There’s new poop on the Romans coming from the ancient city of Herculaneum, which, like it’s more famous uphill neighbor, Pompeii, was covered by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE.
In the drive to recycle, we’ve recently discovered that poop can be valuable. Here in Tacoma, “biosolids” (that is, composed crap) are mixed to make “Tagro” (Tacoma Grows) and distributed to gardeners in various mixed soils. It’s good stuff. North of here, in Seattle, the Zoo has found that a clever way of getting rid of its waste is … to sell it. Other zoos have also found that their crap has cachet, especially if it passes through an animal like a panda. Apparently people will pay for exotic poop whether it’s fresh or fossilized.
The same goes for exotic people. When excavators unearthed the remains of two latrines (“privies”) in 1992 in Camden Yards, one of which had been used by Babe Ruth, the sporting world went abuzz. Someone eventually, it is said, paid to get hold of some of what one researcher called “the nasty stuff” (Ru-Doo?). What the researchers themselves were more interested in were the kinds of artifacts that people used to throw down the chute after their shit.
And in Herculaneum, deep shit is big news. I’ve been following Mary Beard, a Cambridge Classicist and Don (big-wig), who writes an entertaining blog for the Times Literary Review. Beard has become somewhat of a popular celebrity (as far as Classicists go).
But if you read her blog (and I recommend it), please do not confuse what she does with what I do. Beard’s life is an endless parade of speaking engagements, travel for business and leisure to exotic locations, museums, and archeological sites (where she is apparently given special privileges to see whatever she wants), conference papers hastily prepared between rushing off to exclusive invitation-only parties with Classics’ professional elite, and writing books on several subjects at once — all while still managing to expound in her blog on the latest classical and political developments and drink gallons of wine. I have no idea how she does it all on top of her teaching. But the only thing vaguely similar between her life and mine — is the wine. Except I doubt that she has to stoop to “Three Buck Chuck.”
Yes. I’m slightly bitter. And envious. Just slightly.
Anyway, Beard’s latest adventure for the BBC is doing a documentary on Pompeii (about which she has an excellent book, The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found). She recently took a dive down one of Herculaneum’s latrine chutes with colleague Andrew Wallace-Hadrill to examine part of the recently excavated cess pits of Herculaneum, which have yielded about 800 bags of Roman Dung.
What do we call such artifacts? I suggest that we should call this material “Romanscrament” (probably self-explanitory) or better yet, “Rung” (Roman Dung). In any case, the Rung, Beard says, that reached the bottom had composted over a couple of millenia into a fine loam, while the top Rung (i.e., that which didn’t make it down) had calcified on the chute stones.
Why would the BBC be interested in filming the world’s most recognizable Classicist running her hands through composted Roman turds? Well, first of all, people seem to find pooping strangely fascinating. Don’t get me started on that. But this truckload of ancient “biosolids” is a virtual gold mine for figuring out what the people of Herculaneum actually ate. We have a variety of literary descriptions of Roman meals (about which I intend to write later ) and other sources that help us piece the Roman diet together, but here we have the real poop to scoop. So far, what they’ve sifted out of the dung heap rather confirms what we think we know. But this evidence can, in turn, can tell us something about trade, agriculture, and possibly about the Herculeans’ general state of health. So hold onto your toilet seats — we may may learn something about the Romans from this project that isn’t just a load of crap. And after they’re done analyzing it, who knows? — maybe you’ll be able to buy a bag for your plants. With a limited production of 800 bags, it could fetch a pretty price to help keep the digs in bloom for some time to come.