If you know anything about ancient Roman history, you may relate to the phrase, “Where there’s muck, there’s brass.” This is to say that disgusting places from long ago can lead to some interesting discoveries. A lot of archaeological finds are just ancient garbage!
One of these promising sites is Vindolanda in northern England. Researchers, piecing together information about Roman life, left no stone un-turned in this military fort. And when they dug into one unpleasant area, they found a huge pile of artifacts that offered a new perspective on how this famous civilization carried out its “business.”
In 2019, a group of archaeologists excavated the ancient toilet in Vindolanda Fort, once home to a large force of Roman soldiers. These modern experts looked into a corner of the site that previous researchers had neglected.
They dug through the toilet drain, where many a soldier dropped items centuries ago. Troops in Vindolanda were responsible for protecting parts of Hadrian’s wall, built by the emperor Hadrian to keep out the neighboring Picts. This tribe refused to let the Romans rule over them.
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Romans lived in Vindolanda for the first four centuries AD. Before it guarded Hadrian’s Wall, they were guarding the Stanegate, the Roman’s well-used transport road. It connected two other major forts — Luguvalium and Corstopitum.
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Vindolanda wasn’t seriously studied until Professor Eric Birley from Durham University started excavating the site. In the 1930s, his children, Anthony and Robin, later took over until the Vindolanda Charitable Trust was developed.
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The trust coordinates continuing digs at the site and is managed by Dr. Andrew Birley (Robin’s son and Eric’s grandson). Andrew spent decades studying Vindolanda and even served as a consultant to National Geographic.
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The Birleys worked for years to turn the site into a popular tourist attraction. “They had about £5 in the bank, a small wooden shed, no toilet, no museum, no [parking lot and] no electricity or water,” Andrew said.
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Andrew continued, “They started excavating in the snow at the bathhouse in 1970. From there, 49 years later, over 100,000 visitors have been to the site.” Wow. They put in a ton of work to make this into something special.
Besides generating interest within the public for a historical site, the excavations also helped explain about Roman history. For instance, they discovered the Cohors quarta Gallorum equitata or the garrison of infantry and cavalry started living in fort in the third century.
Another bit of information found was about the Gauls. It was thought that the Gauls who lived in Vindolanda weren’t Gauls at all, but were actually Britons recruited to guard the fort.
It turns out the Gauls in Vindolanda were true Gauls. There was an inscription that read, “The troops from Gaul dedicate this statue to the goddess Gallia with the full support of the British-born troops.” So, the Britons and the Gauls shared the site together.
Some of the first buildings constructed within the fort were made from mud and wood. As more troops began living there, the buildings grew in complexity, like when the ninth Cohort of Batavians arrived, for instance.
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When the first cohort of Tungrians — a tribe native to the region — joined the Vindolanda party, they helped build a much larger citadel for the soldiers. The Tungrians remained in the fort until Hadrian’s Wall was complete.
After the wall was finished, builders constructed a massive stone castle inside the fort. It didn’t have a long life though. When the Britons tried to rebel against the Romans, Emperor Septimus Severus needed the space for Rome’s war efforts.
The emperor ordered the castle to be torn down and replaced with military living space. And eventually, when the ruler’s son’s reached a settlement with the Britons, they used the funds to build a second stone citadel.
Near the citadel, a small, autonomous town arose. Researchers noted one area that was used for butchering and a separate building that was a bathhouse, or thermae, that was close to the castle.
Besides gaining a much better understanding of how Vindolanda grew in size, excavators discovered a treasure trove of Roman artifacts. One of the most exciting finds were the Vindolanda tablets.
These tablets are one of the oldest examples of British handwriting. They are wooden sheets covered in ancient details about sending new army units into battles and even a few private notes between friends.
Another interesting discovery was a huge pile of more than 400 pieces of shoes. One of them was a child’s shoe that looks surprisingly similar to a modern-day sneaker. The resemblance is uncanny.
The ancient child’s shoe was built by a cobbler before Hadrian’s Wall had even been entirely constructed. The shoe itself was high-quality, which was odd. Archaeologists thought the settlement didn’t gain high technical skill until much later. And that wasn’t the only surprise.
Deep within the latrine, the diggers unearthed a 2,000-year-old toilet seat. This bathroom feature was not thought to have caught on until after the fall of Rome, but perhaps these soldiers appreciated the extra comfort after a long day of defending their empire.
During Vindolanda’s long history, it was destroyed and rebuilt nine times. Each new group of soldiers left their mark on this beautiful historical site. If you’re in northeast England, it’s well worth a visit.
Granted, Roman life wasn’t as glamorous as what we’re used to. Diaries kept by a passionate Roman foodie name Apicius detailed some of the utterly bonkers recipes that were considered the best eats across the Empire. It reads more like magic potion ingredients than a cookbook.
There were meals that sounded particularly witchy, like spayed sow’s womb, paunch of a suckling pig, and stuffed dormouse casserole. But the Romans experimented with eating pretty much any animal you can think of: parrots, peacocks, dolphins, and giraffes.
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On recovered Roman shipwrecks, archaeologists found jars of a popular condiment called garum. This sun-fermented fish sauce was often sopped up with bread but was also loaded with parasitic tapeworm eggs. No thanks!
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Etiquette standards were nonexistent in Ancient Rome. Dinner party guests simply disposed of their cleaned animal bones by tossing them willy nilly onto the floor. Later, slaves were ordered to clean the mulch of food scraps that had collected.
Since sitting down for lunch was gambling with parasites and bacteria, it follows suit that Roman medicinal practices were not even close to as sterile as contemporary medicine. Animal and human excrement were used topically and orally for cures and holistic treatments.
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Roman medicine shifted the medical standard from largely supernatural to focused on balancing the four humors of the body: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Bloodletting was popular just for the heck of restoring equilibrium.
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Studying fossilized Roman fecal matter revealed a wide variety of infections and parasites commonly borne out of poor hygiene and sanitary conditions, dysentery and roundworm among them, which experts say has something to do with a common farming practice of the time.
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The filthiness of human waste just wasn’t a blip on ancient Roman radar. They viewed excrement as a natural resource, spreading it as fertilizer for crops, fulfilling a toxic and nightmarish cycle when they tucked in to eat their yield.
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Urine proved useful as laundry detergent. It was the job of a fuller to leave out and collect jugs of urine on the street to wash clothes in it since the ammonia worked to remove stains.
Toilet paper shortages were a non-issue back in Ancient Rome. To clean their keisters, they reached for a sponge on a stick called a xylospongium. Bathrooms consisted of a bench with holes, reminiscent of an outhouse.
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There’s an obvious red flag to this scenario. A sponge on a stick probably worked well enough, sure. Until you factor in the fact that xylospongium were shared amongst many people, and who can say if they were cleaned.
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Nobody gave ancient Romans the memo that public nudity was lewd. They treated stone walls of public spaces like personal Craigslist ads. People carved out sexually explicit images and propositions as jokes, and also because they was supposed to boost virility.
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On an ethical note, many Roman practices were indisputably messed up. Marriage, for example, was forced on girls as young as 12 years old, and that was the age restriction imposed by law.
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Of course, it wasn’t much easier for Roman boys. The raucous lifestyles of emperors are fairly well known, and the grim tone of their parties revolved around using minors as their sexual tools.
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Charges of incest reached all the way to the top, most famously with Emperor Caligula. He was accused of having affairs with several of his sisters, and later publicly claimed his mother Agrippina was born of an incestuous relationship.
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Committing a crime in ancient Rome was risking the most gruesome punishment imaginable. Their torture was creative — they fed the guilty to wild animals and buried alive disgraced Vestal Virgins — but the worst was saved for people who committed the most heinous acts.
Sinister minds developed what they felt was an appropriate punishment for people who murdered their fathers, which involved putting the convicted in a bag with a reactive animal like a snake, rooster, or monkey, and tossing them into the Tiber River.
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Life for the average ancient Roman was regularly anticipating brutality. No one was safe from the wrath of the soldiers conquering cities; innocent civilians, women, and children — all were slaughtered by the thousands. Entire cities burned to ash.
While they definitely took a major leap forward with public health initiatives like aqueducts and bathhouses, none of these would pass the most lenient of health inspections. The olive oil they slathered on every bather, as well as their dead skin scrapers, were perpetually reused.
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After thousands of years of modernization, development, and societal growth, we still had miles to go in terms of proper hygiene. Looking back at the health habits of the American colonists, it’s shocking how much cleanliness standards changed in only a few hundred years.
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Though keeping oneself clean is common practice in our day, hygiene was a somewhat controversial topic in the 18th century. Some doctors actually advocated against bathing regularly, as they believed the body’s oils were essential to good health.
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Religion and cleanliness also went hand in hand, as filth and dirt were often equated with sin and the devil. Morality came into play as well, as those who were clean were looked at as less likely to commit wrongdoings.
While most rinsed their hands and faces each morning, full-body baths were uncommon among most men, women, and children. Infants, however, were bathed regularly, though this was more so in an effort to “harden” them than to clean them.
In some cases, women actually preferred not to bathe and used their uncleanliness as a means of self defense. Using their body odor, they hoped to repel the unwanted advances of overly persistent men.
Another deterrent to bathing was the size of most wash basins, as only the extraordinarily wealthy could afford bathtubs large enough to hold an adult. Freshwater bodies like lakes served as basins of a sort for lower-class men, yet soap was rarely brought along.
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This was because lye soap — made from a mixture of animal fat, lye, and ash — was difficult to make and incredibly harsh on skin. Instead, this soap was used to wash clothing and dishes.
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Yet not all clothes were washed equally, as the process of drawing water, heating it, cleaning the clothes, and wringing them out to dry was a strenuous one. Therefore, only the dirtiest clothes — aprons, underwear, diapers, and the like — were cleaned.
Unfortunately, this meant that most blankets and bedsheets went unwashed, leading to frequent bug infestations. Fleas, cockroaches, and mosquitos were prevalent, and some even resorted to sleeping beside campfires to keep the bugs at bay.
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Lice were also a frequent nuisance, especially when it came to the powdered wigs that most upper-class colonists wore. Despite most men and women shaving their heads to prevent the bugs from nesting, their wigs served as the perfect place for lice to settle in.
Washing the wigs did little to rid them of infestation, leading colonists to coat them in bergamot, bay leaves, and other repellents to keep the bugs away. Unfortunately, the rich pomades used to style the wigs only served as a magnet for hungry lice.
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George Washington wrote often about his experiences with such “vermin” and mandated that soldiers wash their shirts weekly and their hands and face daily during wartime. Close-quarter camps served as breeding grounds for parasites and disease, especially the deadly smallpox.
To keep camps in order, “camp followers” traveled alongside the military and tended to their sanitary needs. These individuals — who were mostly women and slaves — ensured that the soldiers’ meals were properly prepared and washed their uniforms as needed.
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When a man needed a shave he visited a barber, who was typically a highly skilled man of color. Women, on the other hand, didn’t shave at all, as common conventions dictated that they show very little skin.
For those women that did seek to remove hair, plucking was a standard option (Eyebrows won’t tweeze themselves!). Eighteenth-century medical journals suggest that depilatory creams — some of which utilized limestone and arsenic — were also used.
Dental care was also somewhat of a mismanaged science, as most people had little concern for the health of their mouth. When toothaches did arise, remedies like chamomile, alcohol, and opium were used to dull the pain.
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In most cases an extraction was required, though taking a trip to the dentist wasn’t an option back then. Instead, sufferers visited their local surgeon, apothecary, barber, or even blacksmith to have a tooth pulled.
For those that were conscious of their oral health, metal tooth pickers were available for purchase. Unfortunately, these instruments were also used for a variety of other unsavory tasks, including picking the nails and scooping wax from the ears.
On another level of unsavory, outhouses — or, more specifically, covered holes in the ground — served as bathrooms for most colonists. Chamberpots were also used, their contents simply dumped out the window once full.
Not only were these practices unsanitary, but they also posed serious health risks. Feces and other contaminants would typically seep into the groundwater or runoff into streams and lakes, leading to high levels of contamination.
This, perhaps, is why disease was so widespread within the colonies. Cholera, typhoid fever, and influenza were extremely prevalent, and dysentery — commonly known as the “bloody flux” — ravaged the population.
Believe it or not, health practices back in Medieval times were actually much worse than these. During this time, heating water for a single bath took so long that families would actually share used bathwater. Let’s hope they only shared their baths with other people…
2. Baldness Cures: Balding men of the Renaissance were convinced that rubbing a combination of chicken poop and potassium on their heads would help their hair grow back. Did it work? Judging by what Shakespeare looked like in his later years, the answer is a resounding “no”.
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3. Cough Remedies: Have a tickle in your throat? Doctors once believed that combining one pound of slimy snails and one pound of sugar would create a syrup perfect for coating the throat and curing coughs. Just make sure they don’t get on your face…
4. Contraception: Ancient Egyptian women once used crocodile dung as birth control. Molding the dung into the form of a pessary, they believed that the excrement was thick enough to prevent pregnancy.
5. Makeup: When paleness was once seen as the ideal skin tone, chalk became the primary means of whiting the face. Not only did women smear chalk powder on their face, but they also ate it as well, making them so sick that they’d turn pale as a result.
6. Feminine Products: The invention of tampons and most feminine products are relatively modern, so women of the past had to make do with whatever they had lying around. That included clumps of moss, torn right out of the forest floor!
7. Dental Health: During the Elizabethan era, sugar was only available to the upper echelon of society. Therefore, sugar-rotted teeth were considered a symbol of wealth, and peasants would even go as far as faking the disease just to look richer.
8. Birth Control: Before the days of pills and injections, women drank all kinds of concoctions to prevent pregnancy. The grossest of them all was a tea from Canada made entirely from the genitals of male beavers.
9. Fashion: Why buy another outfit when the one you’re wearing fits just fine? This was the logic of many families before the 19th century when most people had an average of four pairs of clothing to their name—one for each season.
10. Dentures: Back before false teeth were invented, those looking for a new set of pearly whites had to get them from the only people willing to give them up: the dead. In fact, many dentures during the time were constructed from the teeth of dead soldiers.
11. Flowers: These petaled beauties certainly aren’t gross, but some of the things they were once used for definitely are. In the times where people didn’t bathe much, flowers were always kept on hand to mask the stench of body odor.
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12. Medicine: In the days before their deaths, 16th-century Arabic men ate nothing but honey and were then buried in coffins full of honey after passing. The corpse was dug up several weeks later and pieces of the body were eaten as a miracle cure.
13. Laundry Day: Before we had OxiClean and Tide, we had urine, which is sterile and contains ammonia. Not only did people once wash their clothes with urine, but they also used it as mouthwash, too.
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14. Labor Aides: No epidurals here, just more animal dung. During labor, Medieval women were given eagle poop mixed with oil and vinegar in order to ease the pain of childbirth.
15. Surgery: Germs weren’t a thing until the mid-1800s, so none of the surgical equipment used by doctors before then was ever sterilized. Maybe getting a checkup back then wasn’t such a good idea after all…
16. Dental Hygiene: Toothpaste is another modern invention, and in the days before straight baking soda was introduced as a dental hygiene product, people would often use burnt herbs like rosemary and mint to brush their teeth. That’s better than the Romans, who reportedly brushed their teeth with mouse brains.
17. Dieting: Why watch your diet when you can eat anything you want and not gain a pound? That was the pitch by quack doctors of the early 20th century when they pushed tapeworms as weight-loss supplements.
18. Toilet Paper: Just kidding! There wasn’t any. That’s why when nature came calling, people would use things like leaves, rags, a wet cloth on a stick, or even their own hand to get the job done.
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19. Feminine Hygiene: You’ve heard of Lysol as a kitchen cleaner, but Lysol as a feminine product? Before it found its way under every kitchen sink in America, Lysol was initially marketed as a way to “keep women fresh”.
20. Cleaning Solutions: Forget everything you know about mopping the floor because ancient Egyptians once used the powdered remains of mummies to clean their homes. They also used the powder as a cure-all, rubbing it on their skin and ingesting it in large doses.