In a column from last October (“Going in Style”), I described the discovery of a palatial residence on a hill overlooking Jerusalem, found during salvage excavations in 1919-20.

The residence was near what is now known as Arnon Hanatziv Promenade, a public park where our tour groups sometimes stop for lunch when visiting Jerusalem.

The building complex was dated to sometime in the mid-seventh century BCE, probably near the time when Jerusalem was being rebuilt after the Assyrian siege of the city in 701 BCE, and prior to the rule of Josiah in the last quarter of the century. The people lived as vassals to the Assyrians during much of that period.

The site included a garden area, a large water reservoir, and ornate stone capitals typical of royal residences, but no clues as to which Hebrew or Assyrian official occupied the house – or sat upon its carefully constructed toilet.

That rare find appears to have been inside a small stone cubicle built in the garden, where an unmistakable square toilet was positioned atop a cesspit carved into the bedrock.

The pit accumulated generic rubbish in addition to human waste. Like modern port-a-potties, it had to be cleaned out periodically.

The small room contained 30-40 ceramic bowls, many of which likely held incense or other fragrances used to combat the unpleasant odors associated with the room’s function.

I jokingly noted in the previous column that the compound’s elite occupants were “going in style.”

They may also have been going in pain.

A recent article in The International Journal of Paleopathology details the findings of researchers who examined samples of sediments from directly beneath the toilet seat – an archaeoparasitological investigation.

Information gained from examining the ancient excreta could provide insights into the sanitary conditions, or lack of them, among elite residents of Jerusalem during that period. Such knowledge could inform our understanding of the history of diseases, at least in that region.

It turns out that parasitic worms common to humans can lay thousands of eggs per day, and once passed from the body they remain incredibly durable – to the benefit of modern researchers.

The unfortunate folk assigned toilet-cleaning duty may have emptied the cesspit occasionally, but they clearly couldn’t sanitize it.

After a complex process of treating the hard samples with acid to break them up, along with several steps involving separating, centrifuging, and rinsing, fractions of the sediment were mounted in glycerin and examined under a microscope.

Parasitologists who examined the toilet sediments identified remains of four types of parasitic eggs. The most common was Ascaris lumbricoides (roundworm), while Trichuris trichiura (whipworm) was the second most common. Species from the genus Taenia (beef and pork tapeworm) were next, followed by Enterobius vermicularis (pinworm).

The highest parasite egg concentrations, as expected, came from a sample directly beneath the toilet seat, while four control samples turned up no parasites, ruling out later contamination.

According to the article, roundworms and whipworms are transmitted orally from fecal contamination, often resulting in malnutrition or stunted growth for children. Tapeworms common to cows and pigs can be transmitted to humans who eat poorly cooked beef or pork. Even moderate infections can cause abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea.

Pinworms can be transmitted by fecal contamination through the hands, or even through airborne means. Infections can result in intense anal itching, especially at night.

Archaeologists and others speculate that, under Assyrian-enforced practices, human feces may have been collected and spread as fertilizer on the poor soil of small, terraced fields built into the rocky hillsides. Unless human waste is composted for several months, the eggs remain viable and capable of causing infection.

The lack of sanitation and safe cooking methods, then, likely contributed to prevalent infections with intestinal parasites, even among the upper classes of Judean society.

The high life still had its low points.

From there, it’s only a small (if tasteless) leap for me to recall that many ancient folks thought of feelings or emotions – including empathy – as also residing in the digestive system, much as we may think of having a “gut feeling” or having queasy stomachs at a time of deep emotion.

Isaiah once appealed to God, crying, “Where are your zeal and your might? The yearning of your heart and your compassion?” (Isaiah 63:15). The NRSV has converted the Hebrew idiom to a more palatable English expression: a literal reading of “yearning of your heart” would be “the tumult of your bowels.”

When Paul began his letter to the Philippians with “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, … any compassion and sympathy” (Philippians 2:1), the word translated “compassion” is splangkna, a reference to the intestines.

Paul likewise encouraged the Colossians to clothe themselves “with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). “Compassion” translates two words from Greek, which the King James version translates literally, as “bowels of mercy.”

Compassion isn’t universally popular. We live in a sad age when some pundits criticize the positive virtue of empathy as being too generous for people they consider to be undeserving of our concern.

What’s in your bowels?

Share This