Friends, Romans, Countrymen... Lend Me Your Rears!

Ash cloud of 79 AD Vesuvius eruption
(credit: Wikimedia commons)
Less well known than the ash-covered ancient town of Pompeii is Herculaneum.  Located 15 km or so from its more famous cousin, Herculaneum (as well as the coastal cities Stabiae and Oplontis) was obliterated with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.  While excavations of the town began in the mid-1700s initially, human skeletal remains of the inhabitants of Herculaneum weren't found until 1981.  Eventually, close to 300 skeletons were found near the coast, but the study of them seems a bit unclear.

Initially, the American physical anthropologist Sarah Bisel studied 139 of these in the 1980s.  Bisel's work was cutting-edge at the time: she detailed the people's health through palaeopathological analysis and attempted to reconstruct their diets through trace element analysis of Ca, P, Mg, Zn, and Sr (1988).  She suggested that their diets were high in vegetable matter and seafood, which helped her explain the high frequency of anemia and linear enamel hypoplasias.  But Italian physical anthropologist Luigi Capasso also studied these skeletons, although he counted 143 individuals.  Capasso is notable for showing through his work that many inhabitants of Herculaneum suffered from gastrointestinal diseases, likely the result of foods contaminated with microbes. In 2002, Capasso found Brucella melitensis bacteria in some carbonized cheese and correlated this finding with an osteological pattern of brucellosis.  He later suggested that the Romans' habit of consuming pomegranates and figs was a remedy for gastrointestinal diseases, as the dried fruits were themselves contaminated with Streptomyces, a bacterium that produces the natural antibiotic tetracycline (2007).  However, as far as I know, DNA studies haven't been done to confirm Capasso's findings.
"Ring Lady" of Herculaneum,
found in 1982 excavations
(credit: Wikimedia commons)

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, the longtime excavator of Herculaneum, suggests that there are around 150 or so skeletons from Herculaneum that still need further study (2011, p. 130).  He notes that "modern scientific study of skeletons has advanced by leaps and bounds over recent decades" and is particularly interested in looking at the origins of the people of Herculaneum because "in a population with an abundant supply of slaves, [strontium isotope analysis] can be particularly revealing" (p. 128).  I definitely agree that more work needs to be done on these skeletons - from C/N isotope analyses (since trace elements aren't used much anymore for palaeodietary work) to Sr/O isotope analyses, palaeopathological assessments (using agreed-upon standards) to simple age/sex estimations - and I would love to get my hands on this collection.  It would form a fantastic comparative population to those I studied in Rome and tell me so much more about migration, diet, and daily life in the Roman world.

Because of my longstanding interest in Bisel's and Capasso's work and the skeletons of Herculaneum, I was especially excited by a short ANSA news article that came out today on excavations ongoing in a sewer of Herculaneum (and coverage by the Telegraph, with pictures). Excavators have found the largest deposit of "organic material" ever found in the Roman world - which is a euphemism for "750 large sacks of human excrement."  You'll pardon the pun, but holy shit!

Toilet from the Baths of
Caracalla, Rome
Not many people know about the astounding modernity of Roman sanitation and plumbing (which I've written on a bit here), and these facts tend to get ignored by scholars intent on painting a picture of the Roman world as a cesspool (e.g., Scobie 1986). There were clearly oodles of communicable diseases floating around the Roman Empire, but things would have been a whole lot worse without flush toilets and indoor plumbing.  A recent book by Barry Hobson, Latrinae et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman World (2009), is well worth a read by those interested in the seemingly anachronistic advances of Roman engineers... or in Roman poop.  Hobson doesn't actually say much about the toilets at Herculaneum, as "excavation of a large sewer ... is currently in progress" (p. 47), choosing to concentrate on the better-understood toilets of Pompeii.  But there are some choice bits in this book, like a graffito found in the House of the Gem in Herculaneum that reads (p. 144):
Appollinaris, medicus Titus Imp. hic cacavit bene. (CIL IV.10619) 
Appollinaris, doctor of the Emperor Titus, crapped well here.
Early analysis of the poop from Herculaneum, according to the ANSA report, "confirmed that the human faeces were rich in vegetable fibres, and one sample showed a high white blood cell count which, according to researchers, indicated a bacterial infection."  It seems both Bisel and Capasso were right in their respective studies, and it's unfortunate that osteological analysis of the skeletons has stagnated.  I can't tell from Wallace-Hadrill's book what is holding up the analysis, but I don't think it's lack of funding.  If it's lack of personnel, I would absolutely love to be involved in the project - I can run the strontium isotopes, help with the C/N isotope analysis, and do the osteological work.  Hell, I'd even be happy to be trained in poking through poop, although my only qualification is the one time I had to monitor my daughter's diaper after she ate a gummy window cling.  I was, however, successful in that excavation.

This discovery of 750 sacks of crap (I really cannot get over the sheer volume of poop they've found) has the potential to tell us an amazing amount of information - not only about the diets or the diseases of the deceased denizens of Herculaneum, but also about how they used their plumbing.  Excavators have found other objects in the sewer, like "pottery, a lamp and 60 coins... bone pins, necklace beads, and a gold ring with a decorative gemstone."  As any parent of a toddler knows well, toilets are fun for flushing all kinds of things!  I'll be on the lookout for more publications on this front, particularly as I write up my Roman bioarchaeological contribution to the Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology in the coming months.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

S.C. Bisel (1988). Nutrition in first-century Herculaneum Anthropologie, 26 (1), 61-66

ResearchBlogging.orgL. Capasso (2002). Bacteria in two-millennia-old cheese, and related epizoonoses in Roman populations. The Journal of Infection, 45 (2), 122-7 PMID: 12217720.

L. Capasso (2007). Infectious diseases and eating habits at Herculaneum (1st century AD, southern Italy) International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 17 (4), 350-357 DOI: 10.1002/oa.906.

B. Hobson (2009). Latrinae et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman World. Duckworth.

A. Scobie (1986). Slums, sanitation, and mortality in the Roman world Klio, 68, 399-343.

A. Wallace-Hadrill (2011). Herculaneum, Past and Future. Herculaneum Conservation Project.

*Note: Title pun courtesy my friend and ersatz wedding singer Gwen Kern, who may need to write all my headings from here on out.


Mary said…
That was really fascinating--an area I didn't know anything about. The bacterial contamination of food data, wow. Pasteurization for me, plz....

But awesome title. Saw it on researchblogging and could not resist!
Anonymous said…
Great blog post! Really thorough and informative.
Did you read today's article The Telegraph? Not as informative or well-researched as your posting, but similar topic (and an easier read for the lay-person).
Anonymous said…
Just read your twitter feed and saw that you posted the article on there. Thanks for expanding it with more detail and research!
Thanks, Mary. Glad to see that I'm reaching new and different people since I hooked up with Research Blogging.

Jennifer, you can tell I like to contextualize news items more than the Telegraph, Mail, and various US papers do. I thought more outlets would talk about the sewer and toilets, not just about diet (which we do know a ton about already, not that you could tell from their reporting).

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