Romans, poo and toilets

A few weeks ago we had the Roman toilet paper meme and the use, or not, of pessoi.

That seemed to have died down until a recent post by Caroline Lawrence set it going again.

Well I’m not an expert on Roman bottoms, but I’d say we know enough from Viking cesspits in York and some work on the Anglo-Saxons that people have used leaves, moss and grass, and there’s circumstantial evidence of Roman soldiers at Kintore and Bearsden using spahgnum moss.

Anyone who has ever taken an extended multiday bushwalk in remote country will recognise these as viable alternatives to toilet paper. Dockleaves are especially useful as they are large and cool to the touch.

I suspect that, just as in the remoter parts of Turkey today, most toilets came with a water bucket or jug and one cleaned oneself by using one’s hand, but this does lead to the problem of how to dry a damp bottom.

One could think of a scenario where one washed the are and then dried it with the grass or moss – this would also explain the cloth fragments found in roman cesspits – they were for drying not wiping and hence represent a more economical use of the material.

I was sufficiently interested to do a little googling for the evidence and came across this 2009 discussion on roman latrines. The proceedings don’t appear to be online but I did find a conference report (in German). Unfortunately Google Translate misrecognises the text as being in Dutch, and promptly falls over when one tries automatic translate, so I’ve put an English version up on Google Docs, as it’s the source for the suggestion around the use of sphagnum moss.

However the other interesting thing about this whole thread is the way it has raised the problem of cultural awareness. Other cultures do things differently. Some cultures of course use human waste to fertilise the fields and use well scoured buckets. Any plant material used in the cleaning process would just disappear into the manure pile.

There are tribal peoples in the far north of Thailand and Myanmar who keep pigs under their houses and whose toilet arrangements involve crapping into the pig shed, the pigs doing their bit for recycling.

The point about these arrangements is that any evedence of cleaning practices probably not show up on any archaeological record as it would be masked by the presence of pig poo and any other surplus waste fed to the pigs or other material in the manure pile.

We’re only able to speculate about what the Romans did because of what they left behind …

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About dgm

IT professional, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical and medieval historian ...
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