A 5th century chamber pot from the Roman villa at Gerace, Sicily (courtesy Roger Wilson)

Much is known about ancient Rome’s command of aqueduct technology, but recent findings suggest they had some ideas about on-the-go sewage technology as well. This month, researchers excitedly unveiled a new technique to evaluate ancient vessels and determine whether or not they were used as portable toilets (known as chamber pots).

Obviously (and thankfully!), after thousands of years there is no remaining trace of fecal or urinary matter in these pots, which have often been attributed as storage vessels. The new study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, describes the process of identifying intestinal parasitic worms trapped in layers of mineralization from years of use as a chamber pot.

“The discovery of many in or near public latrines had led to a suggestion that they might have been used as chamber pots, but until now proof has been lacking,” Roger Wilson, one of the study’s co-authors, told Phys.org. Wilson directs the Centre for the Study of Ancient Sicily at the University of British Columbia and leads the Gerace archeological project, which is excavating the site of a Roman villa in the heart of the city.

The team from the Ancient Parasites Laboratory at Cambridge University used microscopy to identify the eggs of whipworms found in mineralized residue inside a Sicilian terra-cotta vessel of the fifth century CE from the Gerace dig site, thus confirming that it had once contained human feces.

“It was incredibly exciting to find the eggs of these parasitic worms 1,500 years after they’d been deposited,” said co-author Tianyi Wang, a research associate at the University of Cambridge, who participated in the microscopy work.

The presence of this parasite, which lives in the stomach lining of humans and would have been thus been eliminated in feces, proves not only that the vessel was a chamber pot, but that scientists get excited about the strangest of things.

This technique can now be used by museums and other institutions who care to evaluate their artifacts for proper attribution as chamber pots. It can only successfully identify a chamber pot used by someone with whipworm, but such parasites tend to be endemic in places that lack access to antibiotics and robust sanitation systems, so it’s likely that a significant portion of ancient Roman populations were afflicted.

“Where Roman pots in museums are noted to have these mineralized concretions inside the base, they can now be sampled using our technique to see if they were also used as chamber pots,” co-author Piers Mitchell, a parasites expert who led the lab work, told Phys.org.

Whether institutions will be excited about being the proud owners of chamber pots remains to be seen.

Editor’s note 2/14/22 7:30pm EST: A previous version of this article misstated Wilson’s institutional affiliation. He works at the University of British Columbia, not the University of Cambridge.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...