Sara Rivers-Cofield, MAC Lab
Sara Rivers-Cofield, MAC Lab

Is This America’s Oldest Condom?

Sara Rivers-Cofield, MAC Lab
Sara Rivers-Cofield, MAC Lab

Sara Rivers-Cofield has something a little unsavory sitting on her desk: a fragile, round-tipped sheath dug out of an abandoned well that she thinks could be the oldest surviving condom in North America.

A curator at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, or MAC Lab, Rivers-Cofield found the suspected condom in April 2015 when she was looking for artifacts to put in an exhibit tied to the time-travel TV series Outlander. The English goods that dominated 18th century colonial Maryland are comparable with objects featured in the scenes depicting 1740s Scotland, she says.

In search of a silk ribbon for the exhibit, Rivers-Cofield went to a cabinet at MAC Lab containing small organic items that had been found in a well decades ago at Oxon Hill Manor, a slave-owning plantation just south of Washington, D.C., overlooking the Potomac River. The well was used as a trash pit between the 1720s and 1750s. When it was excavated in the 1980s, archaeologists found an array of household garbage, including bottle corks, tobacco leaves, broken porcelain dishes, grass clippers, wooden pieces of musical instruments, and cloth and silk fragments.

She also came across an object labeled “paper?” Immediately, she thought: condom.

“In terms of its dimensions, it’s clearly the right shape and everything,” Rivers-Cofield told mental_floss. “I had seen 18th-century references to condoms, so I knew it was a possibility. My guess would be that whoever originally treated the artifact was probably reminded of a condom, too, but maybe they didn't know [condoms] could date back to the 18th century. The artifact just needed someone who had seen those period references to make the connection.”

An 18th-century "sheath." Image Credit: British Museum // CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Humans have been using condoms made from animal guts and bladders for thousands of years to prevent pregnancy and, eventually, disease. But given the private (and biodegradable) nature of early condoms, it’s probably not surprising that there aren’t many examples from the archaeological record. The world’s oldest surviving condoms date back to the 1640s: a pig intestine condom found complete with its user manual in Sweden, and another 10 condoms that were excavated from a latrine at Britain’s Dudley Castle.

“Our one example is probably more of a fluke of survival than having anything to do with whether condoms were actually here,” Rivers-Cofield said. “I’m sure they must have been here.”

Historical records suggest that by the 18th century, condoms were widespread in Europe. (It’s also around this time that condoms were first mentioned in English medical literature—in a book about gonorrhea by the unfortunately named William Cockburn.) They were sold in markets, pubs, brothels, and barbershops, much to the predictable dismay of the era’s moralists. In 1705, John Campbell, the 2nd Duke of Argyll, unsuccessfully tried to get the contraceptives banned in Britain. He even brought a linen condom to the floor of the Parliament and waved it around proclaiming that the devices were “debauching of a great number of Ladies of qualitie, and young gentlewomen.”

Others reveled in the debauchery afforded by condoms, and writers in the 18th century came up with plenty of euphemisms—night caps, French letters, machines, preservatives—to talk about the devices. Scottish writer James Boswell wrote about using “armor” in his outdoor dalliances with sex workers in London. Legendary Italian womanizer Giacomo Casanova spoke of using “English raincoats” during his trysts. He even claims he found condoms in the drawer of a French nun he was having an affair with.

Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798) and a male pal entertain their lady friends by blowing up condoms like balloons in this engraving from an 1872 book, published nearly a century after Casanova died. Image Credit: Library of Congress // Public Domain

Meanwhile, the American colonies, thanks to their puritanical origins, had a reputation for being rather sexually constrained. In her book The Humble Little Condom, Aine Collier notes that there aren’t many references to colonial condom use in the mid-18th century. It wasn’t until the few decades after the American Revolution that condoms started to be openly sold and discussed in metropolitan centers like New York and Philadelphia. But even then, the subject was a little taboo. A French immigrant who found success selling fine Parisian condoms at his bookshop in Philadelphia in the 1790s still had to pay ships’ captains to smuggle his wares to the U.S., according to Collier’s book.

Rivers-Cofield said there are no sources that talk about condom use in the Chesapeake region in the first half of the 18th century. The Addison family who owned Oxon Hill was a wealthy bunch of merchants and planters with access to the trade networks that presumably would have allowed them to order condoms from a major production center like London.

But Rivers-Cofield isn’t hopeful that she’ll find a paper trail that leads her to an answer about who used this condom and why. “I don’t think it’s going to show up in a probate inventory,” Rivers-Cofield said. “I don’t think it’s going to show up in a ship’s bill of lading. I don’t think we’re going to figure out all of the secrets of it because it’s a private object. I would presume that because it is a private object that this would have surreptitiously been thrown in the well. But again, I don't really know how open people there were about sexuality. Is it possible that the women were like, ‘Listen I need a break from the kids for a little bit?’ There are so many possibilities.”

She presented her discovery earlier this month at the annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology in Fort Worth, Texas. Now she’s hoping to find a willing biology student to help her confirm with a DNA test that the suspected condom is really made from sheep’s gut.

Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
This Just In
Flights Grounded After World War II Bomb Discovered Near London City Airport
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

London City Airport grounded all flights on the night of February 11, after a World War II bomb was found in the neighboring River Thames, The Guardian reports.

The half-ton bomb was revealed Sunday morning by development work taking place at the King George V Dock. Following its discovery, police set up a 702-foot exclusion zone around the area, closing local roads and shutting down the London City Airport until further notice. According to the BBC, 261 trips were scheduled to fly in and out of London City Airport on Monday. Some flights are being rerouted to nearby airports, while others have been canceled altogether.

The airport will reopen as soon as the explosive device has been safely removed. For that to happen, the Met police must first wait for the river's tide to recede. Then, once the bomb is exposed, they can dislodge it from the riverbed and tow it to a controlled explosion site.

The docks of London’s East End were some of the most heavily bombed points in the city during World War II. Germany’s Blitz lasted 76 nights, and as the latest unexpected discovery shows, bombs that never detonated are still being cleaned up from parks and rivers more than 75 years later.

[h/t The Guardian]


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