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.

Embed from Getty Images

[[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.)

Embed from Getty Images

[[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.

 

Embed from Getty Images

[[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.

[[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]]

Embed from Getty Images

[[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.”

———————-

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]]

Advertisements

An Ice Age Wonderland – Yukon Paleontology, Part 3

In 2004, scientists in the Yukon discovered a rare and surprising remnant of the Pleistocene: an Ice Age meadow. And some of the grass, although at least 30,000 years old, was STILL GREEN.

Gold bottom turf_30,000 year old grass below ash

[Fossil grass below layer of tephra at Gold Bottom Creek, part of a 30,000-year-old grassy meadow discovered in 2004, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon. To see a picture of some of the green grass, please see page 33.]

 

In Ice Age Klondike, Dr. Grant Zazula and Dr. Duane Froese explain that this layer—at least 40 meters long–was buried by volcanic ash, or ‘tephra’.

 

30,000 year old bed of Dawson tephra

[The layer of tephra is the whitish colored portion toward the bottom; 30,000-year-old tephra, image courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

Few places in the world offer us such a concentrated wealth of information about the Pleistocene, and the Yukon is one of them.

“There are a lot of common animals like woolly mammoths and bison and horses that we find all the time,” Dr. Zazula said. “But it’s really exciting when we find the bones or the fossils of the rare species, things like camels, or short-faced bears, or lions. Probably for every 500 bones we find, we might find one bone of a carnivore.”

Susan Hewitson in field with lion humerus

[Susan Hewitson holding an Ice Age lion humerus, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

lion mandible

[Ice Age lion mandible, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“I think that one of the things that has really been exciting for me,” he offered, “is that, in the last 10 years, the field of ancient genetics has really taken off in terms of being able to extract DNA from Ice Age bones, then study the details of evolution and how these animals are related to one another.”

beth shapiro with horse jaw 2

[Geneticist Beth Shapiro examines a partial upper jaw bone of a Yukon horse emerging from the frozen mud at Quartz Creek, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

fossil horse jaw

[Yukon horse jaw uncovered by placer miners on Quartz Creek near Dawson City, from Ice Age Mammals of Yukon, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

“[The Yukon is] one of the best places in the world to do that because of the bones being found in permafrost. [There are] so many Ice Age bones that are being found, and they’re really accessible.

“So we work really closely with the geneticists all the time; we’re working on all kinds of different projects together. It’s nice to be able to collaborate with a field like that and make fossils from the Yukon available for study.”

Geneticist Mathias Stiller - tusk - BonesnBugs.2010.TKuhn_082

[Geneticist Mathias Stiller with tusk found in the muck at Quartz Creek, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

This author writes from an area within the United States that is fossil-poor (finding one mastodon tooth is an enormous deal, and most years pass without a single reported fossil). In comparison, the amount of fossil bones found in the Yukon staggers the imagination. But that is not all that the Yukon has to offer.

Even those not generally interested in paleontology get excited when they see or hear about mummified Ice Age animals. There is something so much more dramatic, that much more intriguing, about seeing an extinct animal in the flesh.

Dr. Zazula was frank about being slightly envious of Siberia’s wealth in that domain. Outside of Blue Babe, a steppe bison carcass found in Alaska, the most spectacular mummified animals have been found on the other side of the world.

And yet, one cannot ignore that mummified remains—partial or otherwise—are also an exciting part of Yukon paleontology.

mummified ferret

[40,000-year-old mummified black-footed ferret discovered by the McDougall family’s dog, Molly, at their placer gold mine on the Sixtymile River, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

One of the more remarkable finds was a partially mummified horse, discovered by Lee Olynyk and Ron Toews in a gold mine.

26,000 year old mummified Yukon horse (Equus lambei) foreleg recovered a....Canadian Museum of Nature

 

[26,000-year-old mummified horse (Equus lambeii) foreleg showing preserved hair, hide and muscle tissue, recovered at Last Chance Creek, Yukon, from Ice Age Mammals of Yukon, courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Nature.]

 

horse tail

[Image of mummified horse tail, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

Internal organs as well as a significant portion of the hide (with mane and hair!) were recovered. One can see this at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre, the museum in the capital city of Whitehorse.

 

Also exciting, but from the neighboring Canadian Territory, was a discovery in the village of Tsiigehtchic. Dr. Zazula participated in uncovering this animal.

“[We excavated] a good portion of a carcass and a skeleton of a steppe bison, which turned out to be about 12,000 years old. There was still a bunch of hair and stomach and intestines and some of the limb bones were still articulated with muscle.”

He wrote about this in more depth with Dr. Beth Shapiro (image above) and several other colleagues in 2009. Not only remarkable for its level of preservation, this was also the first reported mammal soft tissue from the Pleistocene in “the glaciated regions of Northern Canada.

fossil steppe bison skull quartz creek

[Large fossil steppe bison skull found Quartz Creek, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon. Not the same bison fossil mentioned above.]

Then in 2010, Derek Turner and Brent Ward found the “oldest reliably dated” Western camel fossil found in what was once Eastern Beringia. As mentioned in previous posts, Beringia was the area that covered most of Siberia, Alaska and Yukon when the land was connected in the Pleistocene.

Derek Turner, Brent Ward and Dr. Zazula explain, in their paper about this discovery, that North America was once home to possibly six different species of camel. (There appears to be some dispute about whether six distinctly separate species existed.) And, contrary to what one might expect, Camelops—the camel genus—originated in Central Mexico.

ice age camel metatarsal (foot bone)

[Ice Age camel metatarsal (foot bone), courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

For someone who has never participated in the excavation of either a mummified animal or fossils from permafrost, it was interesting to learn that there is a distinct smell when working with the muck.

Monitoring Dominion Crk (1)

[Placer gold mining monitor, Dominion Creek, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“The only thing that’s kind of similar is the smell of a barnyard. But this is a barnyard from 30,000 years ago, and it’s from mammoths and horses and camels. All this rotten stuff that was [once] animals and plants that died a long, long time ago, frozen in the ground, and it’s now starting to thaw.”

The ever-growing research and discoveries from the Yukon paint a vivid picture of a by-gone era. It is, perhaps, the closest thing to a window into the Ice Age that we have.

When asked if there was anything that had not yet been found that he would be thrilled to find, Dr. Zazula didn’t hesitate: a woolly rhinoceros.

“We know that woolly rhinoceros are, so far, only found in Siberia,” he said, explaining why this would be so significant. “They extended all the way to the Bering Sea essentially, but they seem to never have crossed Beringia into North America. There is no fossil record of Ice Age rhinos here. But if they did [cross Beringia], that would be pretty amazing to find one of their fossils.”

Dinosaur enthusiasts, however, may be disappointed.

“In the Yukon, there’s almost no record of dinosaurs or Mesozoic fossils at all. I’ve been working with colleagues over the past handful of years, trying to find dinosaur deposits. But there’s no record of dinosaurs here except for a few handful of things. So, it’s not really [the place to be] if you’re interested in dinosaur paleontology. And that’s fine for me because then I don’t have to get involved in dinosaur work.”

“The Ice Age,” he continued, “is definitely what I’m interested in.”

Zazula with horse skull selfie

[Paleontologist Grant Zazula with Ice Age horse skull, discovered this past summer, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

Dr. Zazula began grad school in Alberta studying anthropology. Initially, he wanted to become an archaeologist. His undergrad studies focused on Arctic people and research. A strong theme, he explained, centered on the first humans to cross the land bridge into what is now North America.

“I found myself becoming more interested in the environments that those first peoples in North America were encountering,” he mused. “Instead of just trying to study the people themselves, [I wanted to understand] them in more of a wider geographic or environmental context. So, I switched gears during my grad school days from anthropology into biological sciences.”

After doing paleoecological work in the Old Crow region of the Yukon, Dr. Zazula was invited to join a group of researchers working in the Klondike.

“We started doing fieldwork at these gold mines, and we kept on running into these strange balls of hay frozen in the frozen mud, in the Ice Age sediments. And we didn’t really know what they were at first.”

So he contacted Dick Harington—a well-known paleontologist within Canada for his decades of work with fossils and gold miners in the Yukon. Dr. Harington thought they might be Arctic ground squirrel nests, and in further conversation, explained that they had not yet been a topic of study. In other words, not much was known about them.

25,000 year old fossil arctic ground squirrel nest at Quartz Creek, summer 2005 (photo by G. Zazula)

[Fossil nest of an Arctic ground squirrel, 30,000 years old, found at Quartz Creek in summer 2005, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“Over the first summer of fieldwork, I think I collected almost a hundred of these ground squirrel nests. And what was really cool about it is that the group that I was working with specialized in glacial stratigraphy [and] using volcanic ash beds to date sediments.

“Because they knew the age of these different volcanic ash layers that are found in the sediment, we could actually place these ground squirrel nests in different points in time in the past. We were able to develop sort of a time series of these Arctic ground squirrel nests.

“[Over] the next four years, I picked apart Arctic ground squirrel nests that [dated] between 20,000 and 80,000 years old or so.”

 Nest with squirrel skull

 

[Arctic ground squirrel nest, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

These nests are also known as “middens.” In his paper on the topic, Dr. Zazula and his colleagues describe these underground Ice Age homes. What these middens revealed, not just about these specific Ice Age animals, but about the Pleistocene environment at the time, is incredible.

Contained within these middens were ‘caches’ of food—seeds and plants from the area. These tiny plants give scientists a much better understanding of the climate and environment thousands of years ago.

squirrel nest - quartz creek

[Arctic ground squirrel nest, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

squirrelnest - cache

 

[Arctic ground squirrel nest, cache highlighted by author, per the paper on this subject.]

 

“I think we’ve identified over 60 different plant species in them, and I wasn’t expecting that at all.”

In addition—and much to this author’s surprise–they found fossil insects, including beetles.

“Fossil Pleistocene beetle remains are actually quite common in sediments,” he said. “And they’re actually pretty useful for climatic reconstructions, because most beetles have a very narrow temperature or climatic envelope that they can live within.”

Squirrel nest - DawsonFieldwork_2011_TKuhn_254

 

[Arctic ground squirrel nest, courtesy of the Government of Yukon. Can you find the squirrel skull?]

 

[Extant Arctic Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus parryii) hibernating in burrow, Fairbanks, Alaska; Getty Images]

 

In all of Dr. Zazula’s papers, one can see scientists from a variety of fields as co-authors or in the acknowledgements for their help with research. This was reiterated in our phone conversation: he is uniquely positioned as Yukon paleontologist to provide Ice Age material for a wide-range of study to a wide-range of fields.

“Especially with the Pleistocene,” he explained, “there are so many interconnected aspects of research. You need to have a geologist around. And then, in terms of putting the big picture together, you want to have someone that can reconstruct plant fossils. If you’re just doing it alone, you wouldn’t get much of the [big] picture anyway.

“So we’ve really kind of developed this way of doing things as a team.”

Morehouse, Zazula and Stiller

[Archaeologist Jana Morehouse, Paleontologist Grant Zazula and Geneticist Mathias Stiller, image courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“To me, it’s all so interconnected: the geology, the ecology and the mammals and then the archaeology. You might as well work together to try to accomplish goals, and that’s how we’ve done it. It’s been pretty successful.”

“And,” he added, “it’s a lot more fun that way anyway.”

Beth Shapiro_withHorse

[Geneticist Beth Shapiro with Ice Age horse jaw, image courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“Prior to the Yukon government establishing the paleontology program, all of the fossils that were being collected went back to Ottawa for the National collection and the National Museum. So most of the material that has ever been collected from the Yukon is actually not here. It’s in Ottawa.

“The Yukon government decided in the mid ‘90’s that they would like to establish its own program in Arctic archaeology and paleontology. Since that time, fossils collected here, stay here. And the position [of Yukon paleontologist] was created to oversee that.”

It’s a position he’s held for the past eight years, and one can hear his genuine enthusiasm for it in his voice.

“It’s a great job,” he stated. “Sometimes I’m shocked that I get paid to do this. It’s pretty exciting.”

Over the years, Dr. Zazula has been featured in some of the most prominent global media. Some of those include NPR, the CBC, the NY Times, and the National Post. This past summer, he was filmed with paleontologist Dick Mol from the Netherlands by a German documentary team. That documentary has been aired in Europe since this past December.

Dick Mol and Grant Zazula - Yukon

[Paleontologists Grant Zazula and Dick Mol, photographed by Florian Breier, the director of the German documentary; image courtesy of Dick Mol.]

Not everyone, regardless of their profession, is as comfortable with media or journalists.

“I think there are a lot of people that stay in labs and put their heads down and don’t really interact with the media, but I think it’s really important,” he said.

[I]t’s one thing that’s never taught: how to conduct interviews or how to take your scientific work and present it or make it relevant to the public. And I think that’s a real problem, because if you are a practicing scientist after graduate school, you’re undoubtedly going to do research that attracts interest, and if you don’t have the ability to speak about it or to present it, you lose a lot of traction. In a lot of regards, science is kind of a big competition. It’s like a big science fair. If you don’t produce results and attract attention, you won’t continue to be funded. You can be an excellent scientist and sort of fade away if you don’t have the ability to attract people’s attention.

“I work for [the] government, where we’re publically funded by tax dollars. [F]or some people, [paleontology] might not seem very relevant for society. Still, I think it’s pretty important whenever we have something new to talk about, in terms of new results or new and interesting things, we should make sure it gets out to the public through media.

“Politicians are the people that decide if these programs continue to be funded. And if they see that there’s a lot of media interest and a lot of people learning because of it, then they’ll definitely keep funding these kinds of programs. And I’m grateful that they continue to do so.”

paleoecologist Rolf Mathewes from Simon Fraser University_bison jaw and mammoth tooth

[Paleoecologist Rolf Mathewes from Simon Fraser University,courtesy of the Government of Yukon. Can you pick out the mammoth tooth?]

Explaining the reasons for his fascination with the Ice Age, Dr. Zazula said, “Dinosaur paleontology doesn’t really tell us much about the modern environment. If we’re interested in what we have today and how it’s changing because of, say, climate change, or environmental change, we’re not going to get much information about environmental processes by studying dinosaurs.

The study of the Ice Age, [however], is how the modern world came to be.

“When you think of tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago, it may seem like a long time ago, [but] it’s just a geological instant. And in that short time period–in that geological instant–the changes that have happened to result in what we have here today are amazing!

“To think of giant elephants and lions running around North America: it’s such a different world. And yet so many aspects of that world can inform us of what we’re dealing with today.”

sixtymile mammoth 1

[Image of mammoth skull found by Hawk Mining along the Sixtymile River, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

——————–

This trilogy of posts on the Yukon–with all of the beautiful images and the fascinating information they contain–could not have been possible without the generosity of Dr. Grant Zazula.  He is an adept and engaging speaker; the Yukon is incredibly lucky to have him at the helm of the paleontology program!  Once again, and with great sincerity, a Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU to him.

This trilogy would not have occurred without the great generosity and wonderful thoughtfulness of Dick Mol, who is a wonderful, wonderful person.  With great sincerity, I wish him, too, a Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU!

——————–

If you haven’t already checked out these publications by Grant Zazula, Duane Frose and Tyler Kuhn, please do! They are available online:

Other articles referenced:

 

Yukon Paleontology Program: http://www.tc.gov.yk.ca/palaeontology.html

Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre: http://www.beringia.com/index.html

Terra X – German Documentary: Mammuts – Stars der Eiszeit, http://www.zdf.de/terra-x/mammuts-ikonen-der-eiszeit-35507636.html