- The Boghouse by Matt Dunphy and Melissa Dunphy
"Every time someone asks us the question, 'Where do you live?'" begins The Boghouse, a podcast hosted by spouses Melissa and Matt Dunphy, "I'm always like, 'oh, shit, sit down, because I have to respond to your question with a really long story.'" And what a story it is. The Dunphies begin the nineteen-episode first season of The Boghouse with a story about real estate: how they came to buy a brick rowhouse—a former magic theater—nestled under a highway overpass near the Delaware River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The podcast evolves with their story, moving from real estate financing to criminal magicians, construction, history, and murder.
But most of all it is an archaeology story. After managing to purchase the house in the face of impressive and sometimes humorous barriers and then beginning excavations to install a new system of structural framing—and bottoming out their bank accounts—the Dunphies found something in their basement that surprised them: two eighteenth-century privies (the brick-lined shafts used as toilets and trash depositories in early Philadelphia). With this discovery, The Boghouse—whose name comes from one euphemism for a privy—becomes a public archaeology podcast. "Take a seat," Melissa and Matt invite us at the beginning of each episode, "you're in the boghouse."
The Dunphies are exactly the advocates that archaeology needs. Young, irreverent, profane, and endearing, they bring a raw and infectious enthusiasm to their discussion of the broken pottery and animal bones they found (and continue to find). Moreover, as much as they love the artifacts in and of themselves, they seem to intuitively know the real treasure of archaeology—the human stories behind the objects. They follow the ownership of their house and the changes of their neighborhood through the stories of Quakers, soldiers, sex workers, and immigrants. Redware and porcelain get their play, but it's really the people that the Dunphies want you to hear about. Their storytelling is nontraditional, sometimes nonlinear, and intended for adults who can stomach things like tales of grisly murders told with regular and creative expletives. [End Page 133]
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Nonetheless, the essential question a public historian should ask about The Boghouse—or any undertaking by amateur historians and archaeologists—is whether the world (or even just Philadelphia) would be a better place if more people were like the Dunphies. It's a more complicated question that you might think. After all, Melissa and Matt are gregarious, dedicated to good historical storytelling, and by all appearances thoroughly enjoying their historical discoveries. But they also dug up a privy in their basement with no archaeological training. Years ago, when I was first studying and practicing archaeology, I would have seen this as an unforgiveable sin. Archaeologists (not amateurs digging in their basements) learn to detect the most subtle changes in soil and the precise spatial context of each artifact in relation to others and the site itself to learn as much as possible about what they are excavating and how to approach it. And you only get one chance. Archaeology is unusual in the sciences in that it irreversibly destroys its subjects in the course of their study. As first-time diggers more interested in artifacts than context, I could not help but wonder what the Dunphies might have missed in their excavations.
The Dunphies are also friends with avocational "privy diggers," part of a community of hobbyists who dig both in places threatened with imminent destruction and on less endangered private sites—sometimes with the permission of landowners and sometimes secretly, at night or when sites are not guarded. Looters like these destroy archaeological resources for the sake of intact bottles and [End Page 134] ceramics, often selling these objects and almost never leaving behind any field notes or publications for later study. Most of the time, this is entirely legal. In Philadelphia, and in...