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Using Parasite Analysis to Identify Ancient Chamber Pots: An Example of the Fifth Century CE from Gerace, Sicily, Italy

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Abstract

Chamber pots are perhaps one of the more challenging ceramic forms to identify with certainty in Roman pottery studies, despite the availability of detailed ceramic typologies. Here, we describe the analysis of mineralized concretions taken from a Sicilian ceramic vessel of the fifth-century CE, and propose paleoparasitology, the identification of intestinal parasites, as an helpful method for contributing to the detection of chamber pots. Microscope analysis of the mineralized concretions revealed the presence of eggs of the intestinal nematode Trichuris trichuria (whipworm), confirming that the vessel originally contained faeces. This is the first time that parasite eggs have been identified from concretions inside a Roman ceramic vessel. Systematic parasitological investigation of calcified deposits from ceramic vessels may therefore help to establish function. In addition, the identification of intestinal parasite eggs has the potential to advance our understanding of the sanitation, diet, and intestinal health of populations who used these chamber pots.
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Accepted Unformatted Version of:
Rabinow, S., Wang, T., Wilson, R.J.A., Mitchell, P.D. (2022) Using parasite analysis to
identify ancient chamber pots: an example of the fifth century CE from Gerace, Sicily, Italy.
Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports doi: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2022.103349.
Using Parasite Analysis to Identify Ancient Chamber Pots: An Example of the Fifth
Century CE from Gerace, Sicily, Italy
Authors: Sophie Rabinow,1 Tianyi Wang,1 Roger J.A. Wilson,2 Piers D. Mitchell1*
1 Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, The Henry Wellcome Building,
Fitzwilliam Street, Cambridge CB2 1QH, UK.
2 Department of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies, University of British
Columbia, BUCH C 227, 1866 Main Mall, Vancouver BC, V6T 1Z1, Canada.
*Corresponding author: pdm39@cam.ac.uk
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Abstract: Chamber pots are perhaps one of the more challenging ceramic forms to identify
with certainty in Roman pottery studies, despite the availability of detailed ceramic
typologies. Here, we describe the analysis of mineralized concretions taken from a Sicilian
ceramic vessel of the fifth-century CE, and propose paleoparasitology, the identification of
intestinal parasites, as an helpful method for contributing to the detection of chamber pots.
Microscope analysis of the mineralized concretions revealed the presence of eggs of the
intestinal nematode Trichuris trichuria (whipworm), confirming that the vessel originally
contained faeces. This is the first time that parasite eggs have been identified from
concretions inside a Roman ceramic vessel. Systematic parasitological investigation of
calcified deposits from ceramic vessels may therefore help to establish function. In addition,
the identification of intestinal parasite eggs has the potential to advance our understanding of
the sanitation, diet, and intestinal health of populations who used these chamber pots.
Keywords: faeces; Gerace; paleoparasitology; late Roman villa; Sicily; Trichuris; whipworm
Declarations of interest: none
Author Credit Statement:
Sophie Rabinow: Investigation, Writing - Original Draft.
Tianyi Wang: Investigation, Writing Review and Editing.
Roger Wilson: Resources, Writing Review and Editing, Project Administration, Funding
Acquisition.
Piers Mitchell: Conceptualization, Methodology, Writing Review and Editing, Supervision,
Project Administration.
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1. INTRODUCTION
Ceramics are the most ubiquitous and the most readily visible forms of material
culture that can be recovered archaeologically from Roman contexts (Peña, 2007). As a
result, archaeologists for over a century have developed detailed ceramic typologies (e.g., for
Sicilian wine amphorae, Franco and Capelli, 2014), which can provide information on the
function and production source of different pottery types. What are thought to have been
Roman chamber pots are typically made from plain ware pottery in the form of an open
basin, straight sloping sides, a generally flat bottom (sometimes it is slightly raised at the
centre), and an everted rim in a number of slightly differing versions. However, their
identification as chamber pots only started in the late 1990s on the basis of the context (e.g.
latrines) for some of them (Pasqualini, 2002: 272); but such identification is often contentious
(they have also interpreted as storage vessels), and no scientific proof of their use has been
forthcoming.
A minority of ceramic vessels found archaeologically retain mineralized concretions on
the sides and bottom. Here, we wanted to test whether we would be able to identify the eggs
of intestinal parasites (helminths) from such concretions. We analyzed the mineralized
concretions from one of the five vessels excavated at Gerace in Sicily in 2019 that had been
provisionally interpreted as chamber pots (the other four had no mineralized deposits).
Helminth eggs are laid in the intestine of the host and expelled with feces, identification of
eggs would therefore establish the function of the vessel as a chamber pot.
Many species of helminths have been identified from throughout the Roman Empire
(Ledger et al., 2020, with catalogue on 644648; Ledger et al., 2021; Mitchell, 2017). The
eggs are protected by chitinous layer and have been shown to preserve for millennia in a
variety of climates and environments (Bouchet et al. 2003; Mitchell, 2013). Systematic
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ancient parasite analyses may thus be a valuable addition to the morphological analysis of
ceramics. Such analysis could, in addition, potentially shed light on the health and hygiene of
the Gerace inhabitants in the fifth century CE.
2. ARCHAEOLOGICAL CONTEXT
Gerace is a rural district 10 km south of Enna in the heart of Sicily (Fig. 1). A Roman site
was first identified there in 1994 and further explored in 2007, but our knowledge of it has
greatly expanded during six campaigns of excavation conducted since 2013 (Wilson, 2021
for a summary; annual interim reports in Wilson, 2015; Wilson and Ramsay, 2017; Wilson
and Mukai, 2018; Wilson et al., 2019; 2020a; Wilson, in press). The work has uncovered
parts of a modest villa with mosaic pavements, a detached bath-house with both mosaic and
marble decoration (Figs. 23), a large store-building, and kilns, all belonging to the fourth
and fifth centuries CE, but there was occupation on the site as early as the second century CE.
The mosaic in the cold room (frigaridarium) of the baths (see Fig. 3) gives us the ancient
name for the property in the later fourth century CE, the praedia Philippianorum, “the estate
of the Philippiani”.
The chamber pot with the mineralized deposit, analysis of which is the focus of this paper,
was found in the bath-house in 2019. The baths were built in the last quarter of the fourth
century, possibly c. 380 CE or shortly thereafter (Wilson, 2020b). Sometime in the second
half of the fifth century they were badly damaged in an earthquake. An attempt was made to
repair the building, but work was abandoned before completion; a decision was then taken to
strip the baths of their recyclable materials and systematically fill them in. The material in the
fills is homogenous and can be dated to the period 450/500 CE. Five chamber pots were part
of this material, and are therefore also certainly of the same date (Wilson, in press).
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The chamber pot chosen for analysis was discovered outside the south wall of tepidarium
2 (room 6 on Fig. 3), one of the warm rooms of the baths: this was immediately outside the
building, in the area of the hypocaust stoke-yard (Fig. 4). It was found high up in the fills, i.e.
among the later vessels to be tossed here and broken during the filling-in of the baths (the
find-spot is circled in red in Fig. 3; see also Fig. 4). In the absence of a bath-house latrine, it
is reasonable to assume that the vessel was used by the bathers who enjoyed the pleasures of
this bath-house in its dying days at some point in the second half of the fifth century; but
because the archaeological context is one of back-filled waste, absolute certainty on this point
is not possible.
The chamber pot is in plain ware of a type likely to have been made in Sicily (Wilson, in
press), measuring 31.8 cm high, with a diameter of 34 cm at the rim (Fig. 5ab). Its
measurements indicate it could have been used for sitting on, but more likely it was used in
conjunction with a wickerwork or timber chair under which the chamber pot was set. It has
an orange-buff fabric with a brownish-buff core and brownish-buff surfaces; the matrix
contains mostly of small limestone and quartz inclusions and occasional specks of mica. Two
parallel wavy lines are incised on the exterior as decoration. In the inside of the vessel there
are significant traces of a very hard whitish lime-scale deposit on the lower parts of the sides
and the bottom (Fig. 6). It is part of this deposit that was removed for analysis.
3. METHODODOLOGY: SAMPLE PREPARATION AND MICROSCOPY
Analysis was conducted at the Ancient Parasites Laboratory in the University of
Cambridge. Unlike analysis of sediment from within a latrine (e.g., Anastasiou and Mitchell,
2013; Williams et al., 2017), mineralized concretions necessitate the use of dilute
hydrochloric acid (10% HCl) to disaggregate helminth eggs trapped within the matrix (e.g.,
Ledger et al., 2018; Rácz et al., 2015). The use of 36% concentrated HCl has been shown to
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reduce slightly the range of species whose eggs survive processing (Dufour and Le Bailly,
2013); but dilute HCl is less damaging and does not appear to have any effect on egg size and
morphology (Rácz et al., 2015; Jones, 1983).
A 0.2g subsample was weighed and transferred to a 15mL test tube. In a fume cupboard,
dilute hydrochloric acid (10%) was added to the sample drop by drop, releasing CO2. The
solution was gently shaken to allow thorough interaction with the carbonates, until the
discontinuation of effervescence indicated the conclusion of the reaction. The sample was
rinsed with purified water and centrifuged for 5 minutes at 4,000 rpm (3100 x g). The
supernatant was pipetted off, leaving a creamy yellow sediment pellet at the bottom of the
tube. The rinse/centrifuge process was repeated five times to wash out any remaining HCl
and normalize the pH, with the sediment pellet broken up between each time using a fine-
tipped metal probe. The remaining material was mixed with a few drops of glycerol, and then
mounted on microscope slides and viewed at x 400 magnification on a digital light
microscope. Parasite eggs were identified, based upon their shape, colour, dimensions, and
special characteristics (Garcia, 2016).
4. RESULTS
Microscopy of the mineralized concretions revealed multiple whipworm eggs (Trichuris
sp.), at a concentration of 40 eggs per gram (8 eggs in 0.2 g) (Figs. 7A and 7B). They were
identified by their lemon shape, location for polar plugs at each pole, their smooth surface,
and their dimensions. The mean length of the eggs was 46.6μm (Standard Deviation +/-
3.5μm), and the mean width 25.6μm (SD +/-1.3μm). Measurements fall within the typical
size of human whipworm eggs (Trichuris trichiura) (Garcia, 2016). The presence of
intestinal parasite eggs in the concretions from the Sicilian vessel therefore supports the
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hypothesis, tentatively proposed on the basis of the vessel’s shape before this analysis was
conducted, that it was used as a chamber pot.
5. DISCUSSION
Faeces, and their related infrastructure, have largely come into the focus of classicists only
since the 1990s (Neudecker, 1994; Bouet, 2009; Hobson, 2010; Jansen et al., 2011; Jones,
2012; Petznek, 2014; Hoss, 2018). Chamber pots have been identified exclusively, with the
sole exception of the Carnuntum example (Petznek and Radbauer, 2008; Radbauer and
Petznek, 2011), on the basis of shape; they come from many diverse archaeological contexts
throughout the Roman Empire (for shapes and distribution maps, Bouet, 2009: 6972;
Petznek 2014: 42; 2018: 130131; Bienert 2018: 139). Their usage is also attested by the
ancient sources, which indicate that they could made from luxury materials such as fluorite,
onyx, silver and gold (see Petznek, 2018; Wilson, in press), as well as terracotta and bronze,
the only two materials attested archaeologically. The prevalence of parasites in the Roman
Empire is conducive to a broader application of paleoparasitology to help in the identification
of chamber pots.
In addition to the multiplicity of shapes and materials, the use of vessels of the same shape
as chamber pots and reuse of differently-shaped vessels complicates identification. A
recent study of material at the town of Viminacium in Serbia, where over 350 identically
deep-shaped vessels are known, were able to confirm at least 3 potential uses: storage for
cereals or water, burial urns, and chamber pots (Raičković Savić, Bogdanović, 2017).
Chamber pots clearly were also sometimes put to secondary use, for example as a container
for builder’s lime (Bonifay, 2004: 260), while vessels initially destined for other purposes
may have been turned into chamber pots. Peña (2007) and van der Werff (2003: 111)
describe the reuse of amphorae as urine-specific chamber pots.
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The eggs of intestinal parasites have been recovered from throughout the Roman Empire
(Ledger et al., 2020; 2021; Mitchell, 2017), originating from sediment in drains and sewers
(Aspck et al., 2011), latrines (Deforce et al., 2021; Kuijper and Turner, 1992), and the pelvic
region of skeletons (Anastasiou et al., 2018; Dufour et al., 2016; Roche et al., 2019). Other
work by Ledger et al. (2018) has identified parasite eggs in mineralized concretions from the
base of Roman latrines. The presence of parasites across the Roman Empire has broadly been
explained by settlement change, increase in population density, manuring crops with human
and animal faeces, and the lack of understanding among medical practitioners of the time as
to how parasites were spread (Mitchell, 2017). Whipworm is the intestinal parasite recovered
most frequently from Roman contexts, although 11 other endoparasite species have been
additionally identified, namely the helminths roundworm, beef/pork tapeworm, pinworm,
Fasciola liver fluke, Lancet liver fluke, Capillaria, hydatid cysts, and the protozoa that cause
toxoplasmosis, malaria as well as two that cause dysentery (Entamoeba histolytica and
Giardia duodenalis) (Mitchell, 2017; Ledger et al. 2020). Whipworm is a fecal-oral
transmitted parasite, so its presence informs us about hygiene levels in the past. The eggs are
laid by the adult worms that live in the large intestine, and are spread when a new host ingests
food or water contaminated with infected faeces. This may occur, for example, when
uncomposted faeces are used for manuring crops in the fields, or by eating with unwashed
hands: we know it was commonplace for the Romans to eat with their hands (Nadeau, 2015:
268). At the rural estate of Gerace it is likely that considerable amounts of fertilizer would
have been needed to cultivate fruit trees, grain, herbs, and legumes (Broida and Ramsay,
2020). Evidence of soil fertilizers such as alfalfa/lucerne (Medicago sativa), mallow (Malva
sp.), and wood ash have been recovered (Broida and Ramsay, 2020: 178; Wilson, 2020a:
108), but human faeces may well have been also used as an additional fertilizer at Gerace, as
it certainly was elsewhere in the Roman world (Flohr and Wilson 2011: 149).
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If we have a distinct piece of preserved faeces (a coprolite), then the concentration of eggs
can help us to assess the level of infection in the person who deposited the faeces. The
concretions on the inside surface of the Gerace pot, however, built up over time through
sustained use, and a failure to clean it out thoroughly at regular intervals; as a result some of
the eggs from the adjacent faeces became trapped in the matrix. For this reason, we cannot
use the egg concentration in that matrix to estimate the level of infection that may have been
present in those that used this and similar chamber pots at Gerace. In any case, we have no
way of knowing how many people used this chamber pot, and different individuals would
have been affected with different worm burdens, or else had no infection at all.
We would like to highlight that while the presence of intestinal parasite eggs trapped
within mineralized concretions inside such pots provides strong support that it was previously
used to contain faeces, the opposite argument is not equally valid. The absence of parasite
eggs in such concretions might mean that the pot had never been used to hold faeces, or it
might mean that it was used for faeces but that those who used it were just not infected by
intestinal parasites.
When considering the validity of any study, the potential for contamination should be
discussed. Some Roman period sites may have intestinal parasite eggs contaminating the soil
if human faeces were later discarded there. No control samples from the soil near these pots
were available for analysis. However, we would argue that the parasite eggs we found must
reflect the use of the pot, and not later contamination, as these eggs were entrapped within the
hard mineralized matrix that formed in the base of the pot during its use.
Although calcified deposits are not present in all ceramic vessels, when they do occur they
offer potential for parasite eggs to be identified and may thus provide supplementary
evidence for understanding the function of such containers. The prevalence of parasites in
ancient populations makes them valuable indicators for faeces, and thus may allow the
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identification of related infrastructure. In addition, the reuse of such chamber pots by multiple
people over an extended period of time heightens the likelihood that parasites would be
present in calcified deposits. In the case of urine-specific chamber pots (the boat-shaped
scaphium and the narrower for women and jug-like matella for men), chemical and
mineralogical analyses may be used to identify uric scale (e.g., Sauer in Petznek, Radbauer,
2008: 71; Sauer, 2011; De Boer, 2020) and allow classification of the vessel. Although the
eggs of certain parasites, such as bladder fluke (Schistosoma haematobium), can be found in
urine, this species has not yet been reported from Roman contexts.
6. CONCLUSION
Our analysis of mineralized concretions from within a Roman ceramic vessel from Gerace
has identified the presence of the eggs of whipworm, showing that combining parasitology
with ceramic analysis has the potential to identify ancient chamber pots. While Roman
chamber pots are attested by textual evidence and are identified with confidence
archaeologically when found in appropriate contexts such as latrines and sewers, their correct
identification in other contexts often remains uncertain. Paleoparasitology offers the potential
to establish a tangible link between vessel form and function as a chamber pot. However,
absence of parasite eggs does not necessarily mean that the vessel was not used for this
function, in cases where those using it were not infected by worms. Systematic parasite
analysis of hypothesized human waste receptacles when mineralized deposits occur is thus a
valuable technique to help identify the function of the ceramic vessels containing them.
Establishing the function of identically-shaped vessels when lime-scale is absent, however,
remains a challenge. Future GC-MS programs analyzing trace elements on ceramic interior
surfaces may be a way forward.
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Acknowledgments
Roger Wilson acknowledges his gratitude to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research
Council of Canada for funding his work at Gerace as well as that of the parasitology research
in Cambridge; to the Regione Siciliana through the Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e Identità
Siciliana for the granting of an excavation permit (and especially for the friendly support and
encouragement of the late Sebastiano Tusa, Assessore, and Sergio Alessandro, Director
General); and to the landowner, Cristofero Costanzo, for permitting access to his property.
Wilson would also like to thank Tomoo Mukai, Université de Provence (Aix-en-
Provence/Marseille), for piecing together the 2019 Gerace chamber pots and for his ceramic
imput and expertise, to Daniella Tsimbaliouk for practical help, to Eric Leinberger, Sally
Cann and Lorenzo Zurla for illustrations.
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Conflict of interest
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
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19
List of Figures
Figure 1. Map of Sicily showing the location of Gerace. Drawn by Eric Leinberger.
Figure 2. The Gerace bath-house, as excavated between 2016 and 2019. Composite photo by
Lorenzo Zurla.
Figure 3. The bath-house at Gerace, plan. The find-spot of the fragments of the chamber pot
is marked by the red oval. F = location of the hypocaust furnaces. Drawn by Lorenzo Zurla.
Figure 4. Rim fragments of the chamber pot in the course of being excavated. The south wall
of room 6 is at the top, the west wall of room 9 on the right. Scale: 10 cm. Photo by R. J. A.
Wilson.
Figure 5. The chamber pot (a) as mended from fragments; scale 10 cm (photo by R. J. A.
Wilson); (b) profile (drawn by Sally Cann)
Figure 6. Detail of the interior of the chamber pot, showing lime-scale concretions within it.
Scale 5 cm. Photo by R. J. A. Wilson.
Figure 7 A and B. Two whipworm eggs (Trichuris trichiura). Image A dimensions 49 μm x
25 μm, image B dimensions 50 μm x 25 μm. Black scale bar is 20 μm. Photos by Sophie
Rabinow and Tianyi Wang.
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