Wednesday, 19 November 2014

World Toilet Day - attitudes to poop in the past

I found out that today is World Toilet Day! What better chance then to have a think about toilets and the disposal of human waste in the past. Regular readers will know (and the blog title perhaps suggests...) that coprolites, or fossilised faeces, are a regular feature of my work. A big part of World Toilet Day is about education and the problems of sanitation that many people face on a daily basis. The campaign highlights the fact that excrement is a bit of a taboo topic for many people, it's something we don't feel comfortable talking about. It's a 'hidden' activity. Has this always been the case in the past? The answer from the archaeological record is no - from prehistory to the famous public latrines of the Romans, there are many examples of a more open or communal approach to defecation.

The study of human waste in archaeology, particularly faecal waste, is however a neglected topic. Coprolites don't really fit neatly into any of the major existing specialisms such as zooarchaeology, archaeobotany or osteoarchaeology. In fact they represent a little bit of everything; lovely little packages of bone fragments, seeds and plant debris, perhaps even the remains of parasites.  There are plenty of studies of ancient faeces that treat these deposits in a very scientific sense, extracting DNA, microfossils and other inclusions to look at ancient migration, health and diet.

But the production of excrement in prehistoric society is not one that we hear much about. There are multiple reasons for this, one being the problem of identification. Unless we have well preserved actual little turds in our deposits (Figure 1), human faeces can be difficult to recognise in the field. If they have been squashed and compressed, they don't bear much resemblance to poop as we know it, and can be mistaken for other types of material. Second could be that, when faced with a lovely settlement site with buildings, pottery and other fascinating objects to study, the investigation of faeces is not on anyone's priority list (except mine!).

Figure 1: How do we recognise faeces in archaeology? Above shows compressed orange layers which are in fact layers of human excrement. Below shows a more recognisable example.

It is coprolites 'in context' that has not  been thought about too much. Where are people defecating? Is this a 'hidden' activity in the past the way it tends to be today? What were the social norms for dealing with this material? These are all ideas that I have been mulling over in my work at the early Neolithic settlement of Catalhoyuk in Turkey. At Catalhoyuk, there are huge midden deposits that are located directly adjacent to the buildings. My early work on coprolites here identified that a lot of the orangey deposits that are seen in middens are in fact human faecal waste, suggesting that this was an activity that was conducted out in the open, in a communal outdoor space.

Figure 2: midden deposits directly adjacent to buildings, and full of faeces!

Although it's largely a private matter it in western societies, 15% of the global population still practice open defecation (, which is a big problem when it comes to transmitting diseases. I wonder what link there is between the toilet habits of the Catalhoyuk inhabitants and the general health of the population? Did they have strategies in place for managing this waste? There have been suggestions that the large bonfires seen in middens were a means of dealing with waste (you can see an example in Figure 2, where the large grey layers on top of the cess layers are from a bonfire). Whilst I don't agree that this was the primary purpose of these fires (I suspect they are more likely related to activities such as pottery production), the sanitation control may have been a fortunate unintended outcome. What does this apparent attitude to defecation and waste tell us about Neolithic society?

Perhaps we can learn lessons  from these Neolithic people and their attitudes to defecation. Aside from the health issues, the problem of toilet access has knock on impacts in other parts of people's lives. The World Toilet Organisation for e.g. highlights that lack of access to a toilet is one of the reasons for the poor school attendance rates of girls. If we can get over our embarrassment talking about it, the easier it will be to tackle problems of toilet access and sanitation.

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