How’d you like to be the person rooting through 2,000-year-old bags of poop? While it may sound distasteful and kind of disgusting, a research team from the University of Oxford begs to differ: “There’s absolutely no scent,” says Herculaneum Conservation Project director Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, “It’s exactly like earth compost.”
Around ten tons of ancient poop was unearthed and bagged from a cesspit in the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum, and dates back to about 79 AD. This is the same year that Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying both Herculaneum and its more famous neighbour Pompeii.
What’s the point of poop? Studying the excrement from an ancient town can reveal a lot about the people, their diet, and their way of life—and it’s not just poop, for that matter. It wasn’t uncommon for Romans to toss other bits of garbage into their sewers too. Refuse like animal bones, shell fragments, and seeds or seed casings have led researchers to conclude that the residents of Herculaneum ate a well-rounded, diverse diet, including fish, mollusk, chicken, olive, fig, and fennel.
Wallace-Hadrill also added that “it’s a jolly good diet—any doctor would recommend it.”
The importance of understanding what the typical Roman ate can’t be overstated, because while much is known about the delicacies eaten by the Roman elite, we understand less about the “everyday” Roman.
What else did excavators find in the sewer? Things like coins, gemstones, jewelry, and more generic items like broken pottery and lamps.
But that’s not all—in the future, deeper analysis of the poop could show what kinds of diseases or parasites ancient Romans were susceptible to or were battling at this period in history. And since only 77 of the 774 bags of poop have been opened and examined so far, who knows what other secrets the waste might hold!
It certainly gives a new meaning to the phrase “pooping gold”…!
Archaeologists have recently uncovered the remains of a Mayan warrior queen in Guatemala, at the site of El Peru-Waka, an ancient city under excavation by Washington University. Excavations led by archaeologist David Freidel identified a tomb in the ruins of the city’s main pyramid temple, attributing it as likely belonging to military ruler Lady K’abel of the Wak—or “Centipede Kingdom”—between 672-692 A.D.
The body buried inside the tomb held a variety of numerous offerings, such as jade jewelry, stone figures, and ceramic vessels. Among those, the most important item found was a small alabaster jar carved to resemble a conch shell. The carving also includes a head and arms of an old woman, which appear to emerge from inside the shell.
The back of the alabaster jar holds distinct Mayan hieroglyphs that read “Lady Snake Lord” and “Lady Water Lily Hand,” both names which are thought to reference Lady K’abel. This military ruler governed with her husband, K’inich Bahlam, while her official title of “Kaloomte” translates as “supreme warrior”… showing that while she wasn’t the king, she actually had more power than he did in many affairs!
The skeleton itself, found within the tomb, wasn’t in the greatest condition, making it difficult for excavators to determine the gender and age of the individual. However, the features of the skull are distinct and resemble the well-recognized carved ancient portraits of the warrior queen, which is what led the team to name this as her tomb.
Queens of El Peru-Waka also wore very specific jewelry to denote their station—shells worn at girdle ornaments, for example—and this body’s torso held a red spiny oyster shell.
Unfortunately for the queen, the Wak kingdom eventually collapsed, but during its height there were numerous public plazas, temple pyramids, palaces, and many homes to house the large population.
Photo Credit: Photograph by El Peru Wake Regional Archaeological Project