4 ancient toilets almost wiped from Israel’s history
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Potty timeTo Romans, human feces were indispensable as fertilizer

4 ancient toilets almost wiped from Israel’s history

Studying old thrones, researchers flush out ancient man's past through what we've passed

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Tourists at Israel's Beit Sh'ean National Park test drive the Roman-era public latrine, March 2017. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
Tourists at Israel's Beit Sh'ean National Park test drive the Roman-era public latrine, March 2017. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

About 4.5 million people in the world today live without a hygienic household toilet, leading the United Nations to declare November 19 World Toilet Day to raise awareness of the problem. The UN’s advertised goal is “to reach everyone with sanitation, and halve the proportion of untreated wastewater and increase recycling and safe reuse” by 2030.

Even in many places in ancient Israel 2000 years ago, some residents had better access to a crapper. At foremost archaeological sites excavated in the past several decades, archaeologists have uncovered toilets of all shapes and sizes, giving insight to the insides of man — in more ways than one.

We have flushed out four important “thrones” in honor of World Toilet Day (November 19) — with a nod to Children’s Day (November 20), as well.

Bet She’an National Park

It stands to reason that a city that worshiped Dionysius, the god of wine, would have at least one public latrine. Resettled by the Greeks in the 4th century BCE, Beit She’an is located between the Jordan River Valley and the Jezreel Valley. Its popular archaeological park proudly displays a Roman-era city — complete with a 57-strong stone toilet seat latrine.

Tourists enjoy a ‘rest stop’ at the Beit She’an National Park, March 2017. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Found to the east of the nearby bathhouse, the latrine building’s courtyard is surrounded by columns and paved with mosaics. The surprisingly comfortable seats are created by long marble plinths set into the walls, under which feces and urine were swept away into an open sewer. When flushed with water, the waste was carried into a municipal drainage system. (Where ancient babies pooped is still a mystery and the subject of this amusing article.)

According to a 2004 Archaeology Odyssey article, “Roman Latrines,” by Classical Studies Prof. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “Multi-seat public toilets represent something new on the ancient urban landscape and distinguish Roman toilets from their predecessors.”

She writes that multi-seat toilets were fixtures in city life by the 2nd century BCE and were usually long benches with holes in them, built near public areas or buildings, and over main sewer lines. “Roman toilets were probably standardized to make them transportable and recognizable across Roman geography,” she writes.

And then there is this morsel: “While we moderns have enormous fears about human excrement near our food supply, the Romans took a different view. Ancient authors write about carefully building cesspit latrines in country farm estates for easy access to the garden. To the Romans, excrement was clearly indispensable as agricultural fertilizer,” writes Koloski-Ostrow.

City of David

Over the course of decades of excavations at the City of David, which abuts Jerusalem’s Old City, as many as four partial toilets or toilet seats have been discovered.

House of Ahi’el toilet (Courtesy of City of David Archives, Koby Harati)

The most cited seat was found in what is called the House of Ahi’el, on the northeastern slope of the City of David. It is a typical four-roomed Israelite dwelling from the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, whose name derives from a Hebrew inscription on shard found in the there. The house was large, reflecting the prosperity of the era ahead of the Babylonian destruction in 587-6 BCE, and had an external stone staircase, which led to a second floor.

In a small room, about four and a half feet square, on the ground floor, a limestone toilet seat was discovered embedded in the plaster floor above a plaster-lined cesspit, which reaches eight feet below the floor. The toilet seat was fashioned from a large block of locally available limestone, according to a 1991 Biblical Archaeology Review article.

The 1991 article is notable for its analysis of the feces found in the cesspit. Using a multidisciplinary approach, including “palynology,” the study of pollen, and “archaeoparasitology,” the study of parasites, the researchers were able to partially reconstruct the diet of City of David dwellers of the era — including their propensity to undercook meat.

“Although it may assail our sensibilities, the analysis of fecal remains is an important source of data for reconstructing ancient diet and disease. Solid residues recoverable from fecal deposits may include macrofossils visible to the naked eye such as seeds, fibers, feathers, hair and bone fragments, as well as microfossils too small to be seen with the eye alone, such as pollen and parasite eggs,” writes the authors.

House of Ahi’el toilet (Courtesy of City of David Archives)

The researchers discovered, based on fecal pollen, that residents ate a number of edible plants, including from the mustard (i.e., cabbage), carrot (parsley), mint (sage) and composite (lettuce) families. Additionally, the parasitological analysis “revealed unusually large numbers of eggs from two types of human intestinal parasites: tapeworm (taenia) and whipworm (trichuris trichiura).” The researchers add that tapeworm eggs “attest to the consumption of poorly cooked, perhaps raw, beef or pork, the only meats that carry this parasite.”

According to the City of David website, the tapeworms are evidence of the famine that plagued the city during the siege. “When the famine worsened, they slaughtered their animals and ate them uncooked, as the wood previously used for cooking was needed for weapons and to build fortifications.”

The existence of whipworm eggs indicates poor hygiene and sanitary practices, write the authors.

“While the mere existence of something as rare as our toilet seats seems to indicate that at least some ancient Jerusalemites enjoyed a relatively high level of sanitation, the evidence of whipworm infection suggests just the opposite. Indeed, the existence of indoor toilets may have been more a matter of convenience than an attempt to improve personal hygiene,” they write.

Lachish

It is rare that a toilet causes a rash of international newspaper headlines, but the discovery of a 2,700-year-old crapper at Lachish was trumpeted as proof for evidence of religious reforms carried out by the biblical king Hezekiah in the 8th century BCE, when Lachish was the second-most prominent city in Judah.

According to a 2016 Times of Israel article, the limestone commode was found inside a chamber of the Iron Age city’s monumental six-chambered gate that served as a shrine. There, archaeologists found small altars, the horned corners of which had been smashed, and a toilet that had been erected in a corner of the room.

An 8th century BCE ‘symbolic’ toilet found at Lachish during the 2016 excavation by Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists. (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

The Bible mentions such “desecration” of altars to false gods in 2 Kings 10:27, stating that the Israelite king’s men “broke down the pillar of Baal, and broke down the house of Baal, and made it a draught-house, unto this day.”

According to Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologists Sa’ar Ganor and Igor Kreimerman, however, the toilet was symbolic in nature.

“Laboratory tests we conducted in the spot where the stone toilet was placed suggest it was never used,” Ganor said in an IAA press release. “Hence, we can conclude that the placement of the toilet was symbolic, after which the holy of holies was sealed, until the site was destroyed.”

Qumran

Every Israeli youngster is presented with the classic children’s book, “Sir HaSirim” (Pot of Pots), a play on the biblical “Shir HaShirim” or Song of Songs. In it, a toddler learns that defecation is a normal bodily function. This is something the Qumran Essenes — as described by Jewish-Roman historian Josephus Flavius — apparently found difficult to reconcile.

A ‘closed’ toilet at Qumran. (Roland De Vaux , Published in Fouilles De Khirbet Qumrân Et De Aïn Feshkha, 1994)

Citing Josephus’s Jewish War, a 2009 Biblical Archaeology Review article notes, “Josephus insists that Essenes refrain from defecating on the Sabbath, and on other days relieve themselves by digging a pit with the hatchet given to initiates.” A toilet found by the Dominican Catholic priest Roland de Vaux, who led the excavations at Qumran between 1951 and 1956, is the crux of debate.

According to the article, the toilet in question is a “terracotta pipe set into a bottomless receptacle made of unbaked clay that was surrounded with coarse dirt,” a type of construction that is common elsewhere in the Mediterranean circa 2,000 years ago. The archaeologists assume that a seat of wood or stone was built over the open pipe, and the waste was buried underground.

This permanent toilet appears to contradict Josephus’s description of defecation far from the compound. Scholars a few decades later discovered a way to reconcile the two: In 2006, a team of archaeologists found that the Essene Qumran settlers “may have been done in by its own scrupulous toilet habits,” according to an article in The Independent.

Caves of Qumran (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Caves of Qumran (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The settlers “rejected the common Bedouin practice of relieving themselves in the open. Instead, they assigned a dumping ground about half a mile from their community and buried their waste there, believing the practice to be more hygienic,” writes the article.

Unfortunately, this precaution was counterproductive: parasites and harmful bacteria that would have been killed in the area’s harsh sun instead thrived under ground, infecting the residents as they walked to and from the settlement — and especially in the water cisterns designated for special purification.

Qumran as seen from the cliffs (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Qumran as seen from the cliffs (Shmuel Bar-Am)

As described in 2006 by Nature, Hebrew University of Jerusalem palaeopathologist Joe Zias dug at Qumran where he thought their toilet should be, and gathered soil samples.

Nature states that geography worked against the Essenes: the pool in which they cleansed themselves following defecation was filled with stagnant winter rain run-off.

“Had they been living in Jericho, 14 kilometers (some 8.5 miles) to the north, where one finds fresh spring water, or in other sites whereby one has an oasis, they would have lived quite well,” Zias said.

His partner, James Tabor of the University of North Carolina, told the Los Angeles Times in 2006 that he finds this “terribly sad.”

“They were so dedicated and had such a strenuous lifestyle, but they were probably lowering their life expectancy and ruining their health in an effort to do what is right,” said Tabor.

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