Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow: Black Holes in Ancient Space

The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems by Ann Olga Koloski-OstrowToday, we welcome a guest post from Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, author of The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems just published in paperback by UNC Press.

The Romans developed sophisticated systems of urban infrastructure, including aqueducts for moving water from one place to another, sewers for removing dirty water from baths and for runoff from walkways and roads, and public and private multi-seat latrines and single toilets. Through the archaeological record, graffiti, and 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. Focusing on the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Ostia, and Rome, Koloski-Ostrow’s work challenges common perceptions of Romans’ social customs, beliefs about health, tolerance for filth in their cities, and attitudes towards privacy. In charting the complex history of sanitary customs from the late republic to the early empire, Koloski-Ostrow reveals the origins of waste removal technologies and their implications for urban health, past and present.

The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy is available in both print and ebook editions.


Black Holes in Ancient Space:  Roman Sanitation from the Sources

In San Francisco in January 2016 (I had just won the Archaeological Institute of America’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching), I spoke about two unusual “teachers” in my life who inspired me and who helped direct my research interests into the world of ancient Roman sanitation, sewers, toilets, and water systems. These were two dead uncles–both of them immigrants to the U.S.A. from Russia in the early twentieth century.

My Uncle Ted was a plumber in the Boston area, before he died in 1981. When I was a little girl growing up in western Massachusetts (on a farm with a three-seater outhouse), I loved to visit Uncle Ted and go with him underneath the great Victorian houses of Boston where he spent hours on his back in dark, spider-filled spaces, as he fixed copper pipes, or in splendid bathrooms, where he plunged clogged toilets and removed lion-legged bathtubs during renovations. I never tired of the artifacts we collected together—all related to cleanliness, water, and sanitation.

My other dear Uncle Nick, who died in 1991, was a garbage collector in New York City. I often joined him too as he picked up both construction debris from the freight elevators six stories below Rockefeller Center and broken toys discarded from Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. Together we found treasures sliding down the garbage shoots—teddy bears only slightly soiled, fire trucks only partially damaged, and porcelain dolls with lopsided bouffant hair—and we brought them to the less fortunate children we knew in the Berkshires. Uncle Nick taught me about the underbelly of New York City, the tunnels and byways of urban infrastructure, and about the locations of all the dumps and land fills from Staten Island to Long Island. I learned that human garbage has many stories to tell, and I wanted to write some of those stories.

So, these two uncles were my main “muses” to a professional life as a classicist, archaeologist, and professor bound to questions about ancient Roman daily life and sanitation. I explored the evidence for sewers, toilets, and baths in both text and archaeological remains and asked what they had to do with sanitation?

As it turns out, ancient Roman sewers were not constructed from any modern notion of sanitary engineering. Their main function was to remove odiferous waters from low-lying areas. The overall sanitary effects of sewers were minimal.

Then I asked about toilets and sanitation. Although much of the archaeological evidence for toilets in a lived in city like Rome has been destroyed, the inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the first century CE definitely had a preference for internal cesspits. In fact, almost every private house in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and in most apartment houses in Ostia, had private, usually single-seater toilets that were not connected to sewer lines. In addition, Romans often sited their cesspits in or near kitchens, so the succulent smells of a hearty vegetable stew would often have mixed with the stench from the open cesspit near the kitchen counter.

I was ever curious about how the Romans navigated these ironic juxtapositions. Were they a concern? Were the Romans of Pompeii and Herculaneum troubled by leakage in the down-pipes from the toilets on the upper floors of their dwellings (the evidence exists)? Who noticed and who, if anyone, actually recognized the unsanitary situations that must have abounded in impoverished, crowded, Roman apartment buildings—lice, mold, the stink of disease and the natural medicines and herbs brewing to cure them, the smoke from incessant cooking fires, stagnant water, and clogged, communal cesspits?

I also wondered what Roman writers had to say on the topic of sanitation. In fact, sewers, toilets, and dirty rivers barely show up at all in literature, and when they do, we must be very careful about how we “read” them if we are seeking clarity on Roman attitudes towards personal hygiene, rituals of elimination, or the function of so-called sanitary installations. Colorful descriptions of sounds, tastes, sights, and smells trapped inside the house, stuck in the sewers, or wafting through the narrow streets of the city were often used as metaphors, not to explain notions of health, sanitation, or cleanliness, as we understand them.

The book that resulted from these musings presents a diversity of methodological and theoretical viewpoints on latrines, sewers, and sanitation through the lens of well-illustrated case studies; offers an overview of approaches to sanitation; examines sites like Rome, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ostia in order to elucidate the nuances in architecture and society related to public sanitation; uncovers toilets and latrines as one of the least explored mechanisms by which social class was regulated in Roman Italy; and lays out evidence in both scientific and imaginative ways.


Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow is professor and chair of Classical Studies at Brandeis University, the Kevy and Hortense Kaiserman Endowed Chair in the Humanities, and affiliate faculty in Anthropology, Fine Arts, Italian Studies, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She won the 2016 Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching from the Archaeological Institute of America. She is an Associate Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome for 2018-19.