The Ancient History of Cesspits

May 3, 2016

Waste Management History: Pompeii and Herculaneum


A group of archaeologists exploring the cesspits, sewers and latrines at Pompeii and Herculaneum, uncovered an enormous septic tank – the so-called Cardo V septic tank – which produced the largest amount of organic matter recovered from any Roman site to date. Over the centuries, the impacted sewers and dumping grounds helped prevent complete decomposition, thereby preserving enough residual food traces for analysis.

 

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Whilst the residents of Herculaneum had an extremely diverse diet of:

  • Eggs
  • Chicken
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Various fruits
  • Lentils
  • Beans
  • Millet for porridge
  • Olives


Plus black pepper, poppy seeds, dill and coriander for seasoning

 

In Pompeii, it seems the locals had a slightly more exotic taste, as the occasional giraffe leg joint was found amongst the food waste!

 

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As well as insights into both communities’ diets, scraps of calcified fabric in the organic matter dispels the idea of the notorious sponge stick as a bottom wiper, suggesting the residents of Herculaneum’s version of luxury toilet paper was most likely cloth. Presumably the scraps would be washed and re-used, like a baby’s diaper. This task no doubt fell to an unhappy slave, alongside the task of emptying the cesspits! 

 

Jerusalem and the Middle East


Through the analysis of parasites found in latrines, scientists have discovered just how far ancient communities travelled. Analysis of a latrine in Jerusalem, that dates back over 500 years, finds human parasites that were common in northern Europe, yet very rare in the Middle East at the time. This suggests the lengths of trade or pilgrimage routes, shedding light on prevalent infectious diseases of the age.

 

 

The evidence of long-distance trading routes were further proved conclusive when the discovery of a fish tapeworm and pieces of Italian pottery were found in the same cesspit. Despite its popularity in Northern Europe, according to Arabic texts of the time, inland Syrian cities such as Jerusalem did not commonly eat fish, and when consumed, it was always cooked thoroughly in accordance with local culinary traditions. The cooking killing the parasite.

Due to our Imperial Trade routes, exotic foods have even been found in a cesspit in Stepney Green, unsurprisingly alongside a number of hops, indicating the prevalence of beer even in the old British diet!

 

A Modern History of Waste Disposal

 

We may not have ever conducted an archaeological dig of an ancient cesspit, but in our 13 year company history we’ve learnt a thing or two about waste management. And like the archaeologists, we’ve found a few unexpected items in drains too.

Read more: The Weirdest Things Ever Found in Drains

If you’d like to learn more about our history of waste management, check out our ‘About Us’ page here.