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Art AND: Evan Woodard

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Evan Woodard knows his shit. A Washington, DC, native, historian, and board member of the Baltimore Antique Bottle Club, Woodard is interested in the history of the objects he and his friends find in the Baltimore privies they dig up. Baltimore, a city established well before indoor plumbing, has a density of pre-Civil-War-era working-class houses. Many have small backyards where, in a back corner farthest from the building, a person armed mostly with hardware-store equipment can uncover a portal that leads directly to the literal refuse of the past.

Woodard got into digging up strangers’ backyards after his friend, Matt Palmer, discovered some old bottles while hiking early in the pandemic. Internet research led Woodard and Palmer to the concept of privy digging, which seemed to promise more old bottles than the woods. They haven’t stopped since. Woodard estimates that his crew—Palmer, Chris Roswell, Phil Edmonds, and Ryan McCloskey—known as Salvage Arc, dug about 115 or 120 sites, finding all manner of treasure and very old trash. There’s an element of gambling to privy digging—Woodard and his friends have dug 20-foot holes only to find that the privy had already been emptied and thus come up with nothing.

While this method of discovery is relatively new to Woodard, his interest in history originated in childhood. After high school, he attended a semester at Bowie State but decided college wasn’t for him and started a career in photography, taking images of abandoned spaces and then commercial real estate photography as a source of income. He recognizes the throughline to what he is doing now because he has always been interested in the story of cities, their structures, and the people that came before.

He’s trying to take privy-digging, and more broadly his brand of interpretive history, worldwide. Woodard believes the best way to teach others about the past is to reconstruct the narratives that connect the past with the present based on the lives of real people. On his Instagram (@salvagearc), drawing upon ship manifests, census records, and other primary documents, Woodard uses the captions to educate. A self-taught researcher, Woodard is interested in uncovering stories of the objects he finds and sharing them broadly. He wants his audience to know the stories behind the things he finds, getting as specific as, “Who owned this bottle? Or who manufactured it? What was their story? How did they get to America?”

 

On a warm but wet February morning, I met Woodard and his digging crew in Hollins Market. The older parts of Hollins Market predate the Civil War and were built around the indoor market that shares its name. Dressed in black and already somewhat muddy, Woodard greeted me and we walked the 25-or-so feet through the small rowhouse to the backyard where a man stood in a pit in the ground up to his waist. 

The group had arrived maybe 20 minutes before me and located the privy pretty much immediately. Using a probing rod—a long steel pole that helps determine if the soil below is “natural” or has any give to it, indicating a privy or other underground cavern—they began digging. When working a site, the men switch off who is in the hole, which makes for quick work, especially in what they called the “ideal conditions” of a wet, late winter morning. Wet, not freezing soil, is perfect for displacing quickly, and in the nearly two hours I spent watching the crew move earth in search of their treasure, the hole grew from a few feet deep to nine or ten by at least four feet wide. 

The process was fascinating to watch because once the men had dug up the circa-1900s metal plumbing pipes left in the privy and displaced the dirt underneath, they began uncovering hand-held objects of various value every few minutes.

To me, a novice with an appreciation for history, every hundred-year-old broken bit and marble uncovered seemed worth saving. But by watching the crew’s expressions, I soon learned which finds were actually special and which were, well, shitty. To arrive at their resting place, items found at the bottom of a privy had to fall often ten or more feet, often out of someone’s back pocket, the same way many of us have dropped a cellphone in the modern toilet. As a result, most of the artifacts that Woodard and his friends find in privies are things that can’t break down in soil: parts of pipes, the occasional pistol, and many, many glass bottles. These bits have been waiting—some perfectly intact, others shattered over a hundred years ago—to be unearthed.

SUBJECT: Evan Woodard, 35
WEARING: Black Salvage Arc T-shirt, tan Mountain Hardware pants, Husky gloves
PLACE: Hollins Market

 

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

Evan Woodard: A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. This book has helped me identify and learn more about various items I have recovered.

What makes Baltimore a great and unique place to be a treasure hunter? 

Baltimore was one of the largest American cities during the 1800s, and it was also the furthest in-land deep water port in America (I believe it still is). This meant this was a booming city and had people from all walks of life moving through the city. So many of the items they brought with them or used are still buried under our city in privies and dumps.

You’ve mentioned some of the racism and prejudice you’ve faced as a Black historian working in the typically white space of antiques. Some people have told you that you should not teach people how to dig for historical artifacts themselves which is a form of cultural gatekeeping. Why do you believe that history needs to be shared with everyone and the public empowered to do this work themselves if they are interested?

I want this to be accessible to everyone. I like the fact that I can go to a class today, at a school with little kids, and tell them, “Hey, this is how you go find this.” And if they wanted to go out and find this in their own backyard, they absolutely could. I think that’s how we should be teaching things—showing people that history is not something that you should want to be limited to the British Museum or something like that. Anyone can do it. It’s just that you have to go do it. You have to do the research and you should do it with the proper safety measures. 

 

Sometimes (usually) history and public records are racist, sexist, and otherwise flawed. How do you go about sharing problematic information with the public in order to tell the stories you find?

That’s such a weird, weird concept, but it’s just one of those things about history—it is what it is. I make sure to report the facts, despite the fact that it’s racist or whatnot; this is history, and this is what it was. I do not try to skew it one way or another. This is what happened.

Your pandemic hobby has become a small business. Has this happened to you before in your life? What work were you doing before you started digging privies? What do you think we learn from having hobbies? 

This is the second time I’ve turned a hobby into a small business. The first time was urban exploring photography which I transitioned into commercial real estate photography. I still do commercial photos from time to time, but my main focus is history.

I believe we learn how to expand our skills and expand our reach. My Salvage Arc account started out as a way to share my finds with friends and family so I didn’t clog up my main photography feed. The account grew so fast and I saw people were interested in history, so I wanted to focus all of my energy into my research and work that I shut down my photography account.

Do you have a favorite local restaurant or a go-to order? What is it? 

Oh, this is a tough one! There are so many to pick from. My favorite foods are sushi and Mexican. Sushi: Nanami Cafe in Fells Point. It reminds me of when I worked in Japan. Mexican: Clavel. I could live off the queso alone.

Can you talk a little bit about how Baltimore privies are a time capsule of the heyday of this city, documenting in a sense the height of Baltimore’s population, wealth, and importance to the United States overall?

Baltimore’s privies open a door into the city’s heyday because they doubled as a home’s trashcan. All of the household trash was tossed into the privy and from that we can understand what a household ate and drank, their economic status, if they were ill, and even if they had kids.

This is true for other cities around America too. You can get a visual representation of what businesses were thriving or popular in that city and even down to what the corner store in that neighborhood was selling.

 

I’m very interested in the idea of the intentional collectible—things that were made to be souvenirs. Do you find any of those kinds of things in your digs?

That’s funny you say that because, what we think of as the souvenir cup that we get from Camden Yards or the Ravens games, we just think of that like it’s a cup and if you really want to keep it if you can, but it’s not gonna be worth anything. Well, they had the same thing back then. They had these flasks that were made at different Glassworks around the country that said different sayings or had presidential faces on them, things like that. They were sold as a fancier way to store your liquor. And those things were collectible back then. People in the 1870s and 1880s were documenting and reselling these flasks from the 1820s and 1830s and 1840s to people for the purpose of collecting them, not using them. As a result, I have a pretty decent flask collection now because people when they got bored of their collection would throw it in the privy.

You have a few contemporaries in other cities in the United States and globally who are also digging up privies. Who do you see as your contemporaries? Whose work should we be aware of if we think privy digging is cool? 

There are privy and dump diggers all over the United States. And I’ve traveled to meet and dig with Andy Goldfrank in DC, Leigh Long and Meg Magulak in Philadelphia, Harry Smith III in York, PA, Taylor McBurney, and Scott Lamoureux in Rhode Island.

Do you have any historian heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why were/are they the coolest? 

When I was a kid I was really into Indiana Jones. My mom would make me a custom costume so that I could be him for Halloween. I loved how he wanted to save history and share it with the world instead of profiting off the treasures he found. And I’ve taken that to heart. My mission is to preserve and share history with everyone, and to make it accessible to folks from all walks of life.

In the relatively short time you’ve been doing this, you’ve gotten quite a bit of attention locally and are in talks to make a TV pilot. How does that feel?

It’s cool because I think people see me as that history person and I like that. I’m not becoming famous for, and this isn’t going against anyone, but just constantly being in a restaurant or being out, doing something like being an influencer. Instead, I’m the person that’s famous for being the guy who digs up old shit. I’ve had people say, “Oh, you’re the guy who digs old shit!” That’s me. They’re so fascinated about it. A lot of people have always wanted to meet an archeologist. And I always tell ’em, I’m not an archeologist. I try to educate people and show if you wanna get into this, this is how you do it. 

What have you learned the hard way?

How to keep artifacts out of my dog’s tail reach. One time we were playing and she swung her tail around and knocked an American Brewery beer bottle to the ground, breaking it. This bottle was one of the first beers I found when I first started relic hunting during the pandemic.

 

This story is from Issue 13: Collect, available here.

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