Ancient toilets unearthed in Jerusalem reveal a debilitating and sometimes deadly disease

F. Vukosavović

A 2,500-year-old stone toilet seat was unearthed in the Old City of Jerusalem in what was known as the House of Ahiel, home to an upper-class family.


The Iron Age users of two ancient toilets in Jerusalem were not a healthy couple, an analysis of faecal samples from the 2,500-year-old latrines shows.

Researchers found traces of dysentery-causing parasites in material excavated from the cesspools beneath the two stone toilets that would have belonged to elite households in the city. At the time, Jerusalem was a bustling political and religious center in the Assyrian Empire and home to between 8,000 and 25,000 people.

It is the earliest known evidence of a disease called Giardia duodenalis, although the infection, which causes diarrhea, abdominal cramping and weight loss, had previously been established in Roman-era Turkey and medieval Israel.

“Dysentery is spread by feces that contaminate drinking water or food, and we suspected it could have been a major problem in early cities of the ancient Near East due to overcrowding, heat and flies, and limited water availability in the summer,” he said . Dr. Piers Mitchell, lead author of the study published Thursday in the scientific journal Parasitology and an honorary fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archeology, said in a statement.

Most people who die today from dysentery caused by Giardia are children, and chronic infection in children can lead to stunted growth, impaired cognitive function and stunted growth.

Y. Cheap

In 2019, a stone toilet seat was excavated south of Jerusalem near Armon ha-Natziv.

Ancient poop is a rich source of information for archaeologists and has revealed an Iron Age hunger for blue cheese, a mysterious population in the Faroe Islands and the discovery that Stonehenge’s builders feasted on the internal organs of cattle.

Archaeologists excavating the latrines took samples of sediment in the cesspit under each toilet seat.

They found a seat south of Jerusalem near Armon ha-Natziv in a mansion excavated in 2019. It probably dates from the time of King Manasseh, who reigned for 50 years in the mid-seventh century BC. The toilet is made of limestone and has a large central hole for defecating and an adjacent hole that is probably for male urination.

The other toilet seat examined, similar in design, was unearthed in the Old City of Jerusalem in a seven-room building known as the House of Ahiel, which would have been home to an upper-class family at the time.

The eggs of four types of intestinal parasites – tapeworm, pinworm, roundworm and whipworm – had previously been identified in the cesspool sediment. But the microorganisms that cause dysentery are fragile and extremely difficult to detect, according to the new study.

To solve this problem, the team used a biomolecular technique called ELISA, in which antibodies bind to proteins uniquely produced by certain types of single-celled organisms.

The researchers tested for Entamoeba, Giardia and Cryptosporidium: three parasitic microorganisms that are among the most common causes of diarrhea in humans – and behind outbreaks of dysentery. Tests for Entamoeba and Cryptosporidium were negative, but those for Giardia were repeatedly positive.

The Middle East was the region of the world where people first established settlements, learned to breed and tame animals, and where the first major cities emerged. Cities like Jerusalem would likely have been hotspots for disease outbreaks, according to the study, and disease would have spread easily through traders and during military expeditions.

“While they had cesspool toilets all over the region in the Iron Age, they were relatively rare and often made only for the elite,” the study said.

“Cities were not planned and built with a sewage network, flush toilets had yet to be invented, and the population had no idea of ​​the existence of microorganisms and how they could be spread.”

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