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  • Elizabeth Tarulis, Brigid Ogden, Taylor Bowden

Well, Well, Well... What Do We Have Here?

Updated: Mar 16

One of the joys of archeology is the serendipitous way that research opportunities can arise, whether through new excavations or collections research later on. Working in our student offices one day, we stumbled upon a news article about ‘America’s oldest condom’ from the Maryland Archeological Conservation Laboratory’s (MAC Lab) collections. The article details MAC Lab Curator of Federal Collections Sara Rivers-Cofield’s discovery of a colonial era intestine condom curated in the MAC Lab’s collections from the 1980s excavation of an 18th century well feature at the Oxon Hill Manor Site (18PR175). Rivers-Cofield had previously presented her own analysis of the condom but stated that she wanted to use DNA to confirm what animal the condom was made from. We realized we could use a different method – Zooarcheology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS) to help. ZooMS uses the composition of collagen, a protein in animal tissue, to identify species, and has made many previously unidentifiable animal artifacts identifiable. With permission, we brought the artifact to the University of Tennessee Knoxville and identified the condom as being made from a sheep!

This project wouldn’t have been possible without proper archeological excavation and curation methods. The waterlogged conditions of an archeological well ensured the condom’s survival after deposition and its fragile nature benefited from systematic excavation. If the well had been excavated non-systematically, it’s likely that the condom would have been destroyed. Additionally, because all artifacts were collected during excavation, the condom was saved rather than discarded in favor of “exciting” objects such as bottle glass or ceramics. Though the condom was initially misidentified as paper, permanent curation of the artifact at the MAC Lab provided the opportunity for future research and reevaluation of this artifact nearly 40 years after the artifact was excavated from the well feature. These processes allowed Sara Rivers-Cofield to find the artifact within the collections, correct its misidentification, and conduct her own research. We were then able to provide insights that would not have been possible before the development of new methods like ZooMS!

A strength of archeological excavation and curation standards is their ability to reveal the past beyond memory and written records. An equally vital benefit is their ability to preserve all artifacts – from the most exciting to those that may at first seem mundane. By using these practices consistently at all levels of archeological inquiry, we can ensure that, someday, small things that seem unimportant in the moment remain available for new generations to research and don’t remain forgotten at the bottom of a well.

Figure 3: The UTK Condom Team, Brigid Ogden (seated), Taylor Bowden (center), and Elizabeth Tarulis, begin the ZooMS sampling process in the Department of Anthropology's Stable Isotope and Zooarcheology Laboratory in October 2022.

For readers interested in ZooMS and archeology: News article referenced:

This article authored by: Elizabeth Tarulis, Brigid Ogden, and Taylor Bowden, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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