Excerpt: The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy, by Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow

koloski-ostrow_archaeologogyThe Romans developed sophisticated methods for managing hygiene, including aqueducts for moving water from one place to another, sewers for removing used water from baths and runoff from walkways and roads, and public and private latrines. Through the archeological record, graffiti, sanitation-related paintings, and literature, Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow explores this little-known world of bathrooms and sewers, offering unique insights into Roman sanitation, engineering, urban planning and development, hygiene, and public health.

In the following excerpt from The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems (pp. 38-39), Koloski-Ostrow explains how the study and excavation of ancient latrines can be key to understanding ancient cultures.


Theoretical Frameworks for the Study of Toilets and Sewers

Roman toilets, sewers, and drains are important archaeological features that embody ideas relevant to Roman society about cleanliness, physical health, concepts of beauty, and even notions of privacy. If toilets are excavated properly, they can provide valuable data even about the diet and socioeconomic status of users, divisions between households where they are found, construction methods, and maintenance. While the understanding that outhouse archaeology is significant has made major strides in nineteenth-century American historical circles,[1] this perception has been slow to affect the archaeology of the Roman world. Part of the problem, of course, is that many Roman toilets and latrines were excavated more than a hundred years ago, as the science of archaeology was developing. As a result, no one was taking much care to stratify dung piles, to sort garbage from house toilets, or to remove privy deposits. Those early excavations sought the greatest art treasures, which were unlikely to be found in toilets.

Two theoretical frameworks have influenced my work on toilets and sewers. The first, termed “formation processes,”[2] argues that every archaeological feature, including a Roman toilet, correlates to human behaviors and activities that determine its construction, use, and ultimate abandonment. Construction, use, and abandonment are the three main processes captured by stratification within privy chambers. In other words, we can consider these processes as actual constructs of human behavior. While I am not here reporting on excavations that I myself have completed on particular toilets, I am able to refer to these human behaviors (construction, use, and abandonment) as they pertain to my effort to contextualize various toilets within one structure or within a city environment.

Closely connected to the theory of “formation processes” is the “social theory of architectural design,” which aims to uncover the human decisions and actions leading to the creation of an archaeological feature.[3] Toilets can thus be characterized as a necessary component of organizing and planning a habitation or a public area, just as sewers are necessary components of urban design. One of the first things to consider about toilets or sewers, therefore, is their location in the overall design of a building or layout of a city. Many human decisions had to be made prior to construction, and the archaeologist’s job is to work backward to determine them one by one. In the case of toilets, an archaeologist determines where the toilets are in a given building in relation to doorways, prevailing winds, property lines, dining areas, and places where food was prepared. We have enough private toilets now identified at Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ostia to show that they were usually placed in or quite near kitchens. Their location in Pompeian houses seems to indicate no major concern about the avoidance of unpleasant odors near areas where food was prepared and little worry about sanitation.

As archaeologists begin to plot the placement of toilets across the landscape of an entire city, we can start to deduce certain aesthetic principles employed by urban planners or learn about local customs concerning where the toilets stand in relation to wells, water pipes, house cellars, cisterns, public areas, markets, and so on. We may discover that toilet planners were less concerned about easy access to their facilities than about distancing clients from those foul-smelling facilities, or we may discover the reverse, which does seem to be the case for most Roman private toilets. The anthropological theories that have helped to create sounder interpretations of nineteenth-century privies in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and elsewhere[4] need to be applied to Roman toilets and sewers. As much as possible, I use this methodology in this book.

While the builders of Roman public latrines, sewers, and water-supply systems in Italy during the first centuries B.C. and A.D. had little or no understanding of any “ideal” for public sanitation that we could accept in our world, investigation of sanitary installations and water systems has much to tell us about the experience of Roman daily life. In short, I hope to prove Barthes’s clever maxim: Geschrieben stinkt Scheiße nicht, “Writing about shit does not stink.”[5]


From The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems, by Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow. Copyright © 2015 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow is professor and chair of Classical Studies at Brandeis University and affiliate faculty in Anthropology, Fine Arts, Italian Studies, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Her book, The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems, is now available.

  1. [1]See Wheeler, K. “View from the Outhouse: What We Can Learn from the Excavation of Privies.” Historical Archaeology 34, no. 1 (2000): 1–2; Heirbaut, E., and K. Wheeler. “Multi-Disciplinary Research Questions and Methods, Taphonomy.” In Jansen, Koloski-Ostrow, and Moormann, Roman Toilets, 7–14.
  2. [2]Schiffer, M.B. Formation Processes of the Archaeological Record. Albuquerque, 1987; cf. Wheeler, “View from the Outhouse,” 5–7.
  3. [3]McGuire, R., and M.B. Schiffer. “A Theory of Architectural Design.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 2 (1983): 227–303.
  4. [4]See Wheeler, “View from the Outhouse,” 17–19, for further bibliography.
  5. [5]Neudecker, R. Die Pracht der Latrine: Zum Wandel öffentlicher Bedürfnisanstalten in der kaiserzeitlichen Stadt. Studien zur antiken Stadt, no. 1. Munich, 1994. 10.