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iStock / Vindolanda Trust via The History Blog
iStock / Vindolanda Trust via The History Blog

8 Archaeological Treasures Found in Poop

iStock / Vindolanda Trust via The History Blog
iStock / Vindolanda Trust via The History Blog

Among its many fine qualities, human waste gives archaeologists a wealth of information about people's daily lives—what they ate and drank, what critters set up shop in their guts, what plants and animals lived alongside them—information that can be hard to find in historical accounts. It can also preserve artifacts and biological remains for centuries in its waterlogged environment, like an odoriferous time capsule. Here are eight archaeological treasures found in poop.

1. GIRAFFE LEG // POMPEII SEWER DRAIN, ITALY, 79 CE

Giraffe with other wild animals in Lod Mosaic, Lod, Israel, ca. 300 CE. Image credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

 
A recent study of the sewer drains in the Porta Stabia neighborhood of Pompeii found that its residents of the 1st century CE enjoyed a great variety of foods at the city's eateries. Conveniently located inside the oldest of the city gates near two theaters, a probable gym, and a forum, the neighborhood was studded with storefronts and restaurants catering to locals and visiting crowds. You can deduce the socioeconomic position of their clientele by what kind of foodstuffs they excreted down the drains.

The drains of some of the shops stuck to local, cheap, easily available food like olives, lentils, fruit and local fish, plus mid-tier imports like salted fish from Spain. One of the centrally located storefronts brought in the pricier goods from outside of Italy, including what must have been a rare delicacy: giraffe leg. The leg joint of a giraffe, clearly marked with cuts from butchery, was found in this restaurant's drain.

It is the only giraffe bone ever discovered in an archaeological context in Italy—and little wonder, because the first giraffe to set foot in Europe was brought to Rome by Julius Caesar on his return from Alexandria in 46 BCE. The fact that such exotic fare was available to middle-class residents of a small town in southern Italy came as a surprise to archaeologists.

2. ROMAN GOLD AND ONYX RING // VINDOLANDA LATRINE, ENGLAND, CA. 210 CE

Gold and onyx ring engraved with face of Medusa found in Vindolanda latrine. Image credit: Vindolanda Trust

 
The Roman fort of Vindolanda just south of Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland is renowned for the preservation of wooden writing tablets, thousands of shoes, textiles and the only ancient Roman wooden toilet seat ever found. The site's powers of preservation are largely due to its anaerobic soil, but the latrine, found in a residence dating to the Severan period (208–211 CE), proved to be an archaeological gold mine in itself.

Literally. Very few gold objects have been found at Vindolanda. The largest was found in the commander's crapper. It's a gold ring with a white onyx cameo carved into the image of the gorgon Medusa. The stone and band show heavy wear patterns that suggest it may have been a family heirloom, handed down through the years. It was an expensive piece, and given where it was found, could well have belonged to the family of the commanding officer of the fort.

3. COLOSSAL HEAD OF CONSTANTINE // CLOACA MAXIMA, ROME, 4TH CENTURY CE

Colossal head of Constantine found in Cloaca Maxima Image credit: Agence France-Presse

 
While clearing the Cloaca Maxima, Rome's great sewer, under the Forum in 2005, archaeologists discovered a colossal head of the Emperor Constantine in one of the passages. Carved between 312 and 325 CE after his defeat of Maxentius left him sole ruler of the Western empire, the 2-foot-long head was once attached to a larger-than-life statue of the emperor, perhaps in full armor, as his colossal sculptures often depicted him in military splendor.

The head does not appear to have wound up in the sewer by accident. Archaeologists think it was used deliberately, either to scrape out the easily clogged conduits, to block a passage and redirect the flow of effluvia, or possibly as an insult to the emperor, whose favoritism towards Christianity rubbed adherents of the traditional Roman religion the wrong way.

4. CATHERINE DE' MEDICI'S GOLD HAIRPIN // FONTAINEBLEAU PALACE COMMUNAL TOILET, FRANCE, 16TH CENTURY

Catherine de' Medici's hairpin found in a 16th-century communal toilet at Fontainebleau Palace. Image credit: Conseil General Seine-et-Marne

 
Catherine de' Medici was queen consort of King Henry II of France (1547–1559) and the power behind the throne for her three sons who became kings of France. Very little of her jewelry has survived. Only two pieces—a pendant and a portrait medallion—were known for a fact to have belonged to her until 2012, when the discovery of a 16th-century communal latrine during the excavation of a courtyard at Fontainebleau Palace revealed a third. This one is the surest of them all because it bears her mark.

It's a gold hairpin 4 inches long topped with two interlocking Cs back-to-back—Catherine's monogram. One of the Cs is finished with green enamel, the other with white; green and white were Catherine's colors before her widowhood.

Catherine would not have relieved herself in the communal toilets out in the yard, so how her hairpin ended up in the cesspit is up for rampant speculation. It could somehow have fallen into her personal chamber pot which was then emptied out in the latrine. A more dastardly conjecture is that the jewel was swiped by someone on staff who then either dropped it down the loo either accidentally or intentionally, perhaps to dispose of the evidence—much like someone flushing their bag of cocaine when the cops bust through the door.

5. VAGINAL SYRINGES // CESSPIT OF PRIVATE HOME, THE NETHERLANDS, 17TH CENTURY

Cesspit vaginal syringes on display at the Stedelijk Museum in Zwolle. Image credit: Gijsbert van der Wal

 
In 2001, municipal archaeologists excavating the old town center of Zwolle, the Netherlands, unearthed the cesspit of a private home dating to the 17th century. Among the high-quality pieces of pottery and glass pieces indicating this was a home for the urban elite, archaeologists found two wooden objects carved to look like penises: one smaller and more rudimentary in its phallic shaping, the other made of polished boxwood, complete with realistic anatomy—including testicles.

At first glance they seemed to be dildos, but upon closer inspection they proved to be vaginal syringes artistically designed to look like dildos. The larger one is just shy of 9 inches long and has four parts: a hollow shaft, the decorative scrotum, a piston that runs from the shaft through a hole in the testicles, and a knob that screws onto the end. The smaller one (about 6 inches long) has just the hollow shaft and the piston remaining. Both are now on display at the Stedelijk Museum in Zwolle.

The syringes were used by filling the hollow shaft with a liquid and pushing the piston up to spray inside the vagina. A strong spray of soapy water was a popular (and an ineffective) birth control method at the time. Syringes could also be filled with herbal remedies for a variety of gynecological ailments, or, later on, with concoctions made of toxic substances like lead and zinc sulphate.

6. NORTH AMERICA'S OLDEST BOWLING BALL // NAYLOR HOME PRIVY, BOSTON, 17TH CENTURY

Lawn bowling ball found in a privy of Katherine Nanny Naylor's Boston home, 17th century. Image credit: Massachusetts Historical Commission

 
The oldest bowling ball in North America was unearthed from the privy of Katherine Nanny Naylor's home on Cross Street in the North End of Boston in 1994. Just 5 inches in diameter and narrower from the side, it's more like a rotund wheel than a ball. The shape identifies as a boule, also known as a "wood," for lawn bowling, a bocce-like sport in which the aim was to get your ball closest to the smaller target ball known as a Jack. The wheel-like shape was intentional to give the ball a curved trajectory. The hole drilled through the middle held a lead weight which affected the bias (how much the ball curves) as it hurtled over grass towards the target.

Mrs. Naylor's ball was milled on a lathe in the mid 1600s, when the sport had only recently been introduced to the British colonies in North America. In Puritan Massachusetts, however, lawn bowling was frowned upon—and even criminalized in some situations—because it was seen as a gambling sport, so finding so early an example was an unexpected boon for archaeologists. Still in excellent condition, the boule has an area where the wood split, flattening the edge; this defect is probably what led to the object's ignominious fate. The lead weight had been removed and was likely recycled.

7. DILDO // FENCING SCHOOL LATRINE, POLAND, 18TH CENTURY

18th-century dildo from Gdansk latrine (top side). Image credit: Regional Office for the Protection of Monuments of Gdansk

 
An actual dildo was found during a 2015 excavation of a latrine in Gdansk, Poland. The latrine was in use over several decades, but the dildo dates to the second half of the 18th century when there was a fencing school on the site. Measuring a sturdy 8 inches in length, the sex toy has a carved wooden tip and a shaft stuffed with bristles, and it's covered in high-quality leather. It was a top-of-the-line product in 18th century Europe and would have cost a pretty penny.

The water- and poop-logged conditions of the latrine kept the object in fine condition, with only a split seam on the underside caused by the long-term exposure to moisture. Given how expensive it was, it probably was not deliberately thrown down the john when it was still in fine fettle. Its final resting place was more likely the result of a tragic case of butterfingers during use.

8. MORE THAN 82,000 ASSORTED ARTIFACTS // OUTHOUSE VAULTS, PHILADELPHIA, 18TH CENTURY

"Success to the Triphena" punch bowl. Image credit: Museum of the American Revolution

 
Because sometimes X really does mark the spot, an excavation of the site of the future Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia's historic center uncovered 12 brick-lined outhouse vaults filled to bursting with artifacts from the first decade of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th. Homes, small businesses (printers, tanners, barber-surgeons, carpenters, etc.), and taverns tapped into those privies over the centuries, using them to dispose of their garbage as well as their waste. Artifacts discovered include earthenware plates, print type, wig curlers, tankards, glass bottles, fine china, coins, and even an engraved gemstone.

One piece, particularly relevant to the museum that will soon open where it was found, is a punch bowl that was unearthed in the privy pit designated "Feature 16," which was in use from 1776 through 1789, an ideal archaeological microcosm of Revolutionary-era social history. An unlicensed tavern run out of the home of Benjamin and Mary Humphreys filled the pit with broken drinking glasses, serving dishes, mugs, and almost 100 bottles that once held alcohol. The tin-glazed earthenware punch bowl is notable for the image of a merchant ship called the Triphena and the slogan "Success to the Triphena" decorating the inside of the bowl. The Triphena sailed to Liverpool in 1765 carrying a plea from the merchants of Philadelphia to their counterparts in Britain that they work to repeal the Stamp Act. The bowl was manufactured in Liverpool and must have been a treasured object because it was repaired at least once before it wound up in pieces down the privy at least a decade after the repeal of the Stamp Act.

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Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
13-Year-Old Amateur Archaeologist Discovers the Buried Treasure of a Danish King
Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images
Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images

In January, amateur archaeologist René Schön and his 13-year-old student Luca Malaschnitschenko were scouring a field on an island in the Baltic Sea when something small and silver triggered their metal detector. What they initially thought was aluminum trash turned out to be a coin from a 10th-century treasure hoard that once belonged to a Danish king, AP reports.

Schön and Malaschnitschenko discovered the site on the eastern German island of Ruegen, but it wasn't until mid-April that state archaeologists uncovered the hoard in its entirety. Both of the amateur archaeologists were invited back to take part in the final dig, which spanned 4300 square feet.

The treasure trove includes pearls, jewelry, a Thor's hammer, and about 100 silver coins, with the oldest dating back to 714 CE and the most recent to 983 CE. Experts believe the collection once belonged to the Viking-born Danish king Harald "Harry" Bluetooth, who abandoned his Norse faith and brought Christianity to Denmark.

Pile of silver coins.
Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images

Threatened by a rebellion led by his son, the king fled Denmark in the late 980s—around the same time the silver hoard was buried—and took refuge in Pomerania, on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea. He died there in 987.

Harry Bluetooth derived his nickname from his bluish dead tooth. Today his legacy lives on in the Swedish Bluetooth technology that bears his name. The symbol for the tech also uses the runic characters for his initials: HB.

According to the archaeologists who worked there, the dig site represents the largest trove of Bluetooth coins ever discovered in the southern Baltic region.

[h/t AP]

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