JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Wednesday, August 28, 2013


I always assumed the key hole shaped double holes of a Roman toilet was for male dripppers and dribblers:. au contraire. Feminine dribblers lack the arc that male drippers project, making the slit redundant for that purpose on the woman's side. And yet it is a unisex feature in Roman lavatories. Atmospheric circulation, perhaps? Moving air is not as vital in a public toilet as moving water, which is why Roman lavatories were always built adjacent to the public baths. Dirty soapy water pouring out of the bathing pools not only removed the solid waste it also quickly carried away the odor, thus killing two birds with one stone. Except they weren't using stones. And that was the reason for two holes.
The oldest human paleo-poop may be older than humans. It was uncovered by Dr. Louis Leaky at Oldivi Gorge in the African rift valley. These million year old Tanzanian turds, also known as coprolites (fossilized faeces) failed to produce DNA, so we're not certain they were made by would- be people or would-be people eaters. But they were found next to proto-human bones and stone tools, so it is logical to assume this stone shiza was also proto-human made. Other suspected human keester cakes have been located in South Africa, and France. But so far the oldest confirmed human droppings are a mere 18,000 years old, from Wadi Kuabbaniya in southern Egypt
However, ground zero in the historic hunt for brown October is the western United States, where six fossilized 14,000 year old tuchus tots have been retrieved from the four Paisley Caves, in south-central Oregon. Other pre-Clovis intestinal sculptures have tested positive for human DNA in Colorado, and the Gypsum Plain in southwest Texas. Some of this per-historic doodie has even been re-hydrated. Warns one scientific paper, “Human coprolites sometimes produce an intense odor when reconstituted...(those from) Texas are some of the most odoriferous we have ever encountered.” Of course, nobody from Texas will admit their re-hydrated coprolites smell.
If you think about it – and I clearly have - human fecal matter should be far more numerous than human fossils. We release a coeliac flux anywhere between three times a day and three times a week, depending on our diet and age. So do the math; there can be up to 1,095 products of Uranus for every year for every human who ever lived. If half of it fossilized we should be building pyramids out of the stuff. Luckily it doesn't, else this would be a much smellier world than it is, except in Texas, whose residents insist they produce only odorless excretta.
The logical solution, so to speak, was water. Most ancient human settlements were established beside ancient lakes (as in Paisley Caves, above), near rivers or the sea shore, which provided a fresh water bidet to carry away the evidence of any Mr Hanky. The abrasive alternative was grasses and leaves - contraindicated for an upright creature such as humans. If you want an idea of how compromised the design of our species is, look a chimpanzee straight in the butt. Their rectum projects away from their body, whereas ours is repressed between muscular buttocks, squeezed almost to the point of being an internal organ. Physical evolution has left us without a clean poop shoot. Social evolution was our only hope to solve our poop problem, if as they say in Texas, we had the stones for it..
Pebbles had three advantages as a toiletry. They were readily at hand – so to speak – even in the desert, they were cheap and easily transportable, often in a small bag similar to those used by boys of my generation to carry marbles. And the more they resembled marbles, the more like two ply they were. The ancient Greek proverb taught “Three stones are enough to wipe your ass”, which was the parsimonious Parthenon party pooper's prudent policy. The upscale merde producer in ancient Greece could even splurge on designer toilet pebbles, or “ostraca ”, from their local amphora maker.
These were the big Terra cotta jugs used to transport wine, and ostraca were chunks from broken ones, small ceramic pieces reused for everything from scratch paper to ballots. The public would vote by dropping an ostraca in one of two baskets. If most of the ostraca were left in the “throw the bum out of town” basket, the offender would be “ostracized”, or ejected from the community. Ostraca used as toilet stones have been found in ancient cesspits below the Parthenon, marked with the names of politicians, even the name “Socrates”: a variation on the idea of wiping your feet on your enemies corpse.
In Roman Latin the “ostraca ”became the “pessoi”, forerunner of our word pebble, and these now had the rough edges ground off and smoothed, something for an entry level slave to work at. But the pessio were usually for the poorer classes, for use at the lavatories and baths of Caracalla, which had seating for over 1,600 users at once, and was six times larger than St. Paul's Cathedral. Pessio were also part of the travel kit for soldiers and salesmen. Still, as Dr. Philippe Charlier notes in his article for the British Medical Journal, “The abrasive characteristics of ceramic suggest that long term use of pessoi could have resulted in local irritation, skin or mucosal damage, or complications of external haemorrhoids.” Or, as the biblical prophet said, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone. And for God's sake, make it a smooth one.”
Still, the 144 “toilet publica” in Rome must have been lively places, with patrons sitting cheek to cheek, sharing gossip, arguing politics, farting and grunting, groaning and laughing, making business deals or even fielding dinner invitations. As the first century poet Marcus Valerius Martialis explained, “Why does Vacerra spend his hours in all the privies, and day-long sit? He wants a supper, not a shit.” The only modicum of privacy and propriety was provided by a discreetly draped toga, hardly sound or odor proof. Since neighborhoods in Rome were financially segregated, there was no mixing of lower class excreta with upper class poo-poo. But watching your competitor strain over a heavy load must have provided a business insight but faintly replaced by modern day spreadsheets and the Wall Street Journal. And that brings us back to those mysterious keyhole slits.
The toilet tool of choice for the ruling class was the “tersorium” (above) - basically a sponge on a stick. A long stick. The bark was scrapped off most of the 12”, but left on the end to provide a good grip. Once you had set your toxic turdeys free, you took the tersorium from the ariensis spongia (toilet attendant) and thrust it between your legs (through the bottom of the keyhole), where the sponge was applied to your bare bodkin - the inside of each buttock. After the sponge, which had already given its life in the service of Rome, had given again, it was rinsed in a small stream of used bath water, running along a channel at your feet. Then it was either handed back to the attendant, who was careful not to grab “the short end of the stick", to be dropped, sponge down, in a jug of vinegar, a.k.a., carboxylic acid. After a short sanitizing dip, it was available to be used by the next patron.
So that is why there are two connected holes in a Roman toilet. Access. And that was why a surprising number of business deals and political conspiracies were hatched in Roman toilets. Access. Once you walked into a ruling class public toilet, you had intimate access to men of power. And that is why no man of power in Rome went to the toilet without his body guards. Given all the points of access in a public toilet, it must have been a very crowded place at times.
Sewers and politics share a long and intimate history. Along with sponges.
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