Down in the dumps

Ancient toilet shows Jerusalem’s rich wallowed in luxury – and discomfort

Sediment samples swiped from 2,700-year-old privy reveal the presence of intestinal worm eggs that would have caused abdominal pain, diarrhea and itching

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

The stone toilet seat found during the excavation of an ancient villa at Armon Hanatziv in Jerusalem. (Ya’akov Billig/Israel Antiques Authority)
The stone toilet seat found during the excavation of an ancient villa at Armon Hanatziv in Jerusalem. (Ya’akov Billig/Israel Antiques Authority)

Archaeological research on a 2,700-year-old toilet uncovered in Jerusalem found that its owners were wealthy but suffered from a range of intestinal parasites that would have blighted their digestive tracts, leading to abdominal pain and itchiness, Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiques Authority said Tuesday.

Worm eggs, identified in sediment samples taken from a cesspit below the stone toilet, belonged to four different types of intestinal parasites, roundworm, tapeworm, whipworm, and pinworm. The pit, which was found in an ancient villa, was capped with a square limestone slab with a hole in its center, identifying the facility as a toilet during excavations.

“Intestinal worms are parasites that cause symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, and itching,” lead researcher Dafna Langgut of Tel Aviv University’s Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures said in a statement.

“Some of them are especially dangerous for children and can lead to malnutrition, developmental delays, nervous system damage, and, in extreme cases, even death,” she noted.

The research, conducted jointly with the IAA, was published in the recent edition of the International Journal of Paleopathology, the official journal of the Paleopathology Association.

Langgut suggested the parasites spread due to poor sanitary conditions that may have caused “fecal contamination of food and drinking water” or even just by the simple failure to wash hands.

Another possible source of infection was the use of human feces to fertilize crops in fields and the eating of improperly cooked beef or pork.

Intestinal parasite eggs recovered from sediment collected below the stone toilet seat at Armon Hanatziv. (a). Enterobius vermicularis; (b). Ascaris lumbricoides; (c). Trichuris suis; (d). Trichuris trichiura. (Eitan Kremer/Tel Avvi University)

Without treatment, recovery from intestinal worms was nearly impossible and they would be a lifelong affliction to their hosts. The discoveries at the villa may indicate that the troublesome and infectious diseases affected the entire population, similar to lice and pinworms in modern kindergartens, the statement said.

Though the parasites still exist today, modern Western medicine offers effective diagnosis and treatment to prevent them from spreading in an epidemic, Langgut added.

The eggs were found below the stone toilet in the garden of “a magnificent private estate” uncovered at the Armon Hanatziv Promenade in Jerusalem from where it would have enjoyed a panoramic view of the City of David and the Temple Mount during what was the middle of the First Temple period. The garden also contained fruit and ornamental trees, and the presence of a toilet at the villa indicated that the owners were wealthy enough to afford the luxury, according to the researchers.

“Toilet facilities were extremely rare at that time and were a status symbol – a luxury facility that only the rich and high-ranking could afford. As the Talmud teaches, ‘Who is wealthy?… Rabbi Yosef says: Anyone who has a bathroom close to his table.’” (Bavli Shabbat 25: 2),” they said in the statement.

Dafna Langgut at the Laboratory of Archaeobotany and Ancient Environments, in Tel Aviv University. (Sasha Flit/Tel Aviv University)

Ya’akov Billig, who directed the excavation of the villa on behalf of the Israel Antiques Authority, dated the villa to the Late Iron Age of the 7th century BCE. Aside from the toilet, archaeologists also found stone artifacts of “extraordinary workmanship” included decorated stone capitals “of a quantity and quality not yet observed in Israel,” the statement said.

Examination of the toilet samples came as Langgut was developing a new field of research called archaeoparasitology that uses microscopic remains of intestinal worm eggs to understand the history of diseases and epidemics.

“Studies like this one help us document the history of infectious diseases in our area and provide us with a window into the lives of people in ancient times,” Langgut said.

She intends to further examine the sediment samples to glean knowledge about the diet and medicinal herbs used in Jerusalem at the time.

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