Poop Scooping in Ancient Rome

By: The Scribe on Monday, October 29, 2012

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.

Roman Cesspit -- Photograph courtesy Domenico Camardo, Herculaneum Conservation ProjectWhat’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”…!


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