials were often used to construct privy pits.

One of the main reasons that privy pits are interesting to archaeologists is because of the seeds and artifacts that are often found in them. These items can tell us a lot about what people were eating during a certain time period. 

For example, if we find many wheat seeds in a privy pit, we know that the people who lived there grew wheat. If we find seeds from a fruit or vegetable that is not native to the area, we know that the people were trading with other groups of people. 

Also known as outhouse pits and chamber pots, old privy pits were commonly used before the advent of indoor plumbing. In some areas, they are still in use today. Artifacts can be found in privy pits, including:

  • Seeds
  • Bones
  • Glass
  • Ceramics
  • Metal
  • Wooden artifacts 

Artifacts from pit sites can help archaeologists learn information about the people who used the privy, what they ate, what kinds of materials they had access to, and how their lifestyles changed over time. 

Best Metal Detectors for Bottle Digging

A metal detector will signal rusted metal, copper and brass in spots that may be former privy pits. Finding old tin cans, nails, and farm equipment can indicate that there are lower levels of refuse below. When choosing a metal detector for bottle digging, consider if this will be your main past-time or if you will be using your detector in other settings. Some bottle diggers say a multi-purpose or entry-level model is fine—as long as it detects at a lower frequency. Iron, brass, and steel are picked up more easily with a lower frequency. Veteran bottle diggers usually recommend a deep-penetrating metal detector with a large search coil for locating a dump site. Large search coils detect larger objects at greater depths. Another savvy investment for the bottle digger would be a high-end multipurpose deep-seeking metal detector, such as the Makro deephunter Metal Detector. This unit actually locates underground caves, cavities and repositories with advanced 3D graphic images. Metals can also be identified within these underground structures.

Best metal detectors for locating privy pits

Entry-Level Deep-Seeking Detectors

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How to Locate and Recover Bottles from a Privy Pit

How can you locate a trash pit? There are several landmarks you can look for if the outhouse isn’t still standing. When at an old farm or homestead, look for a wood shed, as many privies were located nearby. Pathways, especially those lined with rocks, may very well lead to a pit. Depressions are a good indicator that something lies in the ground below. Many detectorists use very long probes (6-9') to check for soft soil or voids in the ground. They feel for a wall from a brick liner or cistern or the crunch layer of a trash pit. Usually, when you find a privy—you will feel a scratchy crunch that wasn't anywhere else around. Your metal detector can then lead the way by signaling high levels of metal.

There are other tools you will find invaluable while out in the field. A pinpointing probe is essential for the privy pit digger. This is used to probe and pinpoint the exact location of metal targets. It’s a huge time-saving device! Headphones, a sturdy-handled digging tool (such as the Lesche T-Handle Ground Shark Shovel), and good gloves are also must-haves.

Copyright 2014 Detector Electronics Corp. - Revised September 2022