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.

Guy de la Bedoyere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Unearth the Victims of a Mysterious Massacre 400 Years Ago on an Australian Island
Beacon Island
Beacon Island
Guy de la Bedoyere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The cargo ship Batavia set out from the Netherlands in October 1628, bound for the Dutch colony at present-day Jakarta, Indonesia, with more than 300 crew and passengers. For some still-unknown reason, the ship veered off course to the south and smashed into a coral atoll about 50 miles west of the Australian coast.

What happened over the next few months—culminating in a mysterious and brutal massacre that left at least 125 people dead—is Australia's oldest cold case.

In a story that aired on 60 Minutes Australia, correspondent Liam Bartlett traveled to this "island of horror" where a team of Australian and Dutch scientists is uncovering the nearly 400-year-old skeletons, well preserved in the sand of what is now Beacon Island. They hope to discover what led to the sudden mass slaughter of adults and children.

"We're dealing with a psychopath and some pretty horrible events," Alistair Paterson, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia and the leader of the research team, tells Bartlett. "There's nothing like it in Dutch history or Australian history."

A screenshot of the Beacon Island dig site from 60 Minutes Australia
A scene from the 60 Minutes Australia report
Kat Long

The Batavia, the flagship of the Dutch East India Company, was on its maiden voyage. The commander, Francisco Pelsaert, and the captain, Ariaen Jacobsz, detested each other. Jacobsz conspired with Pelsaert's deputy, Jeronimus Cornelisz, to take control of the ship and its load of silver and valuable paintings. But before the mutiny could unfold, the ship crashed into the reef in the early morning of June 4, 1629.

About 100 people died in the wreck, while almost 200 made it to a cluster of islands in the Abrolhos chain—treeless, desert-like stretches of sand without water or food. Pelsaert and Jacobsz sailed for help, hoping to reach their original destination nearly 2000 miles away by boat.

The events of the next three months continue to puzzle and horrify modern researchers. Initially, Jeronimus Cornelisz organized food rations and shelter for the survivors on Beacon Island as a way to cement his leadership. But then, he hoarded the weapons and boats for his own use. He ordered his followers to execute the strong, able-bodied men who could pose a threat to his control over the group. Most of the women and children who would be a drain on supplies were also killed, though some women were kept alive as sexual slaves, Bartlett reports.

"Totally Lord of the Flies," Paterson says.

The Batavia massacre
An image from Pelsaert's journal of the voyage
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Cornelisz marooned several men on a nearby island to get them out of the way as the killing rampage continued. But those men, led by a sailor named Wiebbe Hayes, managed to find water and food, and made a primitive protective fort of stone slabs—which still exists as the first European-made structure on Australian soil. In early August, two months after the wreck, Cornelisz and his men attempted to storm Hayes' stronghold and eliminate his band of survivors.

At the last moment, a rescue ship helmed by Pelsaert and Jacobsz appeared on the horizon. Both Hayes and Cornelisz sent out boats to intercept the ship, hoping to establish their version of events as fact and save themselves from punishment. Fortunately, Hayes's men reached the ship first.

Only 80 to 90 survivors out of the Batavia's 300-plus passengers eventually arrived in present-day Jakarta. Cornelisz, who never showed a hint of remorse or offered an explanation for his brutality, was hanged along with his co-conspirators. The bones of his victims, preserved in the island's alkali coral sand for almost four centuries, are now revealing clues to the historical mystery. 

"Horrible things happened to these individuals. They clearly were victims," Paterson tells Bartlett. "But the archaeology allows us to get their story told." 

Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Find Traces of What Could Be the Oldest Wine in the World

Humankind has enjoyed wine for a long time—since the early Neolithic period, at least, judging from ancient residue on prehistoric pottery shards excavated from two sites in Georgia, in the South Caucasus. The fragments potentially date back to 6000 BCE, pushing back the earliest evidence of winemaking by about 600 to 1000 years, as The New York Times reports.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the findings pinpoint Georgia as one of the very first—if not the first—nations to have mastered winemaking. Before, Iran held the honor, although China can still lay claim to the world's oldest fermented beverage (a cocktail-like concoction of rice, honey, hawthorn fruit, and wild grapes that was enjoyed as early as 7000 BCE).

Leading the PNAS study was Patrick McGovern, a molecular archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He and his team excavated the remains of two Neolithic villages, located around 30 miles south of Georgia's capital city, Tbilisi. There, they found shards of clay jars—the likely remnants of large, rotund vats, which once could have accommodated as many as 400 bottles worth of today's wine.

Remains of ancient Georgian pottery vessels that may have once contained wine, photographed by Mindia Jalabadze.
(A) Representative early Neolithic jar from Khramis Didi-Gora (B) Jar base (C) Jar base (D) Jar base, interior
Mindia Jalabadze, courtesy of the National Museum of Georgia

These shards were collected for chemical analysis. Eight of them ended up containing tartaric, malic, succinic, and citric acids, all of which had leached into the clay long ago. The combination of these four acids is believed to be present only in grape wine. Researchers also noted traces of ancient grape pollen, starch from grape wine, and signs of prehistoric fruit flies.

Of course, there is the off chance that the jars might have been used to just make grape juice, but their decorations indicate that they weren't made to hold ordinary drinks, researchers argue.

Archaeological evidence dating back to the Bronze Age shows that Georgians have always held wine in great importance. But some experts thought this love of vino dated back even further—and now they believe they have pretty convincing proof.

[h/t The New York Times]


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