What if the past is gross?

Our most informative and fascinating sources for the past don’t always look great or display well in a museum setting. In this post I want to talk about a way of looking at the past that I find really fascinating, and is the subject of academic papers, but doesn’t really get much of a look in when it comes to exhibition design. In this post I want to talk about the archaeological information gained from parasites, the font of information that is the coprolite, and other gross things.

Are we too focussed on the aesthetic past? There are many museums around the world that emphasise the artistic quality or beauty of an object over all other aspects, but what can you do if the best history is a bit unpleasant to look at?

Intestinal parasites

parasites
Photo credit: Healthy and Natural World

If we wanted to talk about health in a past population, there is so much information we can draw on from the archaeological record and use in academia. Unfortunately for the curator, it’s a bit difficult to put on display. One really fantastic indicator of past health in a population is the humble intestinal parasite. Intestinal parasites can be used to demonstrate that although health indicators are often difficult to discern in the archaeological record, in some cases there is enough residue left to gauge health. Parasitology has emerged to be a major asset to the study of palaeopathology.

Illness and health of past individuals and cultures can be examined through archaeological remains through the study of palaeopathology. Palaeopathology draws upon primary and secondary sources of evidence: primary sources being skeletons or mummified remains, and secondary being documentary and iconographic information. Pathology can manifest in skeletal remains, biological remains such as pollen, coprolites, soils from latrines, parasite remains and food remains. Coprolites, or fossilised dung, have provided information about the presence of worms in past populations, which has been used to explain why some populations may have suffered from physiological responses to iron and vitamin deficiencies (Cockburn et al. 1998: 221).

Crusader health

python

A really nifty example of how we can use parasitic evidence is to look at the Crusades, and using soil samples from Crusader-period latrines. The first sample was taken from a latrine block of the Hospital of St John religious order, and the second was taken from a cess pool in the old city of Acre (Mitchell et al. 2008). Radiocarbon dating of charred seeds and charcoal was conducted in order to ascertain the age of the samples, which were given a date of the thirteenth century.

The organisms that cause dysentery are less frequently found in soil than parasites as they degrade over time, and so testing for this evidence requires a high degree of sensitivity. The parasite associated with dysentery, Entamoeba histolytica, was found in six of eight samples from the latrine block at the Hospital of St John, while none of the eight thirteenth-century control samples from a storage area tested positive. Another intestinal parasite, Giardia duodenalis, was found at the latrine site, along with three types of worms (Mitchell et al. 2008: 1851).

Siege events would have taken a toll on the already-poor health of Crusaders, with fevers and epidemics affecting health owing to the need for soldiers to stay in the same area and possibly using contaminated water (Mitchell 2004: 1). Gastrointestinal diseases are an obvious consequence of continued use of the same water once it has become contaminated. Undernourished individuals are much more susceptible to diseases than those who had access to food with necessary vitamins and nutrients, as those undernourished individuals are less able to fight off infection as their immune system is weak (Mitchell 2004: 65).

Coprolites

The Lloyds Bank Coprolite at Jorvik. Photo credit: Wikipedia
The Lloyds Bank Coprolite at Jorvik. Photo credit: Wikipedia

At the fabulous Jorvik Viking Centre in York, there is on display a Viking Age coprolite, or, fossilised faeces. You wouldn’t see one on display at the British Museum, or anywhere that you would wear a silk scarf to the exhibition, but it’s proudly on display at Jorvik and it is really popular. They have a huge number of school visitors each year, and guess who loves that sort of thing? Kids! It draws them in, they squeal and clamour to get a better look and say it’s gross or cool or rad or sick or whatever the kids say these days. The learn that there is a word for what they’re looking at (coprolite) and they learn that you can tell a lot about someone’s health from their… leavings. They learn about parasites, and about what parasites the Viking had. Suddenly, confronted with the idea that the people of the past had stomachaches, upset tummies, constipation and general discomfort (even itchiness) means that these kids are able to understand that people from the past are pretty much the same as us, when it comes down to us. We’ve all felt sick, or eaten something we shouldn’t have, and we can empathise. The kids are learning that the past was alive – which is very difficult to communicate in such an efficient way in a more traditional museum.

The Jorvik coprolite also entertains the adult visitors who probably wouldn’t go to the BM or the Louvre. I am a big believer that at the end of the day a museum has a responsibility to communicate to audiences in any manner that is effective. You have to know your audience. Would you put a turd on display at the BM and invite the ambassador from wherever? No. Of course not. But would you take a class of rowdy nine-year-olds to that same event and expect them to get anything out of it? No.

Works cited

COCKBURN, A., COCKBURN, E. & REYMAN, T. A. 1998. Mummies, Disease and Ancient Cultures, Cambridge University Press.

MITCHELL, P. D. 2004. Medicine in the Crusades: Warfare, Wounds and the Medieval Surgeon, Cambridge University Press.

MITCHELL, P. D., STERN, E. & TEPPER, Y. 2008. Dysentery in the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem: an ELISA analysis of two medieval latrines in the City of Acre (Israel). Journal of Archaeological Science, 35, 1849-1853.

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3 thoughts on “What if the past is gross?

  1. Poo tends to be a vital ingredient in understanding the past. In fact, the toilets habits or our ancestors are truly balmy, from the very public public toilets of Ancient Rome (sharing a bottom brush is certainly friendly) to King Louis the XIV having toilet time in front of a visitor, it certainly shows that everything comes down to poo.

    Thanks for sharing such a fascinating article.

    Like

  2. Good article. I think people often underestimate the potential historical significance of mediocre things. On the topic of poop, I remember reading a Cracked article a while ago about how poop “created the modern world”. Take it as you will, but I thought it was a pretty good read.

    Like

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