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.

[[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.)

[[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.

 

[[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]]

[[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

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

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Dick Mol – Renowned Mammoth Expert: Fossil Hunting in the Sea

‘Fossil-hunting’ often brings to mind remote locations filled with rocks, sparse vegetation and a bright, merciless sun.

But Dick Mol–an internationally renowned paleontologist–is part of a team that regularly uncovers fossils in an unusual place: the ocean.

Dick MolDick Mol holding Ice Age bison skull found in the North Sea, image courtesy of Rene Bleuanus and Dick Mol

 His expeditions take place upon the North Sea, a large expanse of ocean between the East coast of the United Kingdom and the coasts of several other European countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany up through to Norway.

 


“The North Sea is very rich,” wrote Dick Mol in an email. “Ever since 1874, fishermen have brought large quantities of bones and molars ashore.”

He himself has written articles about these finds, describing how the area is routinely dredged, enabling large ships passage on this navigational route. This dredging is what helps uncover fossils deposited there so many thousands of years ago. Coupled with trawling—a method of fishing that pulls weighted nets along the sea floor—these fossils are then brought to the surface.

“I learned about the Ice Age mammal remains, trawled by fishermen,” he explained, “from the curator of the Geological and Mineralogical Museum in Leiden, now the NCB Naturalis (Netherlands Center for Biodiversity). At that time, the attic of the museum was full of large bones of trawled mammoth bones, skulls and lower jaws. It was very impressive.”

Trawling boat, Stellendam harborFisherman preparing trawling nets as the ship leaves Stellendam harbor for the North Sea, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol

“I remember,” he continued, “that in November 1992 I brought the late Dr. Andrei Sher, a renowned mammoth expert from Moscow, to the museum. When he entered the large attic, he didn’t believe what he was seeing: perhaps one of the largest collections of isolated mammoth bones in the world. This was recorded by a film crew making a documentary on mammoths in the Netherlands. Once in a while, I rewatch this brief documentary again, and it gives me very good memories of a longtime ago.”

“When he entered the large attic, he didn’t believe what he was seeing: perhaps one of the largest collections of isolated mammoth bones in the world.” — Dick Mol, describing the reaction of Dr. Andrei Sher to a collection of mammoth fossils from the North Sea at the NCB Naturalis in the Netherlands

Known to the world as Dick Mol, his name is actually Dirk Jan Mol, and he has been researching mammoths and other Pleistocene fauna for decades. One cannot study mammoths without becoming acquainted with his name and his work.

In response to what prompted his career in mammoths, he wrote, “I grew up on the border with Germany. Around the town of Winterswijk a lot of different geological sediments and fossils can be found from the Triassic, Cretaceous, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene and Holocene eras. In different quarries and clay-pits you could collect fossils, but none were of mammoths or remains of other Ice Age creatures.”

“I have been, since 1968, fascinated by mammoths. In the literature, you could read that these prehistoric animals stood up to 5 meters at shoulder (which was exaggerated, of course). I wanted to know more about mammoths and their ancestors. I wanted to find my own mammoths, but it seems that the mammoth has found me!”

“I wanted to find my own mammoths, but it seems that the mammoth has found me!” — Dick Mol

His enthusiasm for the topic has lead him to become a visiting scientist in 1990 and 1994 at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota—part of the “Visiting Scholar” program designed by Dr. Larry Agenbroad. He has co-authored numerous papers over the years, and his books include Mammoths (published 1993) and, more recently, Mammoths and Mastodons of the Haute-Loire (published 2010), a bilingual book he co-authored with French paleontologist, Frédéric Lacombat.

Scientists and explorers from all over the world have invited him to help excavate their discoveries: some of the most notable finds include the Jarkov woolly mammoth in Russia (Mammuthus primigenius), the Nolhac steppe mammoth in France (Mammuthus trogontherii), and parts of a mastodon skeleton in Greece (Mammut borsoni), in which the longest tusks found to-date were uncovered (502 cm in length).

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands knighted him for his work in paleontology in 2000. In addition, he is President of Mammuthus Club International and has been involved in the international conference related to mammoth research for years.

His family’s personal collection of fossils exceeds 30,000 specimens that have been used for educational purposes and scientific studies.

Today, he is a Research Associate at the following institutions:

For all of his accolades and accomplishments, Dick Mol is a very accessible and kind man. One witnesses his infectious enthusiasm in these two videos about his work in the North Sea:

 

Trawling for Mammoths: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01q0gfr

A Mammoth Task: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01q29mg

 

“Over the years, tons and tons of bones have been trawled by fishermen in their nets,” he reiterated. “Between 1997 and 2003, we weighed the mammoth bones: 57 tons, not including 8000 mammoth molars (!) of woolly mammoths. The southern bight of the North Sea between the British Islands and the Netherlands is very rich in Pleistocene mammal remains. It is a real treasure trove.”

“Between 1997 and 2003, we weighed the mammoth bones: 57 tons, not including 8000 mammoth molars (!) of woolly mammoths. The southern bight of the North Sea between the British Islands and the Netherlands is very rich in Pleistocene mammal remains. It is a real treasure trove.”–Dick Mol

“In the meantime, I have organized 43 mammoth fishing expeditions on the North Sea using big beam trawlers. Quite spectacular and always a good catch. Doing these expeditions gave us very good insight into those areas that are very productive and those areas in which Pleistocene fossils are scarce.”

Given the enormous number of fossils brought up from dredging, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to wonder whether there might be exciting fossil discoveries just waiting to be found if one could go even deeper.

“Yes, for sure,” he agreed. “Most of the bones trawled by the fishermen have been washed out of the seabed by currents. The Eurogully area, off the coast of the province of South-Holland, was dredged from 13 to 40 meters below sea level. At approximately 23-26 meters, there is a rich layer with bones and teeth from the Late Pleistocene. Deeper, there is a layer containing an interglacial fauna (110.000-130.000 BP) including Hippopotamusses and straight-tusked elephants. This is true for the entire southern bight of the North Sea.”

Private collector with femur of the so-called straight-tusked elepahnt, North Sea

Private collector with the femur of the so-called straight-tusked elephant from the North Sea,image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol

But the cost of such an underwater excavation might be prohibitive.

“Once, I used a diver on one of the expeditions. Visibility was very poor, and it was not successful. But some divers in the past have found some mammoth remains. Amongst others, a diver brought up a complete mammoth tusk.”

Aside from the need to desalinate fossils found in the North Sea, they are not physically treated any differently than fossils one finds on land. And despite the wealth of fossils found thus far, Dick Mol does not have any favorites.

“For me,” he wrote, “every bone, bone fragment or remnant is unique and tells us a story….”

Mammoth tibia, freshly trawled, with fish... (1)

Mammoth tibia freshly trawled from the North Sea with fish, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol

Keep in mind, however, that these fragments and bones are not found together.

Paleontology is like detective work: terrestrial excavations include mapping by grid, pictures, and notes related to where each bone is found. All of these details help paleontologists better understand what species it is and what happened to that animal before and after it died.

The bones found in the North Sea are pulled up individually in a mass of fish and other debris.

Without any of the clues available to someone digging on land, this begs the question: can one determine to which species a bone belongs in isolation?

“[A]fter spending more than 40 years of my life identifying isolated skeletal elements (we have never retrieved a complete skeleton from the North Sea bed) again and again, using comparative collections, it is possible to identify the specimens as soon as they are on the deck of the vessel.”

“Sometimes,” he added, “I need to use literature, but in most cases, an experienced anatomist can do it right away.”

And what about the isolated teeth that have been found in abundance?

“[A]t least three different species of mammoths are well-documented: from the Early Pleistocene the southern mammoth, (Mammuthus meridionalis); from the Middle Pleistocene the steppe mammoth, (Mammuthus trogontherii); and from the Late Pleistocene the woolly mammoth, the icon of the Ice Age, (Mammuthus primigenius). The molars of these species are quite different and easy to tell apart from each other by an experienced specialist.”

Grooves and marks upon the bones give rise to questions about who or what caused them: humans or other Pleistocene animals? And how can one tell the difference?

“Hyena gnawing marks and other predators are well-known and, in general, easy to recognize. Of course, you need some training and experience. Sometimes, especially in large bones, one can see the deep grooves in the so-called material spongiosa caused by hyena (pre)molars. Hyena gnawing marks are very often found in the skeletal remains of woolly mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses. The ice-aged hyena was very common on the Late Pleistocene mammoth steppe environment. Cut marks caused by human activity are completely different from those of predators.”

The “quality and quantity” of the fossils in the North Sea are two things that surprise him the most.

“We have huge collections, and we are constantly learning from them.”

Storage private collection Urk (1)

Private fossil collection storage, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol (Dick Mol is pictured on the left)

Highlighting mammoth teeth

Please click on this (or any) image to see it in more detail, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol; highlighting by author

“Recently, many collectors are also focusing on small mammal remains (micro-mammals like voles and lemmings). These remains can be found on the beaches of the North Sea where Pleistocene sediments have been added to strengthen the coastline. Some collectors have hundreds and hundreds of small molars of the entire small mammal fauna. These small mammal remains provide very interesting data to complete the picture of the woolly mammoth and its Ice Age world. In other words, it gives us a window into the small animal community that coexisted with the megafauna.”

“These small mammal remains provide very interesting data to complete the picture of the woolly mammoth and its Ice Age world. In other words, it gives us a window into the small animal community that coexisted with the megafauna.”–Dick Mol

There are two questions that come to mind regarding the volume of fossils collected so far: where are these fossils stored and how long does it take to catalog and study such collections?

“It is a continuous process,” he stated, referring to the length of time needed to catalog and study the fossils.

But in terms of where they are stored, he wrote, “[t]he NCB Naturalis (Netherlands Center of Biodiversity Naturalis in Leiden) has a huge collection of fossil bones from both the North Sea, as well as from dredging operations in the floodplain of our rivers like Rhine, Meuse and IJssel. Really, a huge collection.”

“Using about 200 skeletal elements of mammoths of almost the same size, same age and same gender, we compiled a skeleton for museum display, a huge male individual. Another extensive collection is housed at the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam. Here, a huge collection of Pliocene and Pleistocene marine mammals is stored. Most of these marine mammal remains have been trawled from the seabed as well, and some of these animals coexisted together with terrestrial mammals like mammoths and other large animals. The marine mammals were living in the paleodeltas.”

Compilation skeleton woolly mammoth, NCB Naturalis Leiden (1)

 

Woolly mammoth skeleton at the NCB Naturalis Leiden Museum, the Netherlands, composed of individual fossils found within the North Sea, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol

“And there are some private collections. Some of them are very well documented. They are like professional collections, and they are available and often used for scientific studies.”

“The co-operation between non-professional and professional paleontologists is extremely good in the Netherlands. For more than three decades, both groups have been working closely together on mammoths and mammoth fauna, scoring very interesting results like 14C, stabile isotopes, new species, etc.”

Dick Mol himself posed the final question: “What can we learn from the mammoth bones trawled from the North Sea between the British Islands and the Netherlands?

“The rich terrestrial mammal remains trawled teach us that the North Sea between Britain and the Netherlands was once dry land,” he explained. “The British Islands were connected with the mainland of Europe during the entire Pleistocene or Ice Age (2.580.000 – 11.500 BP). That area was inhabited by different faunas.”

“In the Early Pleistocene, it was a savannah-like environment, dominated by the southern or ancestral mammoths, (Mammuthus meridionalis). In the Middle Pleistocene, it was a steppe-like environment dominated by the steppe mammoth, (Mammuthus trogontherii), and in the Late Pleistocene, it was a cold, dry and almost treeless steppe dominated by woolly mammoths, (Mammuthus primigenius).”

Dick Mol - compilation skeleton

Woolly mammoth skeleton at the Hellevoetsluis Museum, the Netherlands, composed of individual fossils found within the North Sea, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol

“At the end of the Pleistocene, this landscape disappeared, caused by dramatic change of climate. It became warmer and warmer, and ice–which blanketed the northern hemisphere–started to melt. Melted water filled up lower countries, and the vast plain became ocean. We know this area today as the ‘North Sea’, and it reached its present sea level about 8,000 years ago. The mammoth steppe disappeared and the mammoth fauna became extinct. This extinction is what we need to accept; it is not dramatic.”

“These events—of which we can learn from the North Sea fossils–show us that we are on a living planet and extinction belongs to it.”
————-

A Mammuthus trogontherii-sized THANK YOU to Dick Mol for his generous and detailed answers to my many, many questions; for his time, his wisdom and his thoughtfulness! What a truly great honor and a great pleasure!!

Dick Mol

 

Dick Mol, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol

Dick Mol’s papers and research: http://hetnatuurhistorisch.academia.edu/DickMol

The Eurogeul—first report of the palaeontological, palynological and archaeological investigations of this part of the North Sea:  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1040618205000649

For fascinating pictures and in-depth descriptions of mastodons and mammoths, Mammoths and Mastodons of the Haute-Loire is a great book (published 2010, in English and in French):  http://www.amazon.fr/Mammouths-Mastodontes-Haute-Loire-Dick-Mol/dp/2911794974/

If you are interested in seeing more of Hans Wildschut’s exciting work, here are links provided by Dick Mol:

Trawling and fossils:

Hans Wildschut – trawling for fossils

Hans Wildschut – fossil finds

Hans Wildschut – trawling for fossils, December 2010

Hans Wildschut – exciting fossil finds and collection (Urk)

Remie Bakker and the creation of the life-sized model of the Mastodon of Auvergne:

Hans Wildschut – Remie Bakker’s work