Updated: May 22
Toilets and trash – sanitation – are a big deal. Not just existing sanitation systems, though – we mean all toilets and trash that have ever existed. They are key to us gaining a deep understanding of how cultures used to be way back in the day. Kim at FLUSH is keen to explain to you how this works.
Touring History with Toilet Trinkets
On a recent family trip to Quebec City, we found out the Chateau Frontenac has a predecessor underneath it that archaeologists only recently found – Chateau Saint-Louis. Unfortunately, the place had burned down before Frontenac existed. When exploring the ruins underground, we quickly find out that archaeologists found most of the artifacts displayed in the old chateau’s three toilet pits!
Archaeologists found old pit toilets on opposite sides of the chateau and a lot of very old trash in them. These toilet pits held old daily items used from as late as the 17th century. We’re talking Venetian-style glass, Chinese porcelain, and even chamber pots and toilet basins used privately and dumped in the pits later. The fortress used these toilets until 1817, when the British governors installed water-flushing toilets (that probably flushed out to the St. Lawrence River).
Archaeologists find all kinds of crazy things in ancient toilets. These discoveries can help unlock questions and stories from times when there isn’t much known about the inner workings of people’s daily lives.
Below is a video about archaeology using ancient toilets to reveal new information about past cultures. It's from the Our Lord in the Attic Museum in Amsterdam (The Netherlands).
An Archaeologist’s Jackpot: Middens
Archaeologists often explore ancient sites called middens to learn more about ancient people. A midden is where people from the past would collectively dump their household waste – from human poo, animal bones, and old broken items used in daily life. Landfills are only a very recent invention. Previously, people's trash went where they relieved themselves. Middens and toilet pits can include all kinds of stuff – from dolls to chipped plates.
Middens are often untouched and/or better preserved than other parts of a site, unlike other areas that could have been tampered with or looted. They’re almost a secret treasure box, sharing surprising details or telling more about communities than other discoveries.
Middens can be essential, especially for cultures or people with few written records. Take Aboriginal communities in Australia, for example. Middens can share details about how communities used waterways and what kinds of food they ate to sustain themselves. This information hasn't been well understood otherwise.
Poo's Historical Insights
Finding middens and toilet pits isn’t just valuable for checking out the trash dumped in there – the poo in the pits also tells important stories of cultures. What did people eat? Were they healthy? What kinds of diseases did they have?
Also, poo can tell archaeologists when people were there; undigested seeds can tell us what was in season at the time. That means we could map out the lives of nomadic groups that may have traveled around, as well as lower-classed and poorer people that aren’t usually well documented. We can also date how long a pit was used and estimate how many people were there.
Relearning History with Toilets
It hasn’t always been the case that archaeologists enjoyed the gifts ancient toilets had to offer. You may be surprised that people can be squeamish about digging into poo-related topics – this was also the case for historians for a long time. Researchers have often taken historical writings and toilets at face value, not wanting to go further. For example, the existence of toilets in ancient Rome led to a long story of Romans being sanitary gods with few hygiene issues worth noting. However, with a new interest in ancient toilets and their contents, we now know that parasites and diseases riddled Roman toilets, and the sewers likely smelled something fierce.
It’s pretty cool to learn how a pit or pipe of composted poo can tell us so much about the daily goings-on of people long gone! So be prepared for surprisingly intimate history stories in our future.
NB: This was updated in May 2023 to include new content from Our Lord in the Attic Museum from Amsterdam (The Netherlands).