Thursday 9 May 2013

The Sewers of Herculaneum

The British Museum in London
by Caroline Lawrence

Last Saturday, 4 May 2013, I attended a free talk at the British Museum on the Sewers of Herculaneum. This was one of many fascinating lectures and other events supplementing the current Life and Death in Pompeii & Herculaneum exhibition. As readers of my  Roman Mysteries series know, I am fascinated by the fabric of life in ancient times: the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and feel of another time and place. I want to know about the lives of real people, not just poets and rhetors. What better place to find the real people than by examining the remains of the sewers? 

As Oxford Professor Mark Robinson explained, his talk was not about the sewers of Herculaneum but about a single sewer – a septic tank, in fact – that runs for several blocks beneath the palaestra and a street on the eastern edge of the town.

Herculaneum, January 2013
The Cardo V septic tank, as it is known, has no egress apart from a few vertical manholes. So items dropped or deposited through chutes from toilets and latrines just stayed where they landed, about ten or fifteen years' worth according to estimates. Once archaeologists had removed the 'largest deposit of organic material from the Roman world', Prof. Robinson and his team moved in. Working in the sunny garden of the House of the Gladiator, he and his bevy of Oxford research assistants sifted, sorted, sluiced and scrutinised the material. 

As they started the sieving process, the biggest items were set aside first. These were mainly items of builders’ refuse. Tiles, bits of clay gutters, broken bricks... things dumped out of sight before the builders left the job. Plus ça change! 

Pompeian dog with pine cone
A few pine cones appear in this category of ‘big items’. Pine cones were often burned as incense to the gods for religious rites and rituals. But these hadn't been burned. Had they been ‘harvested’ for the nutritious pine nuts found inside? Possibly. (Romans liked to keep wet and smelly things in one part of the house, so their toilets were often located in kitchens.)

Or were the pine cones some sort of toilet paper? A recent theory posits that Romans used pebbles to wipe themselves, so why not the scales of a pine cone, which could be plucked off one by one? (For more on this theory see
HERE.) Or maybe they were ancient air-fresheners!

clay oil lamps
Many clay oil-lamps also came to light (excuse the pun). It’s easy to imagine how these might have been dropped the loo during a night-time visit. Perhaps even back then insomniacs read on the seat of ease! (Papyrus by the light of an oil lamp?) 

The next sieving produced smaller artefacts such as gemstones, coins, hairpins, shells pierced for a necklace, game counters and dice. Some of these might have dropped out of folds in the tunic or been swept into the 'washdown', the part of the floor that sloped towards the vertical chute leading to the septic tank below.

Herculaneum toilet with washdown
Lots of olive pits were found. These might have been used instead of wood or charcoal on kitchen hearths. When I was in Fes a few years ago our guide told us the pottery kilns used olive stones as fuel but for that very reason had to be located outside the town as olive pit smoke is thick and black. On the other hand, maybe the Herculaneans loved olives as much as I do. (I get through a tub of Sainsbury’s Kalamata olives every few days!)

A few ‘coprolites’ popped up in this sieving. This is scientific way of saying ‘hard feces’. But most of the 2000 year old excrement had turned to a kind of soil. 

Shellfish in a market near Stabia
Eggshells, beans and lentils were found in abundance. Chicken bones were common, but bones of red meat such as pork and sheep were less so. Most popular was seafood: not surprising in this seaside town! From fish bones (and a distinctive part of the fish called otolith) we know the residents of Herculaneum devoured anchovies, bream, damsel fish, mackerel, eels, sardines, sea bass, plaice, garfish and water crab.

They also enjoyed many types of shellfish including cuttlefish, sea urchin and murex, which is better known as the source of purple dye. Professor Robinson showed us a photo of a shallow tin full of murices for sale in a market in the modern town of Herculaneum. A dozen years ago, I took a similar photo of shellfish for sale at nearby Stabia. (above)

figs, dates, grapes and nuts
Robinson and his team also found a few date stones. Were these from the date palms of North Africa? Or were dates being grown locally? The next sieving produced smaller seeds, and also grains. From these seeds, we deduce the residents of Herculaneum enjoyed fruit such as figs, black mulberries, grapes and apples. Seeds also tell us what seasoning they liked: coriander, dill, brassica (like mustard), celery seeds, and poppy seeds. There were even a few peppercorns, a luxury condiment all the way from India.

What seemed to be missing were grains of wheat, spelt or barley. But presumably these were ground fine to make flour for bread and therefore left no individual grains. Romans used giant slave- or donkey-powered ‘hourglass’ mills to grind grain into fine flour. (See the clay plaque below from the tomb of a baker in Ostia, Rome's port.)

Roman donkey milling grain
Robinson’s team did find grains of millet, which suggests the Romans preferred that particular grain for porridge rather than bread. Further evidence of bread comes from grain weevils and their larvae, which Prof. Robinson says were probably present throughout the bread-making process. ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ he joked. ‘They brought this weevil to Britain!’

What else didn’t they find? Well for one thing: no sea-sponges, challenging the popular belief that Romans used sponge-sticks as toilet paper! Other candidates for bottom-wipers are fig leaves, scraps of cloth and those pine cones mentioned earlier...

But that's a topic for another blog!

Caroline Lawrence tries hard to be scholarly about ancient Rome but gets distracted by food, jewellery, poo and suchlike. Just as well she writes for kids and not serious adults. Find out more at www.romanmysteries. She will gave two talks of her own at the British Museum on 27 and 31 May, 2013. For more information, go to Animals in Pompeii & Herculaneum OR Children in Pompeii & Herculaneum.


michelle lovric said...

pinecones for toilet paper? I can smell those sewers from here!

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Really fascinating, Caroline! Poo can tell us so much.
I knew more than I otherwise would have known about the diet in Viking Jorvik, when I was writing Sigrun's Secret, because of the poo found there.
I wonder what the Vikings used for toilet paper?

Joan Lennon said...

Many things you wanted to know about poo but it hadn't occurred to you to ask! The talk and exhibition sound great - that's for telling us about them.

Theresa Breslin said...

Yes, getting distracted by poo sounds interesting to me too, Caroline! Definitely want a trip to London for the exhibition.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks for your comments, History Girls!

Marie-Louise, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find out what DID the Vikings use? In my experience, re-enactors usually make the best guesses!