Archaeologists, antiquity dealers and even would-be tourists poking around Italy’s ancient sites all share a relief that researchers claim they can now absolutely determine whether ancient pots were used for food storage or reserved for portable toilets, also known as chamber pots.
This is no small development for the scientific community and other interested parties as archaeologists have been stumped for decades, if not centuries, over whether the containers they dug up throughout Roman Italian sites were, well, people potties or simply food jars.
The proof of a container’s purpose apparently can be found in 1,500-year-old “crusty” material that forms on the inside of pots, according to research published in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports.
“Conical pots of this type have been recognized quite widely in the Roman Empire and in the absence of other evidence they have often been called storage jars. The discovery of many in or near public latrines had led to a suggestion that they might have been used as chamber pots, but until now proof has been lacking,” explained Roger Wilson, a professor at the University of British Columbia who directs the Canada-funded Gerace archaeological project in Sicily where the potty breakthrough came.
Archaeologists at Britain’s University of Cambridge came in for an assist by analyzing the crusty material found on the inside of a Fifth Century Sicilian pot and found traces of intestinal parasites, later identified as whipworm eggs. This discovery confirmed that the jar had once held human feces. “It was incredibly exciting to find the eggs of these parasitic worms 1,500 years after they’d been deposited,” noted the obviously excited study’s co-author, Tianyi Wang of Cambridge.
As a primer, whipworms are human parasites, about five centimeters, that live in the lining of human intestines. These Sicilian whipworms laid their eggs in some unsuspected Roman’s intestines who later deposited them into the chamber pot through a bowel movement. Over time, minerals from urine and feces built up in layers on the inner surface of the pot as it was repeatedly used, creating concretions that held the eggs.
“We found that the parasite eggs became entrapped within the layers of minerals that formed on the pot surface, so preserving them for centuries,” explained Cambridge’s Sophie Rabinow, the study’s co-author.
The discovery of entrapped eggs in the pot is significant because ceramics are one of the most common archaeological artifacts recovered from Roman sites. The egg-identification technique will not only help identify what the pots were used for but also the overall nature of the sites being examined.
“The findings show that parasite analysis can provide important clues for ceramic research,” Rabinow noted. Of course, Rabinow and her colleagues are quick to note that their technique for identifying the use of ceramics only works if those ancient people who sat on them were infected by intestinal worms. However, that probably shouldn’t be a problem.
Intestinal parasites are endemic in the developing world today, with researchers reporting more than half the people in these areas suffer from them. There is little reason to believe that ancient Romans fared any better when it came to parasite infections.
Besides the ability of the technique to help bring new insights to existing archaeological digs, it can also be used to provide a greater understanding of ceramics already held in museums, provided they have mineralized concretions.
The impact, in fact, goes beyond simply identifying the use of various ancient jars. The ability to identify ancient intestinal parasite eggs can provide a greater understanding about diet, intestinal health and sanitation in ancient Rome, according to the researchers.
That’s a relief in more ways than one.