1,500-year-old parasites help scientists find ‘porta potties’ used by the Romans

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — The eggs of 1,500-year-old parasitic worms are helping scientists reveal how the Romans relieved themselves when they “had to go” on the go! A team from the University of Cambridge says ceramic pots served as portable toilets during the age of Caesar.

Archaeologists note they might have to change their description of the jars from “storage jar” to porta potty based on what they’re finding inside these ancient containers. Ceramic pots are one of the most common artifacts at archaeological sites throughout the former Roman Empire. Whether the Romans used them to store grain and other materials or as a chamber pot, however, has remained a mystery until now.

“Conical pots of this type have been recognized quite widely in the Roman Empire and in the absence of other evidence they have often been called storage jars. The discovery of many in or near public latrines had led to a suggestion that they might have been used as chamber pots, but until now proof has been lacking,” says study author Professor Roger Wilson in a university release.

The team analyzed crusty material inside of a ceramic pot at a Roman villa site in Sicily dating back to the fifth century using a microscope.

Chamber pot Roman villa at Gerace
Chamber pot of the 5th century CE from the Roman villa at Gerace, Sicily (Italy). (Credit: University of Cambridge)

They identified eggs of an intestinal parasite known as whipworm, which live on the lining of people’s intestines and grow to around two inches long.

“It was incredibly exciting to find the eggs of these parasitic worms 1,500 years after they’d been deposited,” says study co-author Dr. Tianyi Wang.

What did a Roman porta potty look like?

Researchers believe Romans likely “deposited” them in the chamber when they went to the bathroom. The worms became trapped in the build-up of minerals in the pot over time.

“We found that the parasite eggs became entrapped within the layers of minerals that formed on the pot surface, so preserving them for centuries,” adds doctoral student Sophie Rabinow.

This is the first time researchers have found parasitic eggs inside a Roman ceramic vessel, suggesting many others may also contain ancient feces — and parasites. Study authors believe the Gerace chamber pot likely sat under a wickerwork or timber chair, even though it measures 12.5 inches high and 13.4 inches at the rim and is large enough for someone to sit on. The findings will help archaeologists distinguish between toilet-pots and those which stored food or other materials.

“The findings show that parasite analysis can provide important clues for ceramic research,” Rabinow says.

‘Convenience was important’

The team cautions, however, that proving this only works if at least one of the people using the pot had intestinal worms. Around half the people who live in places where parasites like whipworm thrive end up with an infection of at least one parasite species. Assuming the same was true during Roman times, looking for traces of parasites should help separate the pots from the “potties.”

“This pot came from the baths complex of a Roman villa. It seems likely that those visiting the baths would have used this chamber pot when they wanted to go to the toilet, as the baths lacked a built latrine of its own. Clearly, convenience was important to them,” says co-author Dr. Piers Mitchell.

Studying these parasites could also shed light on the sanitation, diet, and intestinal health of people in the past.

“Where Roman pots in museums are noted to have these mineralized concretions inside the base, they can now be sampled using our technique to see if they were also used as chamber pots,” Dr. Mitchell adds.

The findings are published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

South West News Service writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.