Urban treasure hunter George Mathes at the bottom of a privy. Some are 40 feet deep; most are around 30 feet deep. (Provided)1/2
Urban treasure hunter George Mathes at the bottom of a privy. Some are 40 feet deep; most are around 30 feet deep. (Provided)
Handblown glass bottles from the 19th century that Mathes found while digging up old privies. (Provided)2/2
Handblown glass bottles from the 19th century that Mathes found while digging up old privies. (Provided)
Most people don’t think to dig for treasure in a hole where people used to poop.
More commonly known by the British term "privy," they were essentially outhouses. And back before the days of city trash pickup, people had to get rid of their own trash. One very convenient place to throw your crap was the local hole in the ground.
Self proclaimed “treasure hunter” George Mathes, 33, from Philly, thrives in the hunt for objects like broken plates, glasses, lamp chimneys, smoking pipes, porcelain and even old, rusty tin cans.
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“I grew up in Philly, but our family had a summer cottage on the Indian River in southern Delaware," Mathes said. "On the banks of the Indian River is where I found my first ancient arrowhead when I was a kid. From this point on, I was hooked onto finding things. I have found many ancient arrowheads in the city of Philly.”
What he wasn’t expecting to find was human remains.
“I was out one evening looking for construction sites that may have privy pits to dig," Mathes said. "One site in South Philly was interesting as there were bones around. I found a human skull on the site and realized I was in a graveyard."
Apparently, human remains have quite a high value and price tag attached to them for avid collectors. According to National Geographic, bone collectors don't legally need any credentials to buy and sell human skulls that are already on the market. And in the U.S., there is no federal law prohibiting the trade and ownership of human remains other than those from Native Americans.
“People are willing to pay thousands of dollars for a rare human skull specimen,” Mathes said. “It is illegal to sell any human skulls that were not previously used for medical purposes.”
Regardless, Mathes has no plan to sell his most prized possession because, to him, it is priceless.
Mathes took his love of digging and excavating to a business level with his construction business Thunderbird LLC.
Newly opened Evil Genius Brewing in Fishtown hired Mathes to do demolition, excavation, moving and deliveries, among other things. And of course, Mathes was on the hunt for more Philly privies.
"George's business did a lot of the demolition and trash removal from our site, an old raver warehouse," said Trevor Hayward, co-founder of Evil Genius Brewing Co. "We had a room at the back of our building, which was most likely the carriage house in years past, where the roof had collapsed in. Once the trash was removed, there was only a dirt floor, and George identified a trash pit which was excavated. He found a bunch of old bottles, medicine, beer, etc. Nothing of any great value, but still very interesting to find.”
Of course, a true treasure hunter needs a place to store his finds and even make some money back from them. So Mathes opened Thunderbird Salvage on Ninth Street just above Girard Avenue, where you can find tons of old glass medicine bottles and more Philly history for sale. Business is good for Mathes.
“I’m in the works of moving next door to a larger building,” he said.
So a bachelor's degree in liberal arts from Penn State University can actually pay off. And Mathes has some advice for all those budding treasure hunters.
“Digging for artifacts in Philly is not illegal," he said. "The best idea would be to get permission on private land to dig. The worst that has happened to me is getting charged with trespassing, which is a risk that I’m willing to take on some occasions."