A brilliant new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science highlights how the archaeologists and researchers involved in analyzing a 1,500-year-old chamber pot have developed a unique method of identifying intestinal parasites concealed within chamber pots, helping us better understand ancient gut health and diets.
The research, based in Gerace, Sicily, reveals that archaeologists can now identify when these ceramic chamber pots were used by Romans as portable toilets. “Ceramics are the most ubiquitous and the most readily visible forms of material culture that can be recovered archaeologically from Roman contexts,” wrote the archaeologists in the study. After all, in archaeological sites in the Roman world, pottery is the most frequently found material.
“Conical pots of this type have been recognized quite widely in the Roman Empire and in the absence of other evidence they have often been called storage jars,” explained Roger Wilson, a professor in University of British Columbia’s Department of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious studies who directs the Gerace archaeological project in Sicily, where the pot was found. “The discovery of many in or near public latrines had led to a suggestion that they might have been used as chamber pots, but until now proof has been lacking,” he concluded.
Microscopic egg of whipworm from the chamber pot. Black scale bar represents 20 micrometres. (Sophie Rabinow / Journal of Archaeological Science )
Palaeoparasitology and Other Methods Employed on the Chamber Pot
They used a scientific method called palaeoparasitology (which is a subset of palaeontology), where studies are conducted on parasites from the past, and the results are documented in the interactions with hosts and vectors. In this case, the researchers from the University of British Columbia, and the University of Cambridge analyzed crusty remains formed on the inside surface of a ceramic chamber pot dating to the fifth century from a Roman villa site in Sicily.
They employed microscopy to identify intestinal parasites, under the aegis of a team from the Ancient Parasites Laboratory at Cambridge University, who confirmed that the vessel once contained human feces , after identifying the eggs of a whipworm.
“It was incredibly exciting to find the eggs of these parasitic worms 1,500 years after they’d been deposited,” said co-author Tianyi Wang, University of Cambridge, who played an important role in the microscopy work. “We found that the parasite eggs became entrapped within the layers of minerals that formed on the pot surface, so preserving them for centuries,” added co-author Sophie Rabinow.
The whipworm is a parasitic roundworm, 5 cm long (1.96 inches), earning its name for its whip like shape with wider handles at the posterior end. It generally affects the large intestine of human beings, living on the inside lining.
The eggs that they lay here generally get mixed up with human feces , and with every usage, layers and layers of minerals and nutrients from human waste would get formed on the inside in the form of concretions. As per the study, “this is the first time that parasite eggs have been identified from concretions inside a Roman ceramic vessel.”
Mineralised concretions that formed on the surface of the interior of the chamber pot thanks to feces deposited within the chamber pot. (Roger Wilson / Journal of Archaeological Science )
Excavating the Villa and Moving Forward
The villa has been the site of six excavations since 2013, which have revealed a great deal more since it was discovered in 1994. These excavations have revealed a moderately sized villa, with mosaic pavements, a detached bathhouse with mosaic and marble decorations, and a large store building with kilns. These have been dated to 4th and 5th centuries AD, as a massive earthquake greatly damaged the house during this period, but there has been occupation at the site as early as the 2nd century.
The aforementioned chamber pot was found in the bathhouse in 2019, and with the absence of a dedicated latrine area, it can be safely assumed that the portable pot was enjoyed by the bathers in the bathhouse. The ceramic is locally sourced, and the entire contraption probably involved wickerwork or a timber chair, under which the pot was placed. The archaeologists did contemplate the possibility of the pot alone being used for sitting, as its dimensions, 31.8 cm (12.5 inches) high with a diameter of 34 cm (13.3 inches) at the rim were large enough for an adult so sit on.
Rim fragments of the chamber pot during excavations at the Roman villa in Gerace, Sicily. (Sophie Rabinow / Journal of Archaeological Science )
Dr. Piers Mitchell, from Cambridge Infectious Diseases, and the parasites expert who led the study in the laboratory, explained that “this pot came from the baths complex of a Roman villa. It seems likely that those visiting the baths would have used this chamber pot when they wanted to go to the toilet, as the baths lacked a built latrine of its own. Clearly, convenience was important to them.”
The employment of this technique for a first of its kind discovery paves the way for future paraearchaeology. This would help archaeologists understand not just the gut health of our predecessors, but also dietary habits, lifestyle and socio-economic status, amongst other indicators. Vitally, it would also help us potentially understand the sanitation techniques of the ancient world, including disposal and treatment.
Top image: 5th century chamber pot from the Roman villa at Gerace, Sicily (Italy). Source: Roger Wilson / Journal of Archaeological Science
By Sahir Pandey