One may think of the main places of archeological interest would lay in large building projects like palaces, forts, and temples. While that is true, they may not tell us much about the actual lives of the people who lived there. One may be surprised to know that one of the great gold mines of archeological research is the humble latrine.
Cisterns and latrines can provide a whole wealth of information on how these people lived. We can learn what they eat, how healthy they were, and yes - even if they had internal issues. But just a heads up, this article is not for the squeamish.
The Ancient Roman Public Latines
Ancient Roman latines were comparatively hygienic and advanced for their time. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow is an anthropologist at Brandeis University and says that her "official" title is the Queen of Latrines. She has spent the last 25 years studying Roman gutters and toilets. She remarks:
“There’s a lot you can find out about a culture when you look at how they managed their toilets.”
The Romans would build rows of public toilets. They would often be a bench with a row of holes shaped like modern toilet seats and would have running water beneath. There were often no dividers of any kind in between them and forget about privacy. One would do what one had to do with the other folks. Not much different from men's bathrooms today.
- Privacy: There Wasn't Any Privacy In Roman Public Toilets
Beneath the seats are often stone-lined gutters that carried it all out of the city (something people take for granted today, but was absent from most ancient cities).
- Flowing Water: Roman Facilities Had Running Water
Public Roman toilets were called "foricae" and were often attached to public baths. They would use the wastewater from the baths to flush the toilets.
One can find old Roman toilets all around Europe in old Roman cities - like Ephesus in Turkey. If one is really drawn by toilet humor, then visit the Museum Of Historic Sanitary Objects in Austria.
- Where To Find Them: In Old Roman Cities Everywhere
Note: Roman's Attitudes To Latines Varied Over Time and Space (They Did Last For 2,000 Years and Rule From England to Egypt)
For the curious readers out there, the Romans washed with sea sponges attached to sticks (they would clean the sponge in the clean flowing water).
- Name: "tersorium" Literally "a Wiping Thing"
The wealthy Romans who built public works like the Roman baths would put their name on them reading "I so-and-so Built this Bath". But it seems no one wanted to put their names on public toilets.
Private Toilets In Ancient Jerusalem
One example is the archaeological research into a 2,700-year-old toilet in Jerusalem reported by the Times of Israel. This was the toilet of the ancient city's wealthy elite and it has been shown that they suffered from a range of intestinal parasites.
- Wealthy Elite: Only The Wealthy Elite In Ancient Jerusalem Could Afford a Toilet
Some 2,700 years ago would but it in the period of the Kingdom of Judea recorded in the Bible's Old Testament. For reference, King David lived around 3,000 years ago and the kingdom ended around 2,600 years ago. A new way to think about Sunday School lessons.
These unwanted intruders would have led to abdominal pain, itchiness, and other discomforts.
- Paradises: Paradises Were Very Common In Ancient Jerusalem
They have found four different types of intestinal parasites - roundworm, tapeworm, whipworm, and pinworm. The study suggested that they spread with poor sanitary conditions.
It was because of poor sanitary conditions that water was often dangerous to drink and people would drink vast quantities of (weak) wine and beer throughout the centuries. This is why the monks in Medieval Europe brewed beer in such quantities.
- Beer And Wine: Were Historically Much Safer Than Water
Once these people were infected, it would have been nearly impossible to get rid of them. They would have been a lifelong affliction to most of their hosts.
- Toilet Facilities: Were Extremely Rare And Were Something of a Luxury Status Symbol
Studies like this are extremely valuable to our understanding of the history of diseases and epidemics (a new field of research called archaeoparasitology).
The Study Of Coprolites is For Humans and Dinos Alike
The scientific word for fossilized intestinal remains is "coprolite". These are considered trace fossils and offer evidence for the animal's (or human's) diet. When studying dinosaurs one can learn if the animal was a predator or if it was a herbivore and what plants it was eating (and then by extension, what forests and plants were around at that time and place).
In the case of humans, one can also see what they were eating. Were they eating a seafood diet or a grain-based diet? Did they have other issues?