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Archaeologists May Have Unearthed the Oldest Toilet in Denmark

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The excavation of a Viking settlement in Stevns, Denmark has yielded an unexpected find: a 1000-year-old toilet. The latrine could be the oldest toilet in Denmark, reports ScienceNordic (via Real Clear Science) and might reshape how we think about Viking bathroom habits.

Researchers from the Museum Southeast Denmark were in search of pit houses (partially underground buildings that might have served as workshops) when they found the long-buried feces in a 6.5-foot-deep hole. They found fly pupae in samples from the bottom layer of the pit as well as mineralized seeds, which would be in line with the phosphate-rich, oxygen-poor environment of a giant pile of poop. Pollen analyses in the pit also indicate that the poop came from someone who ate honey—that is, probably humans.

This is what it looked like before lead researcher Anna S. Beck and her team dug in:

A before image of the pit covered in dirt
Museum Southeastern Denmark

While Viking cities may have needed toilets to deal with the high volume of human waste in concentrated areas, scholars have previously thought that out in the country, people didn’t need formal toilets, instead using the farm’s general refuse heap or taking care of their business in the stable with the livestock. But this pit seems to have been bounded by two posts that could have held poles, so it could have had a closed structure of some sort above it—which, judging from the burnt material found near the top of the pit, probably burned down.

A dug-out pit that could be Denmark's oldest toilet showing dark spots of feces
Museum Southeastern Denmark

This discovery could change that notion, although not all researchers are on board, according to ScienceNordic. Just because this area had a toilet doesn’t mean that every rural farmer did—someone in Stevns could have just been really into new technology. But at the least, this shows that this one subset of rural Vikings decided to forgo pooping in the stable for a stand-alone toilet.

"It is easy to think about people in the past as more primitive than us," Beck told Mental Floss in an email, "but things as combs, needles, tweezers—and now also toilets—show that the Vikings cared much about personal care and maybe even hygiene (though not in our sense of the word)."

And if outhouses like these were, in fact, a normal part of rural Viking life, it’s possible that archaeologists have just overlooked them in the past, thinking they didn’t exist. The new find could open up new avenues for research into the bathroom habits of Denmark's rural Viking populations.

[h/t Real Clear Science]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Buckingham Palace Was Built With Jurassic Fossils, Scientists Find
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The UK's Buckingham Palace is a vestige from another era, and not just because it was built in the early 18th century. According to a new study, the limestone used to construct it is filled with the fossilized remains of microbes from the Jurassic period of 200 million years ago, as The Telegraph reports.

The palace is made of oolitic limestone, which consists of individual balls of carbonate sediment called ooids. The material is strong but lightweight, and is found worldwide. Jurassic oolite has been used to construct numerous famous buildings, from those in the British city of Bath to the Empire State Building and the Pentagon.

A new study from Australian National University published in Scientific Reports found that the spherical ooids in Buckingham Palace's walls are made up of layers and layers of mineralized microbes. Inspired by a mathematical model from the 1970s for predicting the growth of brain tumors, the researchers created a model that explains how ooids are created and predicts the factors that limit their ultimate size.

A hand holding a chunk of oolite limestone
Australian National University

They found that the mineralization of the microbes forms the central core of the ooid, and the layers of sediment that gather around that core feed those microbes until the nutrients can no longer reach the core from the outermost layer.

This contrasts with previous research on how ooids form, which hypothesized that they are the result of sediment gathered from rolling on the ocean floor. It also reshapes how we think about the buildings made out of oolitic limestone from this period. Next time you look up at the Empire State Building or Buckingham Palace, thank the ancient microbes.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Inside the Kitchen of Thomas Jefferson's Acclaimed—and Enslaved—Chef James Hemings
 ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

James Hemings once prepared lavish dishes for America's founding fathers at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia plantation. Though enslaved, he trained in France to become one of colonial America's most accomplished chefs. Now, archaeologists have uncovered the kitchen where Hemings created his elaborate banquets, LiveScience reports.

Researchers at Monticello are conducting a long-term effort, the Mountaintop Project, to restore plantation premises, including slave quarters, to their original appearance. Archaeologists excavated a previously filled-in cellar in the main house's South Pavilion, where they found artifacts like bones, toothbrushes, beads, and shards of glass and ceramics. Underneath layers of dirt, experts also uncovered the kitchen's original brick floor, remnants of a fireplace, and the foundations of four waist-high stew stoves.

"Stew stoves are the historic equivalent of a modern-day stovetop or cooking range," archaeological field researcher manager Crystal Ptacek explains in an online video chronicling the find. Each contained a small hole for hot coals; centuries later, the cellar floor still contains remains of ash and charcoal from blazing fires. Hemings himself would have toiled over these stoves.

During the colonial period, wealthy families had their slaves prepare large, labor-intensive meals. These multi-course feasts required stew stoves for boiling, roasting, and frying. Archaeologists think that Jefferson might have upgraded his kitchen after returning from Paris: Stew stoves were a rarity in North America, but de rigueur for making haute French cuisine.

Hemings traveled with Jefferson to France in the 1780s, where for five years he was trained in the French culinary arts. There, Hemings realized he was technically a free man. He met free black people and also learned he could sue for his freedom under French law, according to NPR.

And yet he returned to the U.S. to cook for Jefferson's family and guests, perhaps because he didn't want to be separated from his family members at Monticello, including his sister, Sally. He later negotiated his freedom from Jefferson and trained his brother Peter as his replacement. Hemings ended up cooking for a tavern keeper in Baltimore, and in 1801, shortly after turning down an offer from now-president Jefferson to be his personal chef, he died by suicide.

"We're thinking that James Hemings must have had ideals and aspirations about his life that could not be realized in his time and place," Susan Stein, senior curator at Monticello, told NPR in 2015. "And those factors probably contributed to his unhappiness and his depression, and ultimately to his death."

Hemings contributed to early America's culinary landscape through dessert recipes like snow eggs and by introducing colonial diners to macaroni and cheese, among other dishes. He also assisted today's historians by completing a 1796 inventory of Monticello's kitchen supplies—and he's probably left further clues in the estate's newly uncovered kitchen, says Gayle Jessup White, Monticello's community engagement officer—and one of James's relatives.

"My great-great-great-grandfather Peter Hemings learned to cook French cuisine from his brother James on this stove," White tells Mental Floss. "It was a spiritual moment for me to walk into the uncovered remains of Monticello's first kitchen, where my ancestors spent much of their lives. This discovery breathes life into the people who lived, worked and died at Monticello, and I hope people connect with their stories."

[h/t Live Science]

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