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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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©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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Crossrail
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
8 Amazing Things Discovered During the Expansion of the London Underground
Crossrail
Crossrail

In 2009, the city of London embarked on a massive infrastructure project: a 73-mile underground railway network called the Elizabeth Line that will ultimately boost urban train capacity by 10 percent. Slated to be up and running by 2018, the undertaking allowed archaeologists to take an unprecedented peek at swathes of subterranean London, and yielded plenty of cool historic treasures from various periods. Here's a small sampling of the finds.

1. A GRAVEYARD CONTAINING VICTIMS OF THE BLACK DEATH

A skeleton belonging to a victim of the Black Plague, unearthed by archaeologists while expanding the London Underground.
Crossrail

While excavating London's Charterhouse Square in 2013, archaeologists unearthed dozens of skeletons. Scientists analyzed the remains and discovered that some of them belonged to victims of the Black Death—a.k.a. bubonic plague—who succumbed to pandemics that swept 14th- and 15th-century England.

Teeth contained traces of DNA from the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis, and radio-carbon dating indicated that the burial ground had been used during two outbreaks of plague, one from 1348 to 1350 and another during the 1430s. The skeletons also showed signs of poor diets and hard lifestyles, which might have been contributing factors for why Londoners were so susceptible to the plague.

But the so-called plague pit didn't just contain those who'd succumbed to disease. Not only were some bodies plague-free, "what they found was, not bodies tumbled together as they'd expected, but rather orderly burials with people laid in rows with their bodies orientated in one direction," historian Gillian Tindall told The Guardian. This suggests not all of them died due to plague but from other, more everyday causes.

2. AN 8000-YEAR-OLD STONE TOOL

An 8000-year-old piece of flint, discovered by archaeologists while expanding the London Underground.
Crossrail

While digging at North Woolrich, in southeast London, archaeologists discovered a Mesolithic-era site along the Thames where early humans are thought to have crafted tools around 8500 to 6000 years ago. The encampment had traces of campfires and flint scatters, and experts recovered 150 pieces of flint, including an 8000-year-old stone tool.

"This is a unique and exciting find that reveals evidence of humans returning to England and in particular the Thames Valley after a long hiatus during the Ice Age," Crossrail lead archaeologist Jay Carver said in a news release. "It is one of a handful of archaeology sites uncovered that confirms humans lived in the Thames Valley at this time. The concentration of flint pieces shows that this was an exceptionally important location for sourcing materials to make tools that were used by early Londoners who lived and hunted on Thames Estuary islands."

3. A VULGAR VICTORIAN CHAMBER POT

A bawdy Victorian chamber pot, discovered by archaeologists while excavating future London Underground sites.
Crossrail

While excavating the Stepney Green station in East London, archaeologists came across a 19th-century cesspit dating to sometime after 1850. The waste hole was filled with tobacco pipes and fragments of pots, including a raunchy Victorian chamber pot. It was once likely kept under a bed, and allowed for its owner to do their business in private during the evening hours.

The pot's bottom contains a cartoon of a grimacing man, encircled by the phrase "Oh what I see/I will not tell." Witty cursive lines once covered the exterior of the broken vessel. Archaeologists were able to decipher one line, which read "… when you in it want to p-s/ Remember they who gave you this."

4. A TUDOR ERA BOWLING BALL (OR SKITTLES BALL)

A Tudor-era bowling or skittles bowl, discovered by archaeologists while excavating future sites for the London Underground's expansion.
Crossrail

In addition to the aforementioned cesspit, excavations at Stepney Green also revealed a 15th-century Tudor manor house, complete with moat. Originally home to a rich family named Fenne, it was once called King John's Court or Palace, and later became known as the Worcester House after its owner the Marquis of Worcester.

In 2013, archaeologists excavated the home's foundations, moat, and boundary walls. Inside the moat they discovered a wooden ball made from willow, which was likely either used for bowling or skittles, a European lawn game. Other recovered items included fine glassware, tableware, and cooking and storage vessels, all of which were buried when the moat was either destroyed or filled in.

5. A 55-MILLION-YEAR-OLD PIECE OF AMBER

55-million-year-old amber, retrieved by engineers while expanding the London Underground
Crossrail

Slated to open in late 2018, London's new Canary Wharf business district station is located deep below a mixed-use development called Crossrail Place. While tunneling at Canary Wharf was too deep to disturb any buried relics, engineers were still able to retrieve a piece of 55-million-year-old amber from nearly 50 feet below the site's dock bed before construction began. It's the oldest amber to have ever been found in London, and is also notable considering that amber isn't often found in the UK to begin with.

Amber, or fossilized tree resin, takes millions of years and proper burial conditions to form. These preserved relics often contain prehistoric plants and creatures, suspended in the clear material. Experts said they plan to analyze the Canary Wharf amber to learn more about prehistoric environmental conditions and vegetation. The fossil also contained bubbles of trapped gas, which scientists said might yield new scientific insights about global warming.

6. A RARE ROMAN MEDALLION

A rare Roman medallion dating back to 245 CE, found by archaeologists during the London Underground expansion.
Crossrail

Archaeologists excavating Crossrail's Liverpool Street site discovered more than 100 mostly-copper Roman coins, along with a handful of silver currency. They ranged in date from 43 CE, during the reign of Emperor Claudius, to 348 CE.

One of the most exciting discoveries among these coins was a rare bronze medallion that was issued to mark the New Year in 245 CE. Presented by Emperor Phillip I (also called Philip the Arab) to a high-ranking government official, it's only the second example of its kind that's ever been found, according to The Guardian.

"You wonder how it got there, who brought it with them, and then how did they lose it—were they heartbroken?" speculated Jackie Keily, a curator at the Museum of London who organized an exhibition of 500 Crossrail artifacts in 2017.

7. A CLUSTER OF ROMAN SKULLS

A Roman skull, uncovered by archaeologists during the expansion of the London Underground.
Crossrail

In 2013, Crossrail workers found Roman pottery and around 20 Roman skulls while working on the Liverpool Street station site. Other Roman skulls had been found in the area, along the historic River Walbrook, and some speculated that they belonged to rebels led by the Iceni warrior-queen Boudicca, who revolted against the Roman Empire during the 1st century CE. But since the newly unearthed skulls were found in sediment that had accumulated in a bend of the river, archaeologists believe that they likely washed out of an eroded Roman cemetery long ago. Moreover, the skulls appear to date to after the uprising.

8. HEADSTONES OF VICTIMS OF THE GREAT PLAGUE

The gravestone of plague victim Mary Godfree, discovered at Liverpool Street in London during the Crossrail excavations.
Crossrail

On September 2, 1665, a girl named Mary Godfree succumbed to the plague—one of 95 people from the same church parish who died from the disease that day. She was remembered solely by a line in a burial register until October 2015, when archaeologists discovered her limestone burial stone while excavating the new Liverpool Street Crossrail station site.

The area was originally home to the historic New Churchyard burial ground, also called the Bedlam burial ground. There, archaeologists discovered a mass grave, along with the remnants of 10 stone markers. Godfree's headstone didn't mark the presence of her actual grave, as the headstone had been removed sometime during the 18th century and reused in the foundation of a wall. Still, it revealed new insights into how and where the rediscovered Londoner was buried, and what burial conditions were like during the Great Plague.

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