On Private Matters made Public
Not long ago I was invited to give a talk at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research on Salah ad-Din Street in East Jerusalem. I was to speak about myself (a subject on which I am reasonably well-informed) and about my experiences in over three decades of archaeological research of the Crusader period. Prior to my talk one of the institute members showed us as a curiosity, an object formerly in use at the residence, a sort of large but portable porcelain bedpan that I observed with a mixture of interest and vague distaste, seeing as we were at the time seated at dinner. In most societies, with the notable exception of those curious small creatures that in Victorian times were 'to be seen but not heard', the removal of bodily waste is not a topic that is broadly discussed, certainly not at the meal table. But if we are more open today than in the past to such themes, we may perhaps trace our relaxed attitude back to 1917 and to Marcel Duchamp's fountain. If a urinal can find its way into a respectable museum, it must possess some undisclosed cultural virtue.
It is certainly true that the study of human waste and its disposal is a topic of increasing interest for historians and archaeologists (I considered coining a term for this - Latrinology - but it turns out that such a word already exists, applied to the study of writing on toilet walls). Indeed, a student of mine is now completing a dissertation on hygiene that includes a broad discussion of the archaeological evidence for latrines in the Latin East. Archaeologists have exposed latrines in the main Frankish cities, in some rural settlements and in fortresses and monasteries, and over the past years some very interesting research has been carried out, collecting and analysing deposits from crusader period latrines. So far no finds have been recovered comparable to the nearly 780 bags of human waste and other material found in the sewers beneath the cardos of Herculaneum, the town near Naples that, together with Pompeii, was buried in the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.* That deposit contains, along with lost objects such as coins, jewellery, ceramic lamps and other vessels, a vast quantity of organic material that had been flushed down from the apartment buildings of the city, included the remains of food: seeds, bones and fragments of shells. But several small deposits from sites in the Levant have already provided enough material to enable some valuable insights to be made relating to the crusader period, including microscopic evidence of disease in the form of parasitic intestinal worm eggs.**
If this is not enough to persuade us of the importance of toilet-related matters that we might otherwise dismiss as distasteful and better left unmentioned, here is an example of how significant and influential they can sometimes be. There are two versions of how the crusaders obtained wood to build equipment during the siege of Jerusalem in 1099. One, that I have mentioned in an earlier post, was that they persuaded the Genoese, whose fleet was harboured in Jaffa, to take apart their ships and transport the timber to Jerusalem in order to construct three siege towers, one of which successfully performed the task of breaching the city walls, thereby enabling me to suggest that the crusader conquest of the Holy City in 1099 was in fact a great naval victory. By the same token, if we follow the other account of how the timber was obtained, we might regard the conquest of Jerusalem as one of history's most remarkable outcomes resulting from the 'call of nature'. According to Ralph of Caen, author of the Gesta Tancredi, during the siege the Norman leader, Tancred, was suffering from an attack of dysentery. Desiring to find relief and privacy he entered a cave where he discovered 400 beams of wood, possibly stored there and forgotten by the Fatimid army who the previous year had themselves besieged the city that was then held by the Seljuks.***
* Rebecca Nicholson, Jennifer Robinson, Mark Robinson and Erica Rowan, “From the Waters to the Plate to the Latrine: Fish and Seafood from the Cardo V Sewer, Herculaneum”, Journal of Maritime Archaeology 13, 2018, pp. 263–284.
** Piers D. Mitchell, Sanitation, Latrines and Intestinal Parasites in Past Populations, Abingdon, 2015.
*** Ralph of Caen, Gesta Tancredi in expeditione Hierosolymitana, Recueil des historiens des croisades, Historiens Occidentaux vol. 3. Paris, 1866, p. 689.