Parasites, Poos and Portable Loos

The Romans didn’t seem to hold sanitation in high regard…
21 February 2022

Interview with 

Sophie Rabinow


portable toilet


Washing our hands has become paramount during the pandemic, but the Romans didn't seem to bestow any importance to this, resulting in parasitic infections. Anoushka Handa spoke to Sophie Rabinow to tell us more...

Anoushka - I'm glad I've never had to think about whether a pot has remnants of poo in it until now. Conical pots found near public latrines were previously thought to be storage pots, and have actually turned out to be chamber pots from the fifth century: portaloos for ancient festivals. Archaeologists at the University of Cambridge have found parasite eggs known as whipworms within the crusty materials residing in these old chamber pots from 1500 years ago. This makes me think, will the disgusting portable loos that we find at festivals be investigated in 1500 years time? I really hope not. But how did these parasites survive for so long? And what do they look like?

Sophie - The eggs are protected by a tough external shell, which is similar in composition to the exoskeleton of insects. The sample initially looked like a bit of grey dust.

Anoushka - These were analysed by the theme this week: microscopes. The researchers used a microscope and found eight parasitic eggs, which concluded that this part was indeed a chamber pot. I mean, that's a bit disgusting knowing that what you've put some stuff in has had faecal matter in there before, and I would be really resistant to working with poo. So how did archaeologists get over this hump?

Sophie - Archaeologists find faecal matter in general fascinating because it carries so much information about people in the past. These particular samples were quite nice, but I have to admit that some of my other samples in the past have been quite moist and smelly.

Anoushka - Poo and wee isn't something you'd want to think about on a regular basis, and the Romans didn't seem to either. Talk about pooing where you eat.

Sophie - The whipworm infections may have been acquired from the Romans eating with their fingers or from them eating fruits or veggies that were poorly washed and may have been manured with poorly composted faeces.


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