The Ancient Graffiti Project – Ancient Words Revived by Modern Scholars

What began as a way for her students to have more hands-on experience with epigraphy blossomed into an enormous international project. At least 50 people have contributed thus far, and there is still much, much more to do.

Dr. Rebecca Benefiel, Associate Professor of Classics at Washington and Lee University, didn’t want to simply teach about ancient Roman monuments; she wanted her students to try to edit inscriptions directly.

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Image of Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius by Frans Sellies, courtesy of Getty Images

 

She, herself, has been studying Ancient Roman epigraphy for years. Most people might recognize the wealth of text carved in stone throughout the Roman Empire.  But what most might not know is just how much ancient graffiti remains.

“One of the fascinating aspects of ancient graffiti,” Dr. Benefiel said, “is that when they do survive, they survive exactly where they existed in a way that stone inscriptions almost never do.”

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Electoral campaign messages in Via dell’Abbondanza, Pompeii, Italy; October, 2004; photo by Raphael Gaillarde, courtesy of Getty Images.

Stone, inscribed or not, could be reused in ancient, as well as not so ancient, structures. (This is how the famous Rosetta Stone was found in Egypt.  Originally a public notice carved in stone, one of Napolean’s soldiers discovered it amongst reused construction material when rebuilding a fort—a stone saying the exact same thing in three languages: ancient Greek, Demotic and Egyptian hieroglyphs.)

Graffiti, on the other hand, exists in the very place it was etched into plaster by their ancient writers.  This is significant, and not just because where people left their messages might surprise us today.

“[U]nlike modern graffiti, we find [ancient graffiti] inside people’s homes,” offered Dr. Alex Pappas, Assistant Professor of Classics at San Francisco State University, “which invites questions about who’s reading these, who’s seeing them, who’s understanding them inside as opposed to just outside on the street.”

Dr. Benefiel’s enthusiasm for epigraphy is infectious.  We connected by video conference to discuss the Ancient Graffiti Project this past summer.  In August, the project held a 5-day workshop on Ancient Greek Graffiti at the Center for Hellenic Studies in DC.  It was on the last day of that workshop that I was able to ‘meet’ Dr. Benefiel, her colleague, Dr. Holly Sypniewski,  their students and other members of the Ancient Graffiti Project such as Dr. Alex Pappas.  From the position of the camera, I was able to witness an entire room full of scholars at work.

The energy in that room, the passion expressed by both professors and students as they answered my questions, was almost palpable.  And really, that level of enthusiasm is very easy to understand.

So much of Earth’s history is abstract. That abstraction is wonderful for the imagination, but frustrating when one genuinely wants to know who ancient people were, what they hoped and dreamed, what their daily lives were like, how they may have struggled or thrived.

Ancient writing reaches through the ages in ways that artifacts do not. It has the power to revive—even if only slightly–those who lived so long ago and are now gone.

And because the eruption of 79 CE buried so much of Pompeii and Herculaneum, we are able to see graffiti in-situ in ways that other ancient sites might not provide.  Unlike text carved in stone, anyone could scratch their message into plaster walls.  Much like today, those messages are from everyday people and include political sentiment, sexual conquests, the simple declaration of “I was here” and more.

 

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Frescoes in the Criptoporticus Domus, one of six restored domus at UN World Heritage Site Pompeii, on December 24, 2015 during the official opening to the public. The six domus restorations were carried out under the 105-million euro Great Pompeii Project funded by the European Commission and aimed at safeguarding the unique UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo by Mario Laporta; caption and image courtesy of Getty Images.

 

Studying those messages, however, is not new.  When I asked about the resources available to those who wish to work with ancient Roman graffiti, Dr. Benefiel mentioned a series of books entitled the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (“CIL” for short).  She pointed the camera to the end of the table, where scholars were pouring over two enormous tomes.

There are currently 17 volumes in that series, not including supplemental volumes, each volume specific to the graffiti within a modern country or region that was once part of the Roman Empire.  These books were first published in the 1800s.  Since that time, more sites have been excavated, new graffiti has been discovered, not to mention that the entire system of mapping and naming within Pompeii has changed.

Oh, and the entire series—including directions to the graffiti themselves—is in Latin.

“Working with CIL is certainly not a quick or easy process,” explained Dr. Benefiel.  “It requires a lot of correlation and patience.”

 

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Floor covered with mosaics in the Pacuius Proculus Domus, one of six restored domus at UN World Heritage Site Pompeii, on December 24, 2015 during the official opening to the public. Photo by Mario Laporta; caption and image courtesy of Getty Images.

 

Dr. Benefiel’s own scholarship—the questions she pondered as she tried to work with ancient graffiti—and her work with the Epigraphic Database Roma (EDR) helped to bring about the Ancient Graffiti Project.

The EDR is another staggering endeavor to bring ancient writing to the 21st century. This resource, in conjunction with other databases, seeks to provide free online access to inscriptions made throughout the entire Ancient World.

The idea for the Ancient Graffiti Project arose after she and her students digitized an entire Pompeii city block for the EDR.  What if there were a resource, she wondered, that provided information regarding where each graffito was found?  Rather than studying ancient words in isolation, she wanted to give that writing context.

Working with a colleague in computer science, they and their students created a search engine that pulled in information of that digitized city block.  The Ancient Graffiti Project is the result, and it is the remarkable work of ever-growing collaboration.

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Photo of Dr. Holly Sypniewski and a student experimenting with an iPad for photo documentation of a graffito at Herculaneum; courtesy of the Herculaneum Graffiti Project

 

As Dr. Holly Sypniewski, Assistant Director for Digitization (Ancient Graffiti Project) and Interim Associate Dean of Arts and Humanities at Millsaps College, explained, “Rebecca and I both teach at liberal private arts colleges and universities where we have pretty considerable teaching loads. We’re not at large research institutions, and we don’t have graduate students to work with us on our projects. We have our undergraduate students, and this has been, for me, one of the most satisfying aspects of this project: finding ways to get my students involved in hands-on research that gives them the opportunity to apply their knowledge in exciting ways.  Our students conduct research on inscriptions, use technology to manipulate images, organize data, and work on the coding end of the Ancient Graffiti Project Database.   We are lucky to work with such talented students!”

In addition to those from Millsaps and Washington and Lee, students from the University of Richmond contribute to the project under the supervision of Dr. Erika Zimmermann Damer, a project member.

“They’re working with primary evidence in a way that you often don’t get to when we’re talking about 2000 years ago,” added Dr. Benefiel. “And they’re building something. They’re helping design a tool, a tool that we want to be able to be used both by the scholarly community and the public at-large because graffiti, they fascinate! They capture your attention. So if someone wants to know how you might draw a camel 2000 years ago, they can find it!”

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Photo of two students measuring a graffito for Ancient Graffiti Project records at Herculaneum; courtesy of the Herculaneum Graffiti Project

 

The sheer amount of graffiti within homes in Pompeii—not to mention their very central and visible locations—might give modern readers pause. Certainly, there was graffiti upon ancient walls and structures (even tombs!) But what does that indicate?  Why were people writing inside?  Why weren’t these messages written in less-trafficked areas or painted over by their residents?

Dr. Benefiel poses these questions and others in the book Inscriptions in the Private Sphere in the Greco-Roman World, co-edited with Peter Keegan and published this year.  Discussing graffiti in Pompeii alone, she mentions that 1700 examples were found outside on building walls and 1000 examples on public buildings (including about 100 examples in the purpose-built brothel).

The number of graffiti found within homes?

3000.

It is important to note that, although graffiti may have been etched into central rooms and hallways within a home, one could easily miss it.  These were not brightly colored declarations; they were etchings in plaster.  Interestingly, those who wrote these messages took pains not to write over existing graffiti. Rather, messages may occur near and around each other.  These messages also avoided all wall paintings, respecting the artwork contained within.

Seeing examples of writing prompts even further questions.  Who was writing these messages?  What percentage of the population was literate?  Can one decipher the gender of the author?

“We have many more names of men appearing in the graffiti, however, we have women who are being addressed in the graffiti,” Dr. Benefiel responded.

Examples she gave are:

“Greetings to Quartilla.”

“Greetings to Sabina.”

“And we do have some graffiti that are written from the perspective of a woman. So we have ‘Methe’, the female name, ‘loves Chrestus’ and then a prayer: “May Pompeian Venus be propitious to both of them, may they live harmoniously.”

Mary Beard, in her 2008 book The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, states that anyone could have written the graffiti in Pompeii; this was not just a function of the elite.  All members of ancient Roman society appear to have participated.  In one example, she suggests that the imprints of coins, pressed into the plaster close to the floor, is the work of a child. In another, she wonders whether ancient looters may have etched the words “House tunneled” near the door of one house, referencing the type of entry required for anyone to access the buried rooms.

The example given by Dr. Benefiel above illustrates this even further. When discussing her favorite graffito, she added details as to why this same graffito was her favorite.

“1) It starts with the name ‘Methe’ and then it says, 2) ‘She’s a slave of a woman named Cominia. 3) She’s from the town of Atella.  4) And she loves Chrestus.’ So she’s a slave, she’s a female, and she’s got three identifying markers: We know who she is, we know where she comes from, we know who she belongs to.  She’s expressing her love.  And then she’s writing—in a public space—to Pompeian Venus, who was the divinity for the city, and she writes a remarkably touching prayer.”

“I like the fact that [graffiti] can sometimes tell us a little bit about the people who are writing them,” she continued, “and they can tell us what they were thinking, but also what mattered to them.”

Artifacts, artwork and writing with Pompeii and Herculaneum indicate that these were multicultural cities with influences that extended beyond the Roman empire.  Perhaps the most obvious evidence of this lies within the statuette of Lakshmi, an Indian goddess.  Graffiti within those cities appears in both Latin and Greek, sometimes a mixture of the two in the same graffito.

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Photo of the entire Herculaneum Graffiti Project team from summer 2014 in the Augustalium in Herculaneum; courtesy of the Herculaneum Graffiti Project for which Dr. Jacqueline DiBiasie Sammons (University of the South) serves as the Field Director.

 

“[There are] all sorts of fun obstacles to overcome,” Dr. Benefiel replied with a laugh when I asked her about any difficulties when translating the graffiti.

“They were written by individuals, in their individualized handwriting, with their individualized thoughts. There is no mediator between the person who’s writing and the final text.

“So you have to understand the handwriting, you have to understand the inside joke, you have to understand abbreviations or non-abbreviations, you have to understand that an ‘e’ can be written as two vertical lines or as we write an ‘e’.

“When we get to the Greek graffiti, there’s something even more special happening because we’re operating in an environment where you’ve got a mix of cultures.  So some people are bilingual (some people are speaking Latin and Greek). Some others are much more comfortable in Latin and could throw a word of Greek in here and there. Others are native Greek speakers that are now living in a Latin environment. Others are travelers passing through.”

 

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Contemporary graffiti on a picnic bench at Musquash Conservation Area in NH; photo taken by the author of this blog

 

After working and researching so many different graffiti, presumably written by so many different people, I wondered if either Dr. Benefiel or Dr. Sypniewski gained any insight into these ancient people.  Did they, for example, see any big differences between those writing ancient graffiti with those who do so today?

“I would say that you see the exact same range of graffiti in antiquity, for the most part, as you would today,” said Dr. Sypniewski. “Perhaps with the exception of the simple artistic tagging. There isn’t as much of an emphasis on decorative letter shapes because the medium doesn’t allow for that. It’s much harder to draw into plaster than it is to spray paint, for example, or to paint over something.”

 

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Contemporary graffiti; photo by Mr. Din, courtesy of Getty Images

“I would suggest,” Dr. Benefiel offered, “that what we see from the ancient graffiti is that in antiquity people were using graffiti to communicate positive messages much more frequently than we do today.”

Matthew Loar, then a PhD graduate from Stanford, now an Assistant Professor at the University Nebraska-Lincoln, had the following to say: “I think oftentimes when people study Classics, they study Greek and Latin literature. They’re looking at words on a page; it’s very 2-dimensional.  You get this sense of a society that was highly literate and was reading and writing high forms of literature. At least, this is what I thought once upon a time as a young undergraduate.

“But I think the thing about graffiti is that you realize that this was a really playful culture, that writing was very much an everyday practice. It was very ad-hoc. Every surface was game for writing. I mean, there are words all over the city in every place that you look, on every wall—inside, outside—homes, taverns, brothels, forums….you name it; there is writing on the wall there.

“I think that was a really surprising thing for me to learn at first. And it makes me feel like I can still wax poetic. I can commune with the ancients when [I] walk through the city of Pompeii or Herculaneum.”

 

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House of the Mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite, Herculaneum; photo by Images Etc. Ltd, courtesy of Getty Images

 

“I think one of the fabulous things about graffiti,” Dr. Benefiel mused, “is that when you look at them, there’s an immediacy.  If you get a sense of what the handwriting looks like, it takes you to the person that was writing that graffito.

“I think that it’s hard to think about a graffito without the person behind it. And so in that way, when we are thinking about these writings, we are repopulating the city.”

————-

I cannot thank Dr. Rebecca Benefiel, Dr. Holly Sypniewski, their students or colleagues enough for graciously enabling me to interrupt their work at the Center for Hellenic Studies this past summer!!  Given the collaborative nature of Dr. Benefiel and the Project entire, it is not surprising that she generously invited me to speak with multiple scholars, rather than doing a one-on-one interview.  I was excited and amazed then; I remain excited and amazed now.  Thank you all for your remarkable generosity and thoughtfulness!  I cannot wait to learn more and see for myself how your project evolves!

You, too, can follow the Ancient Graffiti Project or test out their search engine at http://ancientgraffiti.wlu.edu!

 

References:

  1. Ancient Graffiti Project website
  2. The Culture of Writing Graffiti within Domestic Spaces at Pompeii, by Rebecca R. Benefiel, pg. 80 – 110 of Inscriptions in the Private Sphere in the Greco-Roman World, Edited by Rebecca Benefiel and Peter Keegan, 2016, Brill Publishers
  3. Magic Squares, Alphabet Jumbles, Riddles and More: The Culture of Word-Games among the Graffiti of Pompeii, by Rebecca R. Benefiel, pg. 65 – 79 of The Muse at Play: Riddles and Wordplay in Greek and Latin Poetry,  Edited by Jan Kwapisz, David Petrain and Mikolaj Szymanski, 2012, De Gruyter
  4. Dialogues of Ancient Graffiti in the House of Maius Castricius in Pompeii, Rebecca R. Benefiel, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 114, No. 1, January 2010
  5. The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, by Mary Beard,  2008, Belknap Press of Harvard University

 

Inscriptions in the Private Sphere in the Greco-Roman World

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Before Porcelain Came To Pompeii: A Tale of Toilets (and Sanitation) in Ancient Rome

Here is something I never learned when researching the Dead Sea Scrolls for an exhibit: the toilet habits of an Essene sect from the first century BCE.  They are apparently described in two different sources: one of the Temple Scrolls (11QT) and from Flavius Josephus, an ancient historian.

Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, archaeologist and professor at Brandeis University, mentions them while comparing the sanitation records of other by-gone cultures in her latest book.

No such detailed records yet exist for ancient Roman society, but for Dr. Koloski-Ostrow, this is not a deterrent.

Using ancient literature, Roman graffiti, artwork, and the structures themselves, she pieces together an intimate and unique portrait of Ostia, Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ancient Rome during the 3rd century BCE through the 2nd century CE.

The mere existence of sewers and aqueducts might lead one to believe that the engineers of Ancient Rome were millenia ahead of the rest of the world in terms of cleanliness.

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[[Image courtesy Getty Images, the ancient roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard in France. It crosses the Gardon River in the Gard département of southern France. It was built in the first century CE and is an UNESCO world heritage site. The author of this blog was delighted (and awed) to walk across the top of it years ago.]]

The evidence seems to point in that direction, especially given that public toilets were built in many Roman cities.  Ancient Rome itself had latrines designed for 47 – 60 people in a row.

But do these structures actually indicate what we, in the 21st century, might assume about their function and purpose?

This is one of the many questions asked by Dr. Koloski-Ostrow in “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers and Water Systems,” released this past April by the University of North Carolina Press.

Archaeology of Ancient Sanitation

 

[[Image of the book cover, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers and Water Systems,” courtesy of UNC Press]]

In it, she focuses on a largely ignored part of ancient life, a subject that most people today might, quite frankly, find slightly repugnant.

Since 1992, prompted by the remark of a colleague into how little has been done with this topic, Dr. Koloski-Ostrow has been researching the structures related to toilets within Ancient Roman sites.

“Roman toilets, sewers, and drains are important archaeological features that embody ideas relevant to Roman society about cleanliness, physical health, concepts of beauty, and even notions of privacy.  If toilets are excavated properly, they can provide valuable data even about the diet and socioeconomic status of users, divisions between households where they are found, construction methods and maintenance.  While the understanding that outhouse archaeology is significant has made major strides in nineteenth-century American historical circles, this perception has been slow to affect the archaeology of the Roman world.  Part of the problem, of course, is that many Roman toilets and latrines were excavated more than a hundred years ago, as the science of archaeology was developing.  As a result, no one was taking much care to stratify dung piles, to sort garbage from house toilets, or to remove privy deposits.   These early excavations sought the greatest art treasures, which were unlikely to be found in toilets.” –pg. 38, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

Surprisingly, this is not a discussion of artifacts found within sewers (although certainly this work has been done by other people).  Rather, this is an intriguing tour through an ancient society at-large, viewed from the perspective of urban design.

She attributes two theories as major influences upon her work: formation processes and the social theory of architectural design.  Viewed from these lenses—in which human behavior and decisions are tantamount–sanitation and its related structures become a fascinating puzzle to decipher.

The social theory of architectural design encourages one to ponder the motivation behind the building and location of an archaeological find. Why, for example, were many private toilets in Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia positioned in or near the kitchen?  What decisions were made to include or not include windows in public latrines?  And therefore, was odor a concern in either of these cases?  When sewers were available, and no laws existed to prevent builders to connect to these sewers in town, why were so many private homes still using cesspit toilets? (More on this subject below.)

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[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, a street in Pompeii. Notice the raised stones.  This enabled citizens to cross the street and not get their sandals wet or dirty–from both water run-off and potential toilet refuse from those homes that connected their toilets to the street….]]

 

Formation processes, as its name suggests, focuses on the reasons behind “construction, use and ultimate abandonment” of archaeological features.

Aside from chamber pots, wealthy Roman citizens eventually had either cesspit toilets or toilets connected to city sewers within the home.

Not so for the general public.

“We know…that elite attitudes toward the masses and their living conditions were, at best, dismissive and, at worst, callous.” –pg. 75, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

Within the crowded tenements of Ancient Rome, multi-storied buildings had shared latrines, if any at all.  Some were located on the ground floor; some, surprisingly, were constructed on higher levels.

And here we arrive at latrines.

Dr. Koloski-Ostrow believes the term “latrina” meant a public toilet in the 3rd century BCE.   The later word “forica” (“foricae” in plural) referred to multi-seat public toilets.  As already mentioned, the Largo Argentina in Ancient Rome provided seating for 47 people in one latrine; up to 60 people in another larger latrine constructed in the following century. Public latrines were not always part of Roman cities, and Dr. Koloski-Ostrow wonders whether these may have originally been built as a practicality: a way to keep human refuse out of city property, rather than a concern for human needs.

There were no apparent stalls or partitions.  A latrine consisted of either wooden or marble benches, and the holes were placed at the same distance from each other (with variations of just centimeters) throughout the centuries.  They were generally constructed over a main sewer branch.

 

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[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, sea sponges.  Ancient Romans are believed to have used such sponges on the end of a stick as toilet paper.]]

 

The windows, at least in early latrines, were small and built high up into the wall; she describes these facilities as “grim, dark and dirty.”

And she ponders who frequented them, whether social status mattered in their use.

“Another knotty question frequently asked about latrines is whether men and women used them simultaneously.  We might also ask if women used them at all.  The best response is probably not to seek a definitive answer, but to accept the fact that in all likelihood mixed latrine use varied from region to region or even from establishment to establishment, and certainly from country to city.  Personal choice must have played a role, and there were both prudes and perverts afoot in Roman life.  Chances are that if women entered a latrine on occasion, they were women of the lowest social order, enjoying the use of a public facility, a privilege that was rarely otherwise afforded them by the Roman city administration.” –pg. 31, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy”

When I asked what alternative a woman might have had, she responded by email, that it “is very related to the hierarchical nature of all of Roman society.”

“Women of high social status,” she continued, “would not have entered a dark, dank public facility any more than a man of high social status would.”

“First of all, women of high social status did not tend to be out and about in the Roman city during the day.  Their slaves and freedwomen would have done the necessary errands and shopping for these high status women.

“If a woman of low status (slave or freedwoman) were out of the house and needed to use a toilet, she may have stepped into a public latrine, but I’m guessing that she would have thought twice about it—given worries of robbery or assault.  Such places were convenient, like nasty toilets in the New York subways, for unsavory types to lie in wait.  So, women (low status) would have done their business outside the house and then rushed back home.  In the home were chamber pots and cesspit toilets for their needs.  You can see that I cannot prove any of this, but I have outlined whatever evidence I was able to find in the sources.”

Dr. Koloski-Ostrow relied on ancient writers to help give her a sense of what import, if any, sanitation played on cultural perspectives of the time.

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[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, bathing hall, Pompeii.]]

Praise for the Cloaca Maxima—the Great Sewer of Rome—can be found in Pliny the Elder, Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Strabo (a Greek geographer) and Vitruvius (himself an architect), among others.  But, she notes, these writers ultimately focus on water as a vehicle for cleanliness.

Discussing this sewer in the ancient city of Rome itself and its connection to the Tiber River, Dr. Koloski-Ostrow makes an important distinction between what we today consider “hygienic” and the possible ancient ideal of visible “cleanliness.”

“The Great Sewer undoubtedly did drain off into the Tiber excess street water, mud, animal dung, and other refuse that would have otherwise cluttered urban vistas, but I am unwilling to view it as part of a Roman sanitary revolution, despite the fact that the concept of ‘health’ and the sewer are closely interrelated…A truly important interrelationship to note is that between water and its potential to clean, to refresh, and to inspire economic growth, urban development, and industry.  The sewers did the job of moving stagnant and polluted water from where it was not wanted in the urban environment to someplace else.  Another way to see this is to say that the sewer—assuming it was not hopelessly blocked—moved dirty water from where it hindered cleanliness, economic growth, development and industry.

“As Romanized cities spread across the Mediterranean, the hydraulic technology, time, and expense that were necessary to lay underground sewers surely rivaled the effort required for all other parts of the urban infrastructure, including construction of multistory apartment buildings, streets, and aqueducts.  Just as networks of pipes were necessary for bringing clean water to fountains, public baths, and private houses, in many Roman cities sewer systems were there to take it away.  Connections between these aquatic underground networks and concrete concepts of hygiene, as we would understand them, really do not exist. The most we can say is that the Romans seemed to define hygiene as the removal of visible dirt.” –pg. 66, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

Remember, germ theory is a relatively recent phenomenon.   We might take for granted knowledge of microbes and their potential for disease, but this was not a solid connection in earlier human history.  This is not to say that ancient cultures were not clean (although by today’s standards, this might be debated), nor that refuse in all of its forms was not something they wanted to remove, but—as Dr. Koloski-Ostrow asserts throughout her book—it is a mistake to project 21st century understanding onto ancient structures.

From 1683 when Holland’s Anthony van Leeuwenhoek saw “small living animals” in his microscope to the late 19th century when France’s Louis Pasteur and Germany’s Robert Koch gave us concrete evidence of germs and disease, we have only just recently made this connection.

Sewers, in today’s mind, are a way to help keep disease out of our living arrangements.  We equate sewers with toilets, filth, and the often out-of-sight water treatment facilities that take care of the sewer contents.

“I want my readers to understand that having the ‘equipment’ to remove urine and excrement (sewers and latrines and house toilets) does not automatically translate to strong ideals of cleanliness and hygiene,” Dr. Koloski-Ostrow wrote.

When asked whether this was a controversial assertion in archaeological circles, she responded, “The scholarship on matters of filth in the Roman city have gone back and forth over the years. (‘Romans were clean freaks’ or ‘Romans were filthy, lice and stench ridden creatures.’)”

“…I’d rather say about it that my work will cause more discussion on the topic (rather than being radically ‘controversial,’) and I just hope that in the book I’ve provided enough careful research to show the complexity and richness of the topic.”

Bocca della Verita - Cosmedin

 

[[Above, Franco Sgariglia and Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow pose with their hands in the Bocca della Verità–the ‘mouth of truth’– in Rome, Italy.* (*Thank you to the person who corrected my original statement that it was in Cosmedin; not, in fact, a city in Italy!) Situated outside the Church of Santa Maria, brides and grooms place their hands in its mouth and say their vows.  It is believed that  this mouth will shut on anyone who does not tell the truth.  But Dr. Koloski-Ostrow, after studying the water wear on its face–determining that water flowed into rather than out of its openings like a fountain piece–believes that this stone piece was actually once a sewer cover!]]

[[Image from THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF SANITATION IN ROMAN ITALY: TOILETS, SEWERS, AND WATER SYSTEMS by Ann Koloski-Ostrow. Copyright © 2015 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu]]

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[[Another image of the Bocca, from Getty Images]]

And certainly, she has done so.  Along with providing the reader new perspectives on what might have occurred in ancient construction, she describes fascinating anecdotes and possibilities.

As mentioned earlier, many private city toilets were cesspit toilets—something that some unfortunate person had to constantly empty when full—instead of simply connecting to the city sewer system that would carry all refuse away.

Why?

Consider two things: frequent flooding and the lack of systems to prevent methane and hydrogen sulphide gas build-up. Now consider what this means: in the case of flooding, unfortunate back-flow from the sewer right into homes.  And in the case of gases, the potential for frequent (and perhaps inexplicable?) explosions.

Dr. Koloski-Ostrow mentions how many archaeologists, from the first Pompeii dig to the present, were unwilling to focus on any of these ancient structures.  But this continues to be an unseemly topic for many people to openly discuss, in scholarly or other circles.

She prefaces her book with this concern.

“At times I have had my own fears either that everyone would gradually abandon me on account of my fascinations for the underside, or worse, that I would be known in scholarly circles as ‘Koloski-Ostrow on the toilet,’ which, it seems has happened.” – pg. xv, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

And while she describes the overwhelming support she’s received over the years from colleagues and friends, I still wondered how people react to her research now.

“Well,” she wrote, “I’d say that people snicker when they first hear about it.  When I explain, however, that I do not ‘just’ research Roman toilets and sewers, but the ancient technologies of water supply and distribution, urban infrastructure, ancient plumbing, and the social ideas that accompanied these topics, those snickers usually turn to rapt attention and interest.”

“I do not consider the work ‘trivial,’ but a serious new probe into the realities of life in the ancient Roman city.  My readers seem to agree after they engage with the research too.”

It’s an intriguing and thought-provoking read, written for those who are familiar with ancient Roman history, but readable for those who are not.

In response to whether she was surprised by anything she discovered, she answered, “I guess I was most surprised by how much work was necessary to do before I could sit down to put it all together—studying the archaeology on the ground at so many ancient sites, reading and assessing ancient Roman graffiti, and searching such a wide variety of classical texts (ranging over two to three hundred years of Roman writers) and analyzing Roman wall paintings.”

“It was a labor of love,” she concluded, “but a labor, nevertheless.”

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For more fascinating details about ancient sanitation, including murders and bodies thrown into the sewers, please buy and read the book!

An enormous and sincere THANK YOU to Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow for her time; her open, generous and fascinating responses to my questions–especially in the midst of an incredible work-load on her part–and her graciousness in enabling me to use so many quotes from her book!  I am so grateful that she took the time to contact me directly. It was a great honor and pleasure connecting with her!  I look forward to reading her upcoming book, Pompeii and Herculaneum: Roman Daily Life in the Shadow of Vesuvius through Cambridge University Press.

Many, many thanks to Regina Mahalek and Matthew Somoroff at UNC Press for both connecting me with Dr. Koloski-Ostrow and for the pictures provided.

A big thank you to Colleen, the brilliant mind behind this post’s title. I am not good with titles; the original was a bit of a bore.  Thank you (coupled with a smile and a roll of the eyes) for the many ‘helpful’ titles offered by friends and family.

FULL DISCLOSURE: the author of this blog read an article about Dr. Koloski-Ostrow’s work in 2014, then requested and received a review copy of this book in 2015. I am profoundly grateful to the UNC Press for that book, as I thoroughly enjoyed it!

 

References:

  • The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers and Water Systems, Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, University of North Carolina Press, 2015
  • Handbook to life in Ancient Rome, Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins, Facts on File Inc., 1994
  • The Discovery of the Germ: Twenty Years That Transformed the Way We Think About Disease, John Waller, Columbia University Press, 2002
Embed from Getty Images

[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, buildings of Pompeii situated below the volcano, Mt. Vesuvius]]