Yesterday’s buried garbage

A story of Toronto told by its ruins

More than a century ago had you told an Irish labourer, Jewish peddler, or African-American washerwoman—all residents of “the Ward,” Toronto’s impoverished and squalid downtown immigrant quarter—that one day in the future their discarded soda pop bottles, broken dishes, shoes, furniture, and toys would be considered a “treasure trove” by archaeologists and historians, they surely would have howled with laughter. And who knows what they would have thought about these social scientists digging up their backyard privies and mining the fossilized remains? But according to archaeologist Holly Martelle, “much can be learned from both the fecal matter itself and the objects deposited in privies as trash.” The analysis of old excrement, she adds, can reveal all sorts of secrets about diet, food preference and the “seasonality of privy use.”

By no means was nineteenth-century Toronto anything like ancient Athens or...