Intestinal Worms Just Helped Researchers Identify an Ancient Roman Chamber Pot

The ancient Roman port-a-potty.
The ancient Roman port-a-potty. / Roger Wilson

Thanks to one person’s gastrointestinal grief, we now know more about ancient Roman toilet habits than ever before.

As Live Science reports, archaeologists recently unearthed a 1500-year-old ceramic pot from the ruins of the Gerace villa in Sicily, Italy. Like other excavated pots from the time period, it wasn’t immediately clear what this one was used for. But after analyzing the hard crust that had built up inside it, researchers believe they have an answer: It was a chamber pot.

The crust harbored eggs of whipworm, an intestinal parasite that, per the CDC, can cause “frequent, painful bowel movements,” diarrhea that “typically smells worse than usual,” and even rectal prolapse. For what it’s worth, mild infections often go unnoticed—so it’s possible that our parasite-ridden Roman didn’t suffer at all. In either case, whipworm eggs exited their body with other fecal matter at some point and landed in the port-a-potty. As minerals from other fecal matter and urine accumulated in layers along the interior of the pot, the eggs got sealed in.

The realization that ancient Romans were using chamber pots didn’t come as a complete surprise to researchers. “The discovery of many [conical pots of this type] 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, director of the University of British Columbia’s Centre for the Study of Ancient Sicily and leader of the Gerace archaeological project, said in a press release. Wilson also co-authored the study detailing the research on the pot, published this month in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

This particular pot, just over one foot tall with a 13.5-inch rim, was found in the villa’s baths complex, which didn’t have its own latrine. This could mean that some ancient Romans preferred to do their business in a nearby pot than interrupt their bath for a toilet break. As for how many ancient Romans hosted intestinal parasites, we don't know—but previous studies suggest that they may have been relatively common. Now, scientists will have a better idea of what to look for when testing mineral crusts in other pots.

[h/t Live Science]