Some seriously old shit: the lost art of paleo-scatology

(This is from page D5 of the October 12, 1992 edition of the Toronto Globe & Mail. Thanks to fellow runner Doug Pahl for realizing that I would like it and sending it my way.)


It isn’t the Lost Ark, but then Andrew Jones isn’t related to Indiana


Below the Gothic spires of this postcard-perfect town, under its cobbled lanes and its beamed Tudor pubs, there lies a hidden world. “Beneath us right now is about three metres of dirt from earlier settlement,” says Andrew Jones, bouncing on a tourist-packed sidewalk in York. “I’d guess that one-third of it is excrement.”

Historical records support his scatological analysis. King Edward III visited York in the 14th century and declared that “the abominable smell” from “dung and manure and other filth and dirt” was worse “than in any other city of the realm.”

But what may have been a blight on medieval England is buried treasure for Dr. Jones. He is a paleo-scatologist, plumbing the depths of history for clues as to diet, health and sanitation in earlier times. In leading archeological journals, such as Antiquity, he has pondered topics such as “The Worms of Roman Horses,” while at scientific conferences, he gives an earthy lecture titled “Passed and Present: The Archeology of Excrement.”

Clearly, the sewer-level window he opens onto old English life is a far cry from the romantic idyl of Robin Hood. “The bottom line,” he says, “is that people tolerated what would seem to us incomprehensible squalor. Time and again, you get a very strong picture of filth.”

Dr. Jones’s interest in the origin of feces is philosophical as well as scientific. He sees his work as an antidote to the fiction made famous by his Hollywood namesake, Indiana Jones, that archeology is an exotic quest for holy grails or chests of gold. “This,” says Dr. Jones, peering through his microscope at an oat grain scraped from the intestine of an Iron Age man, “is what really moves most archeologists.”

His philosophy is enshrined in the archeological Resource Centre, a prize-winning museum he manages in York, housed in an abandoned Gothic church. At one exhibit, visitors use forceps to pick through soil samples from a site called Swinegate; Petri dishes labelled “slag” or “fishbone” show them what to look for.

But perched on a small plastic mount is what Dr. Jones regards as the most significant find yet in York. It is a 1,000-year-old stool identified by the museum as the “Lloyds Bank Turd,” after the bank building under which it was deposited by a Viking settler. “This is the most exciting piece of excrement I’ve ever seen,” Dr. Jones says.

Fearing that the hazards of public display might render it an endangered feces, Dr. Jones asked Lloyd’s of London – the insurance agency, not the bank – to estimate the prize exhibit’s value for a policy. The company came back with a figure of L20,000 ($39,000). “This is insulting, really,” says Dr. Jones. “In its own way, it’s as irreplaceable as the Crown jewels.”

What makes the specimen so precious is that it is an almost undamaged “coprolite,” the scientific term for a complete stool. Usually, Dr. Jones must analyze mere scraps with the patience and grit of a forensic detective.

“This sample is from a Roman-era cesspit,” he says, examining a grime- smeared slide. “See that brown blobby bit? Probably fungal spores. And that rod-like thing is a fragment of grass cells.” He shakes his head, disappointed. “This is just ordinary soil.”

Scanning another part of the slide, he hits pay dirt. “There’s a brilliant one – a real classic!” he says, focusing on the egg case of the intestinal parasite Ascaris lumbroicoides, a.k.a. a large human roundworm. Such evidence reveals that the leavings are indeed human. Some paleo- scatologists also make a “fecal odourogram,” using chemicals to reconstitute the smell for more exact identification.

Food remains also are telling. The Lloyds Bank Turd and other specimens reveal curious clues as to the Vikings who occupied York a millennium ago. Contrary to popular myth, “Vikings weren’t all warmongering, ale-swilling rapists,” Dr. Jones says. In York, they were communal craftsmen and farmers who consumed a healthy, high-fibre diet of grains, fish, seeds and berries. “Hippies, really,” he says.

On the other hand, their guts contained a staggering cocktail of parasites. The reason, says Dr. Jones, is that the floors of Viking homes were a mix of dirt and mouse droppings, pigs rooted in the yard, and latrines, if used at all, lay a few feet from wells.

Later settlers weren’t much cleaner. Pausing at a quaint street of medieval butchers, known as Shambles, Dr. Jones sketches its appearance in former times. “An open sewer with workers pushing barrows of offal to dump in the river,” he says, “and women emptying chamber pots from windows.”

Even the grand manor where Henry VIII once stayed with Catherine Howard has only a chute through which sewage drained. “Piles of goo – just a few feet from the door,” Dr. Jones says. “And they were royalty!”

Only the Romans, whose sewers still honeycomb subterranean York, escape his censure. He believes that Rome’s sanitary engineers, rather than its legions, may have been the true secret to the empire’s success. “Without clean water, Roman colonists would have been wiped out by epidemics,” he says.

Back at his office, Dr. Jones riffles through the “Urgent” basket and finds a soil sample sent to him for analysis by a colleague in Scotland. As a research fellow at the University of York for 12 years and now a leading paleo-scatologist, Dr. Jones often receives such parcels, including ancient camel dung from Egypt, dog droppings from Thailand and wild boar stools from France. He also monitors academic papers relating to his field, such as “Gastrointestinal Transit Times” and “Latrines and Cesspools of medieval London.”

Dr. Jones began his career studying fish bones. As part of his PhD thesis, he trampled on fish heads and ate large quantities of kippers, to study how the bones look crushed or digested – the way they typically are found on archeological sites. Later, when his research turned excremental, he put himself on a high-fibre diet to see if he could match the ancient stools he studies.

“My current research,” he adds, “is pretty horrible.” In concert with a Dutch doctor, he’s studying “nappies and potty training” to better understand the taboos surrounding defecation. Double-seated latrines found in York suggest that our forebears had little notion of privacy about their bodily functions. “Somehow, we lost our innocence,” he says.

On Dr. Jones’s impetus, a reconstruction of Viking village life in York now includes a figure crouching in the open air, clutching a piece of moss, a precursor of toilet paper. The designers, though, insisted on hiding the man behind a stalk screen, which Dr. Jones regards as “completely ahistorical.”

He says America is even more squeamish about its scatological heritage. “In Williamsburg,” he complains, “no one talks about latrines at all.”

Karl Reinhard, a paleo-scatologist at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, agrees. “Americans are more comfortable discussing sex than feces,” says Dr. Reinhard, who has exchanged ancient samples with Dr. Jones. “People are kind of put off when I explain what I do.”

Modern England is more forthright, and also has a long tradition of lavatory humour. Dr. Jones jokes that his ambition now is to found “The Institute of Higher Excrement Studies.”

Even the starched-collar workers at the local Lloyds Bank branch take the eponymous excrement in stride. Asked how he feels about the name of York’s most famous feces, assistant bank manager Kenneth Fenby just smiles. “We take it as a compliment,” he says.

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