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The secret history of ancient toilets
Source:NatureTime:2018/2/28 19:33:20


Byscouring the remains of early loos and sewers, archaeologists are finding

cluesto what life was like in the Roman world and in other civilizations.


Some 2,000 years ago, a high-ceilinged room underof one of Rome’s most opulent palaces was a busy, smelly space. Inside the dampchamber, a bench, perforated by about 50 holes the size of dinner plates, ranalong the walls. It may have supported the bottoms of some of the lowestmembers of Roman society.

Today, the room is shut off to the public, butarchaeologists Ann Koloski-Ostrow and Gemma Jansen had a rare chance to studythe ancient communal toilet on the Palatine Hill in 2014. Theymeasured the heights of the benchesstone base (a comfortable 43 centimetres), the distances between the holes (anintimate 1400px), the drop down into the sewer below (a substantial 380 cm at itsdeepest). They speculated about the mysterious source of the water thatwould have flushed the sewer (perhaps some nearby baths). Graffiti outside theentryway suggested long queues, in which people had enough time to write orcarve their messages before taking a turn on the bench. The undergroundlocation, combined with the plain red-and-white colour scheme on the walls, implieda lower class of user, possibly slaves.

In 1913, when Italian excavator Giacomo Boniexcavated this room, toilets were an unmentionable topic. In his report, heseems to mistake the remains of the holey benches for something much moresensational: part of an elaborate mechanism that, he speculated, would havepumped water and provided power for the palace above. Boni’s prudishsensibilities wouldn’t let him recognize what was before his very eyes, saysJansen. “He couldn’t imagine it was a toilet.”

A century later, toilets are no longer such anunacceptable research topic. KoloskiOstrow, at Brandeis University in Waltham,Massachusetts, and Jansen, an independent archaeologist based in theNetherlands, are among a growing number of archaeologists, infectiousdisease specialists and otherexperts who are shining light on the lost loos of history, from ancientMesopotamia to the Middle Ages, with a particular focus on the Roman world.

Their investigations have provided a new way tolearn about the diets, diseases and habits of past populations, especiallythose of the lower classes, which have received scant attention fromarchaeologists. Researchers have inferred that Roman residents ventured intotheir toilets with some trepidation, in part because of superstition and alsobecause of very real dangers from rats and other vermin lurking in the sewers.And although ancient Rome is famous for its sophisticated plumbing systems,modern studies of old excrement suggest that its sanitation technologies werenot doing much for the residents’ health.

Toilets have a lot to tell us about — farmore than how and where people went to the bathroom,” says Hendrik Dey, anarchaeologist at Hunter College in New York..


Although studies of ancient latrines are nolonger off limits, they do take a certain amount of fortitude. “You have tohave a very strong sense of self and of humour to work on this topic becauseone who works on it is going to get ribbed by friends and enemies,” says Koloski-Ostrow. She got started onthe topic nearly a quarter of a century ago, when classicist Nicholas Horsfallcalled her over in the library at the American Academy in Rome. “Latrines.Roman latrines,” he whispered conspiratorially. “No one has done themproperly.”She took up that challenge, and now, she says, “I am known widely onmy campus as ‘the queen of latrines’.”

The invention of some of the first simpletoilets is credited to Mesopotamia in the late fourth millennium BC1.These non-flushing affairs were pits about 4.5 metres deep, lined with astack of hollow ceramic cylinders about 1 metre in diameter. Users wouldhave sat or squatted over the toilet, and the excrement would have stayedinside the cylinders with the liquids seeping outwards through perforations inthe rings.

Until recently, scholars had little interest inthese toilets, says archaeologist Augusta McMahon at the University ofCambridge, UK. Archaeologists in Mesopotamiahave looked at them like, ‘this is a problem: it’s a pit that’s cut into thestuff I’m really interested in’.” As far as she knows, no one has carefully excavateda Mesopotamian toilet yet — something she’s hoping to do when she finds a goodcandidate and funding.

Mesopotamians themselves also seemed to showlittle enthusiasm for this revolutionary technology. Although the toilets wouldhave been convenient to use, and cheap and easy to install, they were uncommon,says McMahon, who surveyed the number of latrines in different neighbourhoodsfor a chapter in a book published last year1. “The number of housesthat have toilets is very, very low — one out of five or two out of five,”she says. Everyone else probably used a chamber pot or simply squatted in thefields. So the health benefits of the technology would have been limited,McMahon says. Although the pit toilets would have successfully separated peoplefrom their waste — the measure of a good sanitation system because itprevents the faecal–oral spread of disease — studies by the US Agency forInternationalDevelopment say that some 75% of a population must have access before there arewidespread improvements in health.

About 1,000 years later, the Minoans on theisland of Crete in the Mediterranean improved the toilet by adding the capacityto flush — although only for the elite. The first known example2 was in the palace at Knossos, says Georgios Antoniou, a Greek architect who hasstudied ancient sanitation in that country. Water was used to wash the wastefrom the toilet into the sewer system of the palace.

From there, toilet technology took off. In thefirst millennium BC, ancient Greeks of the Classical period and, especially,the succeeding Hellenistic period developed large-scale public latrines —basically large rooms with bench seats connected to drainage systems — andput toilets into ordinary middle-class houses. “The society had become moreprosperous, and they were dealing more with comfort in everyday living,”Antoniou says.

The Romans were unprecedented in their adoptionof toilets. Around the first century BC, public latrines became a majorfeature of Roman infrastructure, much like bathhouses, says Koloski-Ostrow. Andnearly all city dwellers had access to private toilets in their residences.Nonetheless, archaeologistsknow very little about how these toilets worked and what people thought ofthem, she says. One reason is that in Roman times, few people wrote abouttoilets, and when they did, they were often satirical, making it hard tointerpret their meaning.

But Koloski-Ostrow and Jansen show that it isworthwhile taking the topic seriously. For a forthcoming book on toilets in theRoman capital, they and some two dozen other archaeologists have analysed morethan 60 toilets scattered throughout the city, most of which had not beendescribed before. That includes toilets for guards in the city wall, and a two person toilet in an apartmentblock. I guess it will be news to alot of archaeologists who have worked on all kinds of Roman buildings that someof these buildings actually had toilet facilities,” Koloski-Ostrow says.

Roman public latrines looked much like theirGreek predecessors: rooms lined with stone or wooden bench seats positionedover a sewer. The toilet holes are round on top of the bench, and a narrowerslit extends forward and down over the edge in a keyhole shape. These slitsprobably allowed users to insert a spongetipped stick for cleaning.Small gutters often run parallel to the seats along the ground; researchers suspect that peopleprobably washed the sponges in water running through those gutters. There are no signs ofbarriers between the toilet seats, but people probably had a measure of privacythanks to their long garments and the limited windows, says Koloski-Ostrow.

Private toilets were different, Jansen says. Inresidences, commodes were often in or near kitchens, which was practicalbecause they were also used to dispose of food scraps. Although people flushedthe toilets with bucketsof water, the loos were rarely connected to sewers. When the pits filled up,they were probably emptied, either into gardens or fields outside the town,Jansen says.

Sewers — long thought to be a crowningachievement of Roman civilization — were in fact less widespread than oncethought and might not have been very effective, says Koloski-Ostrow. In a book publishedlast year3,she considered whether Roman sewers would have adhered to any of the modernprinciples of sanitationengineering, including regular aeration and features to control the depositionof solid waste, which would reduce the stench as well as improve flow. To agreat extent, the sewers didn’t meet the standards. Her own recent explorations of the Cloaca Maxima, thegreat sewer under Rome, revealed that some channels could get completelyblocked with silt in less than a year. At the very least, they would haverequired regular cleaning — dirty and dangerous work.

And Roman toilets also had a number of deficiencies. One major problem wasthat there were no traps — or S-shaped bends — in the pipes beneathtoilets to keep out flies. Environmental archaeologists Mark Robinson at theUniversity of Oxford and Erica Rowan, now at the University of Exeter, UK, analysedthe well-preserved contents of a closed sewer that was connected to severaltoilets in an apartment block in Herculaneum, a Roman city destroyed by an

eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Among the faecalmatter and other rubbish thrown down there, Robinson found lots of fragilemineralized fly pupae. With easy access to human waste, flies could havetransferred faecal matter and pathogens to people.


Communal toilets at the Roman site, OstiaAntica (left). The goddess Fortuna (right) was believed to protect latrineusers from dangers.


To look at the benefitsof ancient sanitation systems, palaeopathologist Piers Mitchell at theUniversity of Cambridge analysed publishedstudies of parasites found atarchaeological sites from several eras4. Contrary to his expectations, the prevalence ofintestinal parasites such as roundworm and whipworm — which cause problemssuch as malnutrition — did not decrease from the Bronze and Iron ages tothe Roman period; they gradually rose. That might be because the Romans usedhuman waste as fertilizer, which would have transferred the parasite eggs tofood. “Toilets and sewers and things didn’t seem to improve the intestinalhealth of the Roman population,” he says.


The practice of throwingkitchen rubbish down toilets was unhygienic for the ancient Romans, but theremnants of that refuse are now a rich source of information. Rowan wassurprised by the quality and variability of the foods in the Herculaneum sewer,especially because it was connected to an apartment complex that housed a largenumber of mostly poorer people. “We always think that anyone non-elite in theancient world is not eating a very diverse or interesting diet,” she says. Butthe evidence from Herculaneum shows that people across the class spectrum wereeating dozens of different types of food, most commonly figs, eggs, olives,grapes and shellfish. They flavoured their meals with seasonings such as dill,mint, coriander and mustard seeds5. “It would be quite healthy, andthey’d be getting all their essential nutrients.”

Rowan also used thesewer contents to glean insights into the broader food and energy economy. Thelarge amount of kitchen scraps suggested that the residents cooked more at homethan previously thought5. From the quantity of fish bones found, she concludedthat the regional fish trade was probably much larger than scholars hadsuspected6.Such discoveries are part of a broader trend in Roman archaeology, says Dey.Until recently, most scholars focused on the monumental structures occupied byelite residents. But attention has shifted to lower down the class ranking.“Roman archaeologistsstarted to realize that you cantunderstandhow a society works if you only study the 1%, he says. Thestudy of toilets is part of the broader effort to understand how Roman societyworked, which includes —especially — studying how the non-glamorous parts of society worked.

For Koloski-Ostrow andJansen, latrines provide a window onto the beliefs of that society. Romans perceived demonseverywhere, and some Roman literature refers to ones that lurked in toilets.“The demons can cast a spell on you, and when you have this spell you die oryou get sick,” Jansen says.

The Roman writerClaudius Aelianus tells a story in his De Natura Animalium about an octopusthat swam up through a drain in a toilet and ate the pickled fish in the pantry nightafter night. That story is probably apocryphal, but rodents, insects and othercreatures could have lurked in toilets and invaded homes. And excrement-filledwater could have flowed upwards during flooding.

Explosive gases mightalso have been a problem. “You might walk in and actually see a flame burst outof one of those holes because of the methanic gases that built up in the sewerunderneath the toilet,” Koloski-Ostrow speculates. This pervasive fear of toiletscould explain the mystery of why there’s less graffiti inside public latrinesthan in the rest of the Roman world, Jansen says. Nobody wanted to spend moretime there than necessary. The same fear could also explain why many latrineshave small shrines to the goddess Fortuna. Jansen argues that she was thoughtto protect toiletusersfrom illness-causing demons, as well as the other bad things that could happenthere7.

More discoveries aboutancient lifestyles will come as researchers expand their toilet studies toother parts of the globe. Rowan is studying a site in Turkey, and Mitchell hasrecently examined evidence from a 2,000-yearold toilet in China. Butprogress has been slow and archaeologists are not rushing into toilet studies.Although the topic is no longer considered fringe, funding is hard to come by, andMitchell says that noone else seems to be that botheredto work on it. One reason could be that the lack of written sources and thelimited physical evidence make it daunting.

But for researchers suchas Koloski-Ostrow, the recent work raises all kinds of questions about ancientsocieties. Did women use public toilets? Were they chatty, social places orsilent? What were the foreign influences on Roman toilets, and how did thetoilet culture propagate between the capital and the distant states? Thesequestions will be hard to answer, she says, but asking them no longer seems asweird as when she started.

Rowan agrees: toiletshave finally gone mainstream. “If somebody finds a latrine now, they know tosample it, to excavate it carefully. They know there’s going to be a lot ofvalue in it, as opposed to being, like, oh, its justa toilet.


Chelsea Wald is a journalist in Vienna, Austria.

1.McMahon, A. in Sanitation, Latrines and Intestinal Parasites in PastPopulations (ed. Mitchell, P. D.) 19–40 (Routledge, 2015).

2.Antoniou, G. P. & Angelakis, A. N. in Sanitation, Latrines and IntestinalParasites in Past Populations (ed. Mitchell, P. D.) 41–68 (Routledge, 2015).

3.Koloski-Ostrow, A. O. The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy (Univ. NorthCarolina Press, 2015).

4.Mitchell, P. D. Parasitology http://dx.doi. org/10.1017/S0031182015001651(2016).

5.Robinson, M. & Rowan, E. in A Companion to Food in the Ancient World (edsWilkins, J. & Nadeau, R.) 105–115 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015).

6.Rowan, E. in Fish & Ships: Production et Commerce des Salsamenta Durantl’Antiquité (eds Botte, E. & Leitch, V.) 61–74 (Errance, 2014).

7.Jansen, G. C. M. et al. (eds) Roman Toilets: Their Archaeology and CulturalHistory. BABESCH Suppl. 19 (Peeters, 2011).