Among its many fine qualities, human waste gives archaeologists a wealth of information about people's daily lives—what they ate and drank, what critters set up shop in their guts, what plants and animals lived alongside them—information that can be hard to find in historical accounts. It can also preserve artifacts and biological remains for centuries in its waterlogged environment, like an odoriferous time capsule. Here are eight archaeological treasures found in poop.
1. Giraffe Leg // Pompei Sewer Drain, Italy, 79 CE
A 2014 study of the sewer drains in the Porta Stabia neighborhood of Pompeii found that its residents of the 1st century CE enjoyed a great variety of foods at the city's eateries. Conveniently located inside the oldest of the city gates near two theaters, a probable gym, and a forum, the neighborhood was studded with storefronts and restaurants catering to locals and visiting crowds. You can deduce the socioeconomic position of their clientele by what kind of foodstuffs they excreted down the drains.
The drains of some of the shops stuck to local, cheap, easily available food like olives, lentils, fruit, and local fish, plus mid-tier imports like salted fish from Spain. One of the centrally located storefronts brought in the pricier goods from outside of Italy, including what must have been a rare delicacy: giraffe leg. The leg joint of a giraffe, clearly marked with cuts from butchery, was found in this restaurant's drain.
It is the only giraffe bone ever discovered in an archaeological context in Italy—and little wonder, because the first giraffe to set foot in Europe was brought to Rome by Julius Caesar on his return from Alexandria in 46 BCE. The fact that such exotic fare was available to middle-class residents of a small town in southern Italy came as a surprise to archaeologists.
2. Roman Gold and Onyx Ring // Vindolanda Latrine, England, CA 210 CE
The Roman fort of Vindolanda, just south of Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland, is renowned for the preservation of wooden writing tablets, thousands of shoes, textiles, and the only ancient Roman wooden toilet seat ever found. The site's powers of preservation are largely due to its anaerobic soil, but the latrine, found in a residence dating to the Severan period (208–211 CE), proved to be an archaeological gold mine in itself.
Literally. Very few gold objects have been found at Vindolanda. The largest was found in the commander's crapper. It's a gold ring with a white onyx cameo carved into the image of the gorgon Medusa. The stone and band show heavy wear patterns that suggest it may have been a family heirloom, handed down through the years. It was an expensive piece, and given where it was found, could well have belonged to the family of the commanding officer of the fort.
3. Colossal Head of Constantine // Cloaca Maxima, Rome, 4th Century CE
While clearing the Cloaca Maxima, Rome's great sewer, under the Forum in 2005, archaeologists discovered a colossal head of the Emperor Constantine in one of the passages. Carved between 312 and 325 CE after his defeat of Maxentius left him sole ruler of the Western empire, the 2-foot-long head was once attached to a larger-than-life statue of the emperor, perhaps in full armor, as his colossal sculptures often depicted him in military splendor.
The head does not appear to have wound up in the sewer by accident. Archaeologists think it was used deliberately, either to scrape out the easily clogged conduits, to block a passage and redirect the flow of effluvia, or possibly as an insult to the emperor, whose favoritism toward Christianity rubbed adherents of the traditional Roman religion the wrong way.
4. Catherine de’ Medici’s Gold Hairpin // Fontainebleau Palace Communal Toilet, France, 16th Century
Catherine de' Medici was queen consort of King Henry II of France (1547–1559)—and the power behind the throne for her three sons who became kings of France. Very little of her jewelry has survived. Only two pieces, a pendant and a portrait medallion, were known for a fact to have belonged to her. That is, until 2012, when the discovery of a 16th-century communal latrine during the excavation of a courtyard at Fontainebleau Palace revealed a third. This one is the surest of them all because it bears her mark.
The gold hairpin is 4 inches long and topped with two interlocking Cs back-to-back—Catherine's monogram. One of the Cs is finished with green enamel, the other with white; green and white were Catherine's colors before her widowhood.
Catherine would not have relieved herself in the communal toilets out in the yard, so how her hairpin ended up in the cesspit is up for rampant speculation. It could somehow have fallen into her personal chamber pot which was then emptied in the latrine. A more dastardly conjecture is that the jewel was swiped by someone on staff who then dropped it down the loo either accidentally or intentionally, perhaps to dispose of the evidence.
5. Vaginal Syringes // Cesspit of Private Home, the Netherlands, 17th Century
In 2001, municipal archaeologists excavating the old town center of Zwolle, the Netherlands, unearthed the cesspit of a private home dating to the 17th century. Among the high-quality bits of pottery and glass pieces indicating this was a home for the urban elite, archaeologists found two wooden objects carved to look like penises: one smaller and more rudimentary in its phallic shaping, the other made of polished boxwood, complete with realistic anatomy—including testicles.
At first glance, they seemed to be dildos. But upon closer inspection, they proved to be vaginal syringes artistically designed to look like dildos. The larger one is just shy of 9 inches long and has four parts: a hollow shaft, a decorative scrotum, a piston that runs from the shaft through a hole in the testicles, and a knob that screws onto the end. The smaller one (about 6 inches long) has just the hollow shaft and the piston remaining.
The syringes were used by filling the hollow shaft with a liquid and pushing the piston up to spray inside the vagina. A strong spray of soapy water was a popular (and an ineffective) birth control method at the time. Syringes could also be filled with herbal remedies for a variety of gynecological ailments, or, later on, with concoctions made of toxic substances like lead and zinc sulphate.
6. North America’s Oldest Bowling Ball // Naylor Home Privy, Boston, 17th Century
The oldest bowling ball in North America was unearthed from the privy of Katherine Nanny Naylor's home on Cross Street in the North End of Boston in 1994. Just 5 inches in diameter and narrower from the side, it's more like a rotund wheel than a ball. The shape is that of a boule, also known as a "wood," for lawn bowling, a bocce-like sport in which the aim was to get your ball closest to the smaller target ball known as a Jack. The wheel-like shape was intentional to give the ball a curved trajectory. The hole drilled through the middle held a lead weight that affected the bias (how much the ball curves) as it hurtled over grass toward the target.
Naylor's ball was milled on a lathe in the mid-1600s, when the sport had only recently been introduced to the British colonies in North America. In Puritan Massachusetts, however, lawn bowling was frowned upon—and even criminalized in some situations—because it was seen as a gambling sport, so finding so early an example was an unexpected boon for archaeologists. Still in excellent condition, the boule has an area where the wood split, flattening the edge; this defect is probably what led to the object's ignominious fate. The lead weight had been removed and was likely recycled.
7. Dildo // Fencing School Latrine, Poland, 18th Century
An actual dildo was found during a 2015 excavation of a latrine in Gdansk, Poland. The latrine was in use over several decades, but the dildo dates to the second half of the 18th century, when there was a fencing school on the site. Measuring a sturdy 8 inches in length, the sex toy has a carved wooden tip and a shaft stuffed with bristles, and it's covered in high-quality leather. It was a top-of-the-line product in 18th-century Europe and would have cost a pretty penny.
The water- and poop-logged conditions of the latrine kept the object in fine condition, with only a split seam on the underside caused by the long-term exposure to moisture. Given how expensive it was, it probably was not deliberately thrown down the john when it was still in fine fettle. Its final resting place was more likely the result of a tragic case of butterfingers during use.
8. More than 82,000 Assorted Artifacts // Outhouse Vaults, Philadelphia, 18th Century
Because sometimes X really does mark the spot, an excavation of the site of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia's historic center uncovered 12 brick-lined outhouse vaults filled to bursting with artifacts from the first decade of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th. Homes, small businesses (printers, tanners, barber-surgeons, carpenters, etc.), and taverns tapped into those privies over the centuries, using them to dispose of their garbage as well as their waste. Artifacts discovered include earthenware plates, print type, wig curlers, tankards, glass bottles, fine china, coins, and even an engraved gemstone.
One piece, particularly relevant to the museum that opened where it was found, is a punch bowl that was unearthed in the privy pit designated "Feature 16," which was in use from 1776 through 1789, an ideal archaeological microcosm of Revolutionary-era social history. An unlicensed tavern run out of the home of Benjamin and Mary Humphreys filled the pit with broken drinking glasses, serving dishes, mugs, and almost 100 bottles that once held alcohol. The tin-glazed earthenware punch bowl is notable for the image of a merchant ship called the Triphena and the slogan "Success to the Triphena" decorating the inside of the bowl. The Triphena sailed to Liverpool in 1765 carrying a plea from the merchants of Philadelphia to their counterparts in Britain that they work to repeal the Stamp Act. The bowl was manufactured in Liverpool and must have been a treasured object: It was repaired at least once before it wound up in pieces down the privy at least a decade after the repeal of the Stamp Act.