SHITTING THROUGH THE AGES
The scent of artificial lilacs wafts through your bathroom. You rise from your sanitary porcelain throne, glance casually down (hey, it’s okay—we all do), press a lever, and watch as your latest creation vanishes down the pipe.
But have you ever thought about what pooping must have been like long before the Ty-D-Bol Man, Mr. Whipple, and your local plumber helped make it all go away?
Imagine dropping trou alongside twenty neighbors. Or pinching a loaf as a humble offering to Sterculius, the Roman god of feces. Or entertaining guests while seated on your “throne,” then having a “groom of the stool” wipe and possibly even kiss your ass? It all happened many poops ago.
And where did all that shit go, in the days of yore? We left it in our cave. We tossed it out the window and hollered, “Gardyloo!” Or we pooped into the moat—an unhappy surprise for attackers, but a thoughtful thank-you for the hungry fish far below.
As always, some cultures beat others to the pinch. Londoners were still heaving the contents of their chamber pots onto the streets dozens of centuries after the ancient Greeks had invented perfectly good sewage systems.
The history of shit is as rich and as varied as, well, poop itself. To take a look at where it first started, we first need to do a little digging. Literally.
Some Really Old Shit
Ancient civilizations have left all kinds of clues for archaeologists, from arrowheads to pottery shards. For some archaeologists, though, the Holy Grail isn’t a golden chalice, but a petrified brown lump.
Why are fossilized feces such a field day for archaeologists? Find just one and you can figure out the gender of the dumper and his or her diet and diseases—even the bacteria and viruses that he or she might have been carrying around.
With all that information just a poop away, it’s easy to imagine that a team of scientists digging in the Paisley 5 Mile Point Cave in Oregon must have high-fived each other when they found six piles of super-special shit that was really, really old.
The year was 2002, and the team had found the oldest shits ever discovered in the New World. And what did it look like after all those years? Said one team member, “Basically it looks like what it is: poop.”
But what poops they were! Radiocarbon dating revealed the poops to be 12,300 RCYBP (radiocarbon years before the present)—meaning humans had been living in the Americas more than a thousand years earlier than previously thought. Not only that, but this shit had more in common with its Siberian relatives than with other poops in the Americas. Meaning the New World’s earliest residents weren’t actually natives. They dropped in after a long walk or a boat trip down the Alaskan coast.
As for their diet, those first Americans pooped out quite a range of morsels, including squirrel, bison, fish, birds, plants—even, we’re loath to admit, a few dogs.
Want to freshen up some old poo? Here’s how archaeologist Dr. Eric Callen does it: Soak it in a solution of 0.5 percent trisodium phosphate for forty-eight hours, and bingo! Poop up to ten thousand years old is almost as good as new.
Who knew poo could be so telling? University of Oregon archaeologist Dennis Jenkins did. As one of the scientists who found the Paisley Cave shit, he said, “You don’t think of it, but you’re leaving behind genetic signatures every morning.” (Another reason to double-check that everything goes down with the flush. Who needs incriminating DNA evidence swirling around in the master bathroom?)
The Poo That Betrays
Poop can be enlightening in other ways, too. Sometimes, though, poo tells you a bit more than you’d like to know.
For years, scientists argued about whether cannibalism occurred in the American Southwest. They’d found cut marks on human bones, but for some, that wasn’t enough evidence. Then in 1993, University of North Carolina archaeologists unearthed an 850-year-old shit at a site called Cowboy Wash in Colorado. That poop contained traces of the protein myoglobin, which is only found in human heart muscle. Not only that, but it had been cooked first. (No recipes were found, to answer your next question.)
This not-so-savory discovery coincides with a period of severe drought, which anthropologists have blamed for the cannibalism. Other hair-curling theories involve warfare cannibalism, cross-cultural clashes, or even witchcraft. We’ll never know which theory is right. We just hope the victor enjoyed the meal as much as Hannibal “I’m having an old friend for dinner” Lecter.
Digging for poo may not be for you. Shit archaeologists tend not to have long careers. Unsurprisingly, the discipline isn’t high on the academic totem pole. According to shit scientist Karl Reinhard, many shit researchers do just one or two coprolite studies, then move on to something a bit more “socially acceptable.”
“What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?”
Sad to say for New World residents, but long before early Coloradans were busily eating each other, the Roman empire had already established an incredibly advanced system of sewers and public toilets. As early as the tenth century BC, Rome had public baths and toilets, complete with sewers and flowing water. The baths were popular meeting places, and Romans weren’t shy about lightening their load while chatting with a neighbor on a stone double-seater.
Some of the toilets even had a dozen or more seats next to each other. Not only was there no shame in communal pooping, but apparently Romans did not mind wiping with a shared implement. Titus and Lucius had the severe misfortune of having to share a sponge to wipe their asses; these sponges were kept in buckets of salty water for “sanitation” purposes.
How did the Romans create such an advanced system? They had the world’s first plumbers. Highly sought after—as they are today—the well-regarded plumberi were often women.
Early Roman plumberi were so good at their work, their sewers lasted for centuries. In fact, one of the Roman sewer systems, the Cloaca Maxima, is still in use today, draining city runoff from downtown Rome into the Tiber River. In a foreshadowing of many subsequent years of organized crime, the early Italians even used the system to dispose of bodies—including, according to rumor, the emperor Elagabalus.
Great sanitation, impressive aqueducts, and shit leaving town faster than you can say “carpe faeces.” What could possibly go wrong?
A Setback for Shit: Rome Spirals Down the Lavatorium
Managing a Roman sewer system took more than a few good plumberi. It also took an organized civil society, with plenty of workers and lots of denarii to pay the bill. Lose all that and what happens? The taps go off, the sewers clog, and you guessed it: The shit hits the fan.
And that’s exactly what happened. With the collapse of the Roman empire, European cities fell apart. Even though cities like London had excellent Roman-built sewage systems, no one bothered to maintain them. So everyone left—in droves. They went back to the countryside. And when it came to shit management, thousand-year-old habits like chamber pots and shit trenches were back in a jiffy.
All that primitive pooping was okay— as long as everyone was spread out in the countryside. But after many years, cities once again started growing in size. And this time they were lacking all that Roman shit know-how. That spelled more than just trouble. It also spelled d-i-s-e-a-s-e and p-e-s-t-i-l-e-n-c-e.
The Dark Ages: When Shit Ruled
“Dung and other filth had accumulated in diverse places upon the banks of the river with … fumes and other abominable stenches arising therefrom.”
—Peter Ackroyd, Thames: The Biography
With sewage systems crumbling, just how did you poop if you had the misfortune to find yourself living in a crowded, walled-in medieval city?
It was simple—way too simple, to be honest. Residents would give fair warning by hollering “Gardyloo!” and then would heave a chamber pot full of shit out the window. The phrase comes from the French Gardez à l’eau! meaning “Look out for the water!” This was a polite way of saying “I’m about to dump a bucket of fresh shit out the window.” We have to imagine that it sent pedestrians hightailing it for cover.
“Gardyloo” eventually got abbreviated into loo, the British slang word for toilet.
Medieval urbanites not lucky enough to own a chamber pot or have a shit pit behind their houses had no choice but to use a communal privy—very much at their own risk. It wasn’t unusual for someone to fall through the boards and meet a particularly pungent end. Usually the poor mired serf was lost to history. But not always. In one of the best-documented moments of a major social faux pas, the floor in the Great Hall of Germany’s Erfurt Castle collapsed during a dinner party in 1183. Emperor Frederick I and his knights fell thirty-nine feet into a cesspit. Many drowned, but Frederick pulled through—none the worse for the wear, though presumably it was a while before his guests accepted another dinner invite.
With shit heaped high everywhere, you’d think those in charge would build a few public toilets. But if you think it’s hard to find a public toilet these days, consider this: The entire medieval city of London had only three public toilets—Temple Bridge, Fleet Street, and Queenhithe, if you want to really impress your friends.
Enough of This Shit, Already!
Shit in the streets. Shit in the gutter. Shit out back. Shit flying through the air. After a while, even kings catch wind of something ill in the air. In 1372 Edward III of England, also known as the Disgusted King of Shit, had quite literally enough of all this shit. He issued a proclamation that “throwing dung, refuse and other filth and harmful things into the [Thames] shall no longer be allowed.”
Ed was disgusted—and that in itself was noteworthy. After thousands of years of not having particularly strong feelings about poop one way or another, we were finally making up our minds about how we felt about shit, and the operative word was … disgust.
So what? Well, as any poopologist will point out, it’s the disgust that keeps us safely away from our poop. Which by itself is a good thing, given all the bacteria and viruses present in your average dung pile.
There was just one problem: just because Edward III was disgusted didn’t mean there was anywhere to put the shit. More laws followed. But people kept shitting because, well … that’s what we do.
In the end, though, Ed wasn’t very successful at stemming the flow of shit. But he did accomplish one very important thing: His laws made taking care of your shit a matter of personal responsibility. It was no longer okay to holler “Gardyloo!” and dump a fresh bucket of shit on your neighbor. By the end of the fourteenth century, the fine for dumping the contents of your chamber pot onto the streets was two shillings, about $30 today.
What Shit Hath Wrought: Bring Out Your Dead!
All this shit was great news for rats. After all, no one loves a fresh steaming pile of shit like a rat. And European cities during the Dark Ages had plenty of steaming piles.
With rats came fleas, and with fleas came the Black Death, a series of plagues that killed as many as 200 million people—nearly half of the population of Europe. Then again, death might not have been such a bad option given the stench around the hearth.
Clearly something had to be done. Civilization was dying under the weight of its own crap. But what?
Plumbers to the Rescue
The unlikely heroes were plumbers! In the 1400s plumbers saved the day with a simple solution: the cesspool, an underground hole lined with brick or stone and porous material. Shit sank to the bottom and liquids flowed out between the spaces in the brick lining. Cesspools did the trick, keeping shit out of the gutter, in one place, and out of the reach of rats. Well, most of the time, anyway. There was the time celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys walked into his cellar only to discover that his neighbor’s cesspit had overflowed into his cellar.
Of course there were still plenty of things that went wrong—like methane buildup, which led to periodic shit explosions, followed by fires. And cesspools smelled like, well, shit, thanks to hydrogen sulfide, and other gases, which could even cause asphyxiation, routinely killing people while they slept.
Want to re-create the stink of a cesspool? Just mix sulfur bath salts and hydrochloric acid from toilet cleaner. Voilà! H2S, or hydrogen sulfide, the same stinky gas that killed thousands in centuries past. For that reason, we humbly suggest that you hire a professional and wear state-of-the-art hazmat protection if you want to try this at home! Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Cesspools weren’t maintenance free, however, and emptying them was grim work. Who got the job? It fell to the gong farmers—a phrase that literally meant shit farmer—an occupation that’s clearly one of the least desirable in human history. As if gong farmers (also known as nightmen) didn’t have it bad enough, they were required to work at night, according to this English regulation from 1562: “no Goungfermour shall carry any Ordure till after nine of the Clocke in the night.”
Once they had gathered their stinky haul, the shit farmers would dump the night soil outside the city limits in enormous shit dumps. The fee for this incredibly shitty task? One shilling, which few Londoners could afford. You guessed it: Cesspits hardly ever got emptied.
Deal With Your Shit, Okay?
Cesspools did detonate randomly from time to time, but at least there was a solution. Monarchs across Europe insisted that their citizens take responsibility for their shit. Edward III’s dream had finally come true.
The rules were simple: Deal with your shit or face the consequences. In England, King Henry VIII appointed a commissioner of sewers who could mete out “severe penalties for the pollution of streams and made special provisions for the disposal of tanner and brewers wastes.”
Meanwhile, across the Channel, conditions had gotten so bad that shit was heaped up in front of houses all over Paris. King François II issued an edict requiring homeowners to deal with their shit.
1539 Royal Edict of Villers-Cotterets by François, King of France
The city of Paris [is in such a sorry state,] so filthy and gutted with mud, animal excrement … and other offals that one and all have seen fit to leave it heaped before their doors …
Sullied wastes and urines must be confined within the house and not tossed onto the street; they must be emptied into the stream and given chase with a bucket of water to hasten their course.
All persons are forbidden to leave any kind of unspeakable waste on the streets. Persons must collect droppings and wastes inside their homes, pack them into receptacles and wicker baskets, and then carry them outside the city and its surrounding area.
All proprietors of houses must install cesspools immediately.
A healthy dose of disgust, a rudimentary understanding that enormous heaps of dung just might have something to do with all those plagues, a simple solution—and humanity was on its way to cleaning its shit up. And it took only five hundred years!
Their Shit Doesn’t Stink
Through these early years of shit management, one thing remained true: If you were royalty, your shit didn’t stink.
As far back as ancient Rome, emperors had toilets crafted from gold and silver. At dinner parties, slaves would bring in silver pots for urinating; royalty would use the pots while at the dinner.
Later, Europe’s palace rooms were appointed with stools holding chamber pots, called closestools or necessary chairs, which supported royal ass cheeks with a velvet-covered seat. These concealed chamber pots awaited the royal gift from kings and queens. The next time you find yourself sitting on the porcelain throne, imagine yourself scepter in hand, with your lieges before you. (Just don’t bark orders to your imaginary servants so loudly you’ll be heard outside.)
Grooms of the stool were employed by English kings and accompanied monarchs to the privy chamber in order to tidy up the royal tuchis. French kings employed porte-cotons who served the same function. (Could one overeager groom of the stool have gone overboard and planted lips on the royal ass, leading to an expression in common use today?)
Many kings even considered the closestool a throne and received audiences with butt cheeks firmly planted, thinking it was rude to leave a gathering to go to the toilet. King Louis XIV, who was known to entertain while his royal sphincter was engaged, went so far to announce his marriage to Madame de Maintenon whilst seated on his “throne,” and English ambassador Lord Portland apparently felt it an honor to be received by the king while on the pot. Other English noblemen similarly found it an honor to serve the king while he was on the closestool.
What did royalty do when affairs took them out of their palaces and into their castles? The answer is garderobes, small rooms built into the exterior wall of a castle, complete with toilet seats that emptied right into the mouths of the hungry fish in the moat below. One hazard of using the garderobe—other than an enemy arrow into your colon—were the high winds, which sometimes blew the royal wiping hay back up the chute.
The closestool wasn’t good enough for England’s Queen Elizabeth I, though. She had a super-sensitive nose and in 1596 commissioned a solution, which became the first freestanding flushable toilet. Known as the necessary, it apparently wasn’t, since its inventor, Sir John Harrington, only built one—for which he received a lifetime of ridicule.
All this royal fun and games came to an end with the start of the prudish Victorian era, when public displays of natural acts were frowned upon. Pooping was near the top of the list and was quickly hidden, ignored, scented, and generally denied.
The Big Stink
Imagine this moment in history. Thousands flee London. Those who remain lock their doors and hunker down, expecting the worst. Parliament debates closing its doors and relocating. Sounds like World War II, right? But long before Londoners had to worry about enemies in the skies, they faced an equally threatening foe attacking from below: shit. And until one wily Londoner saved the day, it looked like shit just might win.
The year was 1858, and London was in the middle of the Big Stink. The problem was simple: Sewage drained into the river Thames—but only during low tide. At high tide, London streets were actually thirty feet below the level of the Thames—a recipe for a world-class backup! To make matters even shittier, flush toilets were just coming into use. The massive volume of water was overloading London’s old Roman sewers, and the hot weather caused bacteria to breed like never before.
The stink was so bad in London in 1858 that Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli called the city a “Stygian pool reeking with ineffable and unbearable horror.” Government offices soaked their curtains in chloride of lime to manage the odor. At home, any aristocrat who did not escape to the countryside hung perfume-drenched sheets to mask the stench.
Fortunately, London had a secret weapon, the chief engineer of London’s Metropolitan Board of Works, Joseph Bazalgette, who summarized the problem perhaps a little too clearly:
At high water [the sewage] was pent up in the sewers, forming great elongated cesspools of stagnant sewage, and then when the tide went down and opened the outlets, that sewage was poured into the river at low water at a time when there was very little water in the river. [Furthermore, this sewage] kept oscillating up and down the river, while more filth was continually adding to it, until the Thames became absolutely pestilential.
Bazalgette got right to work on one of London’s most ambitious engineering projects ever. Over a hundred miles of sewers were built over the next six years, draining all the shit away … to the Thames Estuary. This was no small project, requiring over 300 million bricks and moving more than 3 million cubic meters of earth, and on opening day, anyone who was anyone made sure to attend:
The Royal party landed at the Northern Outfall … and after a brief inspection of the works … the Engineer explained the general principles and engineering details … the four pumping engines were then successively set in motion by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, which completed the opening of the works.
And as with every good British social event, “the company then partook of luncheon.”
Fortunately the system worked. The city drained. And London had a modern sewage system—in fact, most of the system is still in use to this day.
The battle to tidy the Thames is being waged to this day. There are still sixty-three “outflow pipes” that still dump raw sewage into the river during heavy rainstorms. After rowing one day amid condoms, tampons and visible shit, one Anatole Beams founded the group RATS, Rowers Against Thames Sewage. Their first event? A Thames Turd Race, in which rowers towed giant shits while wearing gas masks.
Behind on Our Shit
When it comes to shit management, Europe’s shit history was by far the best documented. Not a lot is known about poop’s past elsewhere in the world. But this much is clear: Several civilizations beat Europe to the bowl, so to speak. And not by just a decade or two—sometimes by as much as a thousand years.
Take, for example, the city of Knossos on the Mediterranean island of Crete, where a luxurious system was installed 3,500 years ago. Ancient Minoans had central courtyards with baths filled and emptied by handcrafted terra-cotta pipes. Flush toilets were adorned with wooden seats, and featured the latest in overhead water reservoirs. It was practically the first Club Med.
And the Winner Is …
The golden turd award in the race to develop a modern-day shitting system, however, has to go to the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, now part of India and Pakistan. Over three thousand years before Europe figured it out, they were busy flushing toilets and had sophisticated sewers, bathrooms built into houses, wooden seats—even coin-operated stalls! (Okay, we’re kidding about the stalls. But, we have no doubt they’re out there. Along with some shag toilet seat covers.)
How did Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro get such a jump start on poop management? Thanks to two things: knowledge of how to move lots of water for agriculture and a powerful government that could undertake big projects.
As it turned out, their two strengths apparently didn’t last, because both cities later vanished. Modern man had no idea they existed until traces of their civilizations were discovered in the 1920s.
And that’s the history of shit—almost. Because, lest you get high-minded about our contemporary Western shit management skills, your ass is in for yet another surprise. Consider this: Five hundred years before the western world even contemplated the idea of toilet paper, Ming Dynasty emperors had ordered over 700,000 sheets of TP in one year alone. The sheet of choice in those days was a gargantuan two feet by three feet—more than enough to make our old friend Mr. Whipple stain his trousers.
Shitting Through the Ages
400,000 BCE Mankind takes first dump.
12,300 BCE Oldest New World shit known to man left in cave.
2800 BCE Ancient Indus Valley cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro debut flush toilets with sophisticated sewage system.
1000 BCE Not shitting is considered manly or even saintly. Indian scriptures explain that wrestlers who shit too much get weak. Saints, on the other hand, are believed to have no need to defecate because they can digest everything they eat.
320 BCE First shit management law passed: Athens bans dumping shit in streets.
600 AD First use of the word plumberi, origin of the word plumber.
1281 Thirteen men take seven days to remove twenty tons of sludge from Newgate Prison’s lavatory pit.
1500s Revival of ancient use of shit as fertilizer.
1519 Government of Normandy makes toilets compulsory in each house.
1740s Facilities for women are meager. Women are taught “virtues of control.”
1832 Cholera and typhoid arrive in London from Asia, causing British authorities to engage in building public baths and washhouses.
Copyright © 2011 by Doug Mayer, Val Stori, and Tod von Jahnes