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Chloe Effron, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

6 Practical Ways Romans Used Human Urine and Feces in Daily Life

Chloe Effron, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

You’re probably familiar with the cliché “everything but the squeal” to refer to the efficient, waste-not-want-not form of meat processing. But you may not know that the ancient Romans were also economical about their use of waste products—specifically, their own waste. Human urine and feces were used in daily life in at least six different (and sometimes dubious) ways. 

1. WHITENING TEETH

When left out too long, urine decomposes into ammonia, which is a great cleaning product that takes out stains easily. Roman authors like Catullus attest to people using both human and animal urine as a mouth rinse that helped whiten their teeth.

2. GROWING JUICY FRUIT

Urine also contains nitrogen and phosphorous, which are both useful for growing plants. The Roman author Columella wrote that old human urine was particularly useful for growing pomegranates, making them juicier and tastier.

3. MAKING THEIR TOGAS BRIGHT AND COLORFUL

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The ammonia in urine was also used to clean togas in a place called a fullery. The first stage of cleaning involved men jumping up and down on the togas in large vats with urine inside, like living washing machine agitators, while the second stage often included dirt or ash. Both helped dissolve grease that accumulated on the togas and made them bright again.

4. CURING DISEASED ANIMALS

From the Roman author Columella again come some suggestions for using human urine, this time for veterinary purposes: Sheep with bile issues were given human urine to drink, while those with lung issues were given urine through the nose. Sick bees could also be given human urine, and bird flu was cured by putting tepid urine on their beaks.

5. TANNING

The Romans frequently employed urine, dog feces, and sometimes human feces in tanning—no, not for sunning themselves outside, but for making leather. A good long soak in urine would help remove hair from the pelt, and then feces were ground into it, sometimes for hours at a time. The enzymes made by the bacteria in the feces softened the hide, making it more supple.

6.  FERTILIZING FIELDS 

Also known as “night soil,” fertilizer made from human feces can help plants grow—but it can also help spread disease. The Romans did use human feces and urine in their gardens, as the organic portion of the poo and the nitrates, phosphorous, and potassium of the urine nourished plants. There seems to have been a healthy trade in feces in Roman times, as the stercorarii—"poop collectors"—were documented to have collected and sold it. 

Although human waste was used in a wide variety of ways in ancient Rome, it’s not clear exactly how it was gathered. Latrines—both public and private—were undoubtedly useful for amassing a combination of urine and feces, but would not have worked for tanners, who needed unadulterated urine. It is clear that the collection of waste wasn’t free. The emperor Vespasian levied a tax on urine around 70 CE. Reportedly, when his son Titus expressed disgust at the tax, Vespasian retorted, "pecunia non olet"—"money doesn’t stink." His tax was so famous that his name is still used today as a general term for public urinals (vespasiennes in French and vespasiani in Italian). 

So the next time you think to appreciate modern bathroom hygiene, be sure to give thanks to the minor Roman deity Cloacina.  Because if you anger this goddess of the sewer system, she is sure to send you running for a plumber.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
6 Priceless Treasures Lost in Shipwrecks
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In the lore around treasures lost at sea, most of the excitement goes to pirate’s gold and the sunken luxuries of the Titanic. But in the centuries of human seafaring, many lesser-known priceless objects, from literary manuscripts to scientific research, have been claimed by the depths. Here are some tales of those losses, from a lifetime of work by a 19th-century woman who was an expert in cephalopods, to a rare book by Dickens that went down with the Lusitania.

1. LOUIS DE JAUCOURT'S ANATOMICAL LEXICON

Always, always, always back up your work. Of course, that's easier now than it was in the 18th century, when French scholar Louis de Jaucourt dispatched his six-volume Lexicon medicum universale to his Amsterdam publisher, a move intended to evade French censorship. The medical dictionary, on which he'd spent 20 years, was completely lost when the ship it was on sank off Holland's coast. Luckily, Jaucourt rebounded when Denis Diderot asked him to contribute to the Encyclopédie, now considered one of the greatest works of Enlightenment thought, for which he used his notes from the lost manuscript. Jaucourt became the publication's most prolific author, penning 40,000 articles—so many he was nicknamed l'esclave de l’Encyclopédie, or the "slave of the Encyclopedia."

2. THE FIELDWORK OF ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE

Portrait of Alfred Russel Wallace, Welsh naturalist and explorer
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1852, following four years of research in the Amazon, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was ready to return to England. He loaded his copious notes, animal and plant specimens, and drawings onto the brig Helen. Just 26 days into the voyage, the vessel caught fire. Wallace only had time to hastily fill a tin box with a few drawings of fish and palms and some scientific notes before joining the crew in the lifeboat. After 10 days marooned at sea, they were rescued by the brig Jordeson—but most of Wallace's work was gone forever. As he lamented in an October 19, 1852 letter, "The only things which I saved were my watch, my drawings of fishes, and a portion of my notes and journals. Most of my journals, notes on the habits of animals, and drawings of the transformations of insects, were lost.” While he continued as a leading naturalist—albeit one overshadowed in his evolution research by Charles Darwin—Wallace was never able to reconstruct those years of fieldwork.

3. THE CEPHALOPOD RESEARCH OF JEANNE VILLEPREUX-POWER

Before Jeanne Villepreux-Power’s 19th-century research, most scientists thought the Argonauta argo, or paper nautilus, scavenged its shell from other animals. But by inventing the modern aquarium, Villepreux-Power could study the species first-hand, and witness how it grows and repairs its own shell. The breakthrough was one of many discoveries made by the pioneer in cephalopod research, one of the few women to achieve prominence in Victorian science. She might be better known today if it weren't for the fact that when she and her husband decided to move from Sicily to London, the vessel on which they’d shipped their possessions—including the majority of her drawings, notes, and equipment—foundered off the coast of France in 1843. After the devastating loss, she never published again.

4. A COPY OF A CHRISTMAS CAROL OWNED BY CHARLES DICKENS

Sinking of the Lusitania
Three Lions/Getty Images

When Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat realized the RMS Lusitania was doomed that fateful day in 1915, he dashed to his cabin, using the light from a few matches to try to find the literary treasures he’d brought aboard. These included original drawings by Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray, as well as an edition of A Christmas Carol owned by Charles Dickens himself. The edition was irreplaceable, since it included Dickens’s notes related to his 1844 copyright suit against the illicit republishing of his story. In the book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson vividly describes Lauriat’s harrowing experience when the ocean liner was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland: Lauriat grabbed the leather briefcase containing the Dickens, but left the Thackeray sketches behind. Rushing out to the deck, he saw a lifeboat packed with women and children that was being dragged down by the sinking ship. He jumped in with the briefcase, yet was unable to free the lifeboat, and in the escape into the water he lost the precious cargo. Out in the waves, he managed to evade entanglement with an antenna, swim to a collapsible lifeboat, and survive. One of the few items he managed to save were photographs of his baby, which he told his wife were his "mascot."

5. WRITINGS OF JOSÉ ASUNCIÓN SILVA

Portrait of José Asunción Silva

Many Colombians can recite the first lines from the influential Modernist poet José Asunción Silva's "Nocturne III"—"A night / A night full of hushings, of the curled wool of perfume / And incanting wing"—and it’s even printed in microtext on the 5000 Colombian peso bill. The poem, written in 1892, is believed to be a tribute to Silva’s half-sister. Silva suffered another blow in 1895, when many of his manuscripts, including a draft of a novel, were lost in a shipwreck. He left his diplomatic post in Venezuela, and dedicated all his time to reconstructing the drowned novel. But his melancholy continued: After visiting a doctor to ask the exact position of his heart, he shot himself in 1896. His rewritten novel—After-Dinner Conversation (De sobremesa) —wasn’t published until 1925.

6. THE ART OF GIOVANNI BATTISTA LUSIERI

The South-east Corner of the Parthenon, Athens by Giovanni Battista Lusieri
Giovanni Battista Lusieri, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Giovanni Battista Lusieri was a meticulous painter of the Italian landscape, particularly its classical ruins. In large panoramas and more compact watercolors, he depicted the Acropolis, views of Rome and Naples, and, his favorite, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Some of his most striking works captured the volcano at night, illuminating the darkness with its orange glow. Lord Byron called him "an Italian painter of the first eminence." Yet his name is now obscure. This is partly due to the years he stopped painting to help Lord Elgin remove and ship the Parthenon Marbles to London. But when Lusieri's artwork was being sent home from Greece after his death in 1821, a shipwreck destroyed nearly half of it (including a spectacular 25-foot-long panorama of Athens), helping to ensure his fall from fame.

BONUS: PEKING MAN

A replica of the Peking Man Skull
A replica of the Peking Man Skull

When paleontologists discovered the bones of "Peking man" in a dig near Beijing in the 1920s, they were the oldest hominid fossils ever found. However, scientists can now only study the bones—thought to be about half a million years old—from casts. The Peking Man fossils were last seen in December 1941, but vanished during the Japanese occupation of China while they were being sent to the United States for safekeeping. There are many conjectures on their fate, from being secretly stored away in Japan, to being under a parking lot in China. Yet one enduring theory is that they were lost at sea on the Japanese freighter Awa Maru: In 1945, the ship was torpedoed in the Taiwan Strait by the USS Queenfish despite being guaranteed safe passage by the United States, leading to the loss of more than 2000 lives—and, it's said, the priceless Peking fossils [PDF].

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History
Royal Watch 1947: See Queen Elizabeth II Marry Prince Philip
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

In less than 24 hours, millions of royal enthusiasts will climb out of their beds at an ungodly hour, brew up the strongest pot of coffee they can manage, and watch Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle exchange their “I do”s. While gluing oneself to our personal electronics to witness all the lavish pomp and circumstance that surround a royal affair may seem like a relatively new pastime, the truth is that we’ve been doing it for years. Case in point: Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip’s 1947 wedding.

Though Elizabeth and Philip didn’t have dozens of television networks broadcasting their every step down the aisle, their nuptials did manage to attract more than 200 million earlobes, who listened in on the event via BBC Radio. Shortly thereafter, newsreel footage of the soon-to-be Queen’s big day made its way into movie theaters around the world. Now, thanks to the power of the internet, we can go back in time and tune in, too.

British Pathé has made a handful of videos from the wedding, which took place on November 20, 1947, available for streaming on YouTube. So if you want to start your royal marathon a little early, here’s your chance.

If you want to go back even further in time, The Royal Family’s YouTube channel includes footage of the 1923 wedding of Elizabeth’s parents, The Duke of York (later King George VI) and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother), which also took place at Westminster Abbey.

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