Studying the passed

January 12, 2001

Excrement is a growing area in archaeology. Miles Russell explains the power of poo.

Ever stopped to think about poo? I do not mean in a deviant way (though obviously that is entirely your prerogative), or from the perspective of toilet humour. No, I am talking about the way in which excrement has shaped human history.

As an archaeologist, I find myself constantly dealing with waste. Waste comes in many forms, such as discarded flint, broken pottery, smashed glassware and half-eaten food remains. Studying ancient rubbish, contrary to how it may sound, is actually extremely interesting because it can tell us what people used to eat, what they ate off, what they ate with, how they lived, how they died, what their beliefs were and so on.

Unfortunately, one type of human waste product is rarely considered by archaeologists or historians: excrement. Perhaps this is because of the taboos that surround discussion of what is, apart from the desire to mate, one of the most basic of human activities. Perhaps it is due to an almost Victorian-style desire to suppress any thought of poo. Perhaps it is the very words used to describe the act of defecation that are the problem (it is usually impossible to mention words such as poo, poop, crap, turd, do-do, dump or number twos, without an accompanying Sid James-style guffaw). As a consequence, excrement is often not treated as a subject worthy of serious study.

This is a shame because the act of defecation is one that, together with birth, eating, drinking, breathing and death, links all mammalian life on earth. Everyone defecates. Everyone in history (even Queen Victoria) has defecated. Though we may not choose to acknowledge the fact, pooing is important. Our stools could, for example, help those in the future understand how healthy we really were. Where we poo, the taboos that surround the act of pooing, the architecture that we construct to hide those engaged in defecation and the multitude of ways in which we dispose of the end product, can tell us more about the state of society than any book, newspaper or other historical document.

Archaeologists, historians and other guardians of our past are, however, often unwilling to discuss such basic human functions, preferring instead to grapple with seemingly weightier topics such as "peer-polity interaction spheres" or "sociopolitical geographies". These are, incidentally, exactly the same topics that visitors to an ancient monument or listed building are not that keen to find out about. Why be told about the infrastructure of Roman civil administration when you can find out how Roman soldiers wiped their behinds (with sponges soaked in dilute vinegar so we are often told, though the consequences of such an action on a private place do not really bear thinking about).

Researchers into the past are only just waking up to the fact that it is OK to like poo. Recent work in the field of excrement studies has, for example, included the examination of waste products from ancient corpses, such as the famous "ice man" recovered from the Italian/Austrian Alps, and "Lindow man", found in a British bog (no pun intended) and now residing in the British Museum. At the York Archaeological Trust, Andrew Jones has long been retrieving well-preserved food remains from prehistoric, Roman and medieval latrine deposits. Roger Doonan of Bournemouth University has been looking at connections between excrement and the earliest forms of metal production. At University College London, Astrid Lindenlauf has been examining attitudes to waste discharge in ancient Greece and how the increasing privatisation of bodily functions can be linked to higher degrees of civilisation. Other British researchers have been investigating the use and evolution of toilet furniture in Roman, medieval and more modern times.

Where the potential of toilets and excrement to inform has been realised, the results are often startling. Who can forget the sight (and, for that matter, the realistic smell) of the poor man straining over a pit, or the human coprolite displayed in all its glory, both at the Yorvik Viking Centre at York? What about the medieval sentry cheerily defecating in a corner of Castle Rushen in Castletown on the Isle of Man? Few recreations of the early medieval period are so evocative as these. I am told that the York and Castletown displays are the most popular (they are certainly the most memorable) aspects of each of these visitor attractions.

Discovery of apparently primitive toilet facilities in an ancient monument or listed building can help to reassure us that "things are certainly better now" than they ever were in the past. Beyond the novelty value, however, such places provide a more tangible link with the past (or passed). The acknowledgement that everyone in history defecated somehow makes these people seem more real. More human even. Cleopatra may have been the Siren of the Nile, but she defecated just like everyone else. Alexander the Great was driven, every morning, by a natural force greater than his desire to conquer the known world.

The act of defecation links the past to the present perhaps more strongly than any other human activity. People in the past may have believed different things, worshipped different gods, worn different clothes, spoken different languages, but they all pooed. Just like us.

Miles Russell is a lecturer in archaeology at Bournemouth University and was co-organiser of the Origin of Faeces session at the Theoretical Archaeological Group Conference held at Oxford University in December 2000.

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