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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iStock
Drought Reveals Ancient Sites in Scotland That Can Only Be Spotted From the Air
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iStock

Typically rainy Scotland is in the middle of an unusually dry summer—and local archaeologists are taking advantage of it. As the BBC reports, the drought has revealed ancient sites, including Roman camps and Iron Age graves, that have been hidden by farm soil for years.

Historic Environment Scotland has been conducting aerial surveys of the country's landscape since the 1930s, but it's in seasons like this, when the crops recede during dry weather, that the buried remains of ancient structures are easiest to spot. Conditions this summer have been the best since 1976 for documenting archaeological sites from the sky.

Aerial view of field.
Historic Environment Scotland

The crescent-shaped crop mark in the photo above indicates a souterrain, or underground passageway, that was built in the Scottish Borders during the Iron Age. The surveyors also found remains of a Roman temporary camp, marked by straight lines in the landscape, built in modern-day Lyne—an area south of Edinburgh already known to have housed a complex of Roman camps and forts.

Aerial view of field.
Historic Environment Scotland

In the image below you'll see four small ditches—three circles and one square—that were likely used as burial sites during the Iron Age. When crops are planted over an ancient ditch, they have more water and nutrients to feed on, which helps them grow taller and greener. Such crops are especially visible during a drought when the surrounding vegetation is sparse and brown.

Aerial view of field.
Historic Environment Scotland

Historic Environment Scotland has a team of aerial surveyors trained to spot the clues: To date, they've discovered more than 9000 archaeological sites from the air. HSE plans to continue scoping out new areas of interest as long as the dry spell lasts.

It's not just in Scotland that long-hidden settlements are coming to light: similar aerial surveys in Wales are finding them too.

[h/t BBC]

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Billion-Year-Old Rocks Reveal the First Color Ever Produced by a Living Thing
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iStock

Billions of years ago, before there were plants and animals on Earth, there were rocks, tiny organisms, water, and not much else. It’s hard to envision what our barren planet looked like back then, but scientists now have some idea of what colors dominated the landscape.

As Vice reports, a team of researchers from Australian National University (ANU) were able to pinpoint the oldest colors ever produced by a living creature: purple-red hues dating back more than 1.1 billion years. The pigments, which appear pink when diluted, were found in molecular fossils of chlorophyll that had been preserved in rocks beneath the Sahara desert. A billion years ago, though, this area was “an ancient ocean that has long since vanished,” Nur Gueneli of ANU said in a statement.

Chlorophyll may very well be green, but these pinkish pigments are a result of "fossilized porphyrins, a type of organic compound that forms an atomic ring around a magnesium ion to form a chlorophyll molecule," Vice explains.

While this provides an interesting visual, the color itself is less important than what it reveals about some of the earliest life forms on Earth. Scientists determined that the chlorophyll was produced by ancient organisms called cyanobacteria, which derived energy via photosynthesis and ruled the oceans at that time, researchers wrote in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Larger planktonic algae—a potential food source for bigger life forms— were scarce, which may explain why large organisms didn’t roam the Earth a billion years ago. That kind of algae was about a thousand times larger than the cyanobacteria.

“The cyanobacterial oceans started to vanish about 650 million years ago, when algae began to rapidly spread to provide the burst of energy needed for the evolution of complex ecosystems, where large animals, including humans, could thrive on Earth," ANU associate professor Jochen Brocks said.

So the next time you encounter algae, you can thank it for helping you secure a spot on this planet.

[h/t Vice]

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