The Storytellers within the Walls

Rats in the Nathaniel Russel House Kitchen House

By: and Miranda Souza

December 7, 2021

Rats are not something that many people want to talk about. Who wants to talk about rodents that scurry around and hide stolen things within walls and floorboards? While rats may not be top of mind for most people, they are often at work in many buildings such as museums and old houses, and are leaving a great record behind that can be used to retell the story of that place.

Current day photo of Nathaniel Russel House Kitchen House.
(Photo: Historic Charleston Foundation)

As a Penn Museum Fellow, I have been working with the animal bones that were collected and stored by rats in the walls of the Nathaniel Russell House Kitchen House located in Charleston, South Carolina. With help from my advisor, Dr. Katherine Moore, I work with the material in the labs at the Penn Museum. My work with the animal bones is part of a larger research project, which focuses on the material collected by rats living in and around the Kitchen House located behind the mansion of Nathanial Russell, occupied by approximately eighteen enslaved persons from 1820-1870. The goal of this project is to study and analyze the archaeological remains collected from these rats nests to create a chronology and learn more about the formation of the deposits from the floorboards and walls of the kitchen house, with hopes that these remains can help us learn more about food habits, ecology of the kitchen, and the daily lives of those who occupied the kitchen house.

Lego model of the Kitchen House, created by Dr. Katherine Moore. (Photo: author)
While working with this assemblage, I’ve seen first hand the traces of stories that rats can leave behind. The materials left trapped in the walls away from the typical forces of decay, are extremely well preserved and waiting to tell unseen stories of the past. The assemblage coming from the rats’ nests contain animal bones, insect remains, plant remains, and artifactual remains (such as buttons, fragments of paper, newspaper clippings, cloth, and sewing needles). Much of this material would not have survived in the dirt or in other contexts but survived well in these little crevices of the walls and floorboards that were later plastered over.
The author in the Penn Museum zooarchaeology lab. (Photo: Dr. Katherine Moore)
While in the zooarchaeology lab at the Penn Museum, I examine every bone for anything from signs of human activity to rodent or insect activity, taking notes of any other damage or interesting marks on bones that may suggest what happened before it was discarded by the rats. While the bones are often covered in gnaw marks from the rats, there is usually much more to be learned. Some bones show saw and hack marks that tell us whether an animal would have been butchered on or off site. This gives us an idea of what activities were occurring inside the house. Which bones are found can also give insight into activities at the site. If we find a bone from a chicken’s foot or head for example, it may suggest that chickens were at least butchered if not raised on site. Had these animals been purchased already butchered from a market we would assume that those bones would be missing from the assemblage.

Many of the bones found can be used to reconstruct what was being cooked or consumed in the kitchen house. The section of the bones can tell what cuts of meat were being used. Crush marks, cut marks, and broken edges of bones can tell us a story about the people who prepared the food and ate it. What the rats stole and dragged into little holes and crevices in the walls and floorboards tells an incredible story about food choice, house activity, and will hopefully give more insights into the past as research continues.
The whiteboard in the Penn Museum zooarchaeology lab, listing some of the different categories of activity that are used in bone analysis. (Photo: Dr. Katherine Moore)

Further analysis of the animal and plant remains, as well as other artifacts from these rats’ nests, will continue to shed light on the lived experiences of enslaved individuals and others living at the Nathaniel Russell Kitchen House. The rats left much behind for us to work with. They created assemblages packed full of data that provide archaeologists with endless insights into the lives of those who worked and lived in the Kitchen House.

Miranda Souza is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences majoring in Anthropology with a minor in Archaeological Science. She was one of three Penn Museum Fellows selected for the 2020-2021 academic year. The Penn Museum Fellows program provides financial and research support to three Penn undergraduates as they complete a capstone project or thesis that articulates with the Penn Museum’s collections, archives, galleries, or broader mission.