Although it may not be broken, the taboo against discussing human feces, in anything but pure scholarly or humorous situations, may be bending. This has relevance for archaeologists everywhere, including North America.
There have been an unusually large number of stories and posts discussing human poop in popular, scholarly, and social media in recent weeks; at least that is my impression. I’m not looking for it, but I’m seeing stories of feces and what we do with them everywhere. A small sampling of stories appearing in media in recent weeks include those that focus on human fecal transplants, Matt Damon promoting World Toilet Day, making ski hills out of human sewage, using human sewage as a source of heat, human waste as fertilizer, astronauts pooping in space, and Hitler’s toilet being discovered in New Jersey. The hugely popular Savage Minds anthropology blog posted on toilets, and National Geographic hopped aboard the poop train with an interview with the author of the forthcoming book On the Origin of Feces.
At least in partial support of my thinking that much of the media is now seeing things through the lens of poop is that the only mainstream media report I saw related to the January, 2013 annual meetings of the Archaeological Institute of America in Seattle was a story based on a presentation there on toilets at Pompeii. It’s not quite like if there isn’t a defecation angle, nobody is interested, but there is definitely more interest in this kind of thing than I’m used to.
Other recent media reports on poop with a clearly archaeological slant include the idea that ceramic disks may have been used to cleanse after defecation. Some of the most famous feces from North American prehistory also were featured recently, insofar as researchers included feces from the Hinds Cave site in Texas in a study of extinct human gut microbiomes.
For many, this may be an opportune time, whether in class, doing fieldwork, or in a bar, to relate a popular topic of interest (ie. human poop) to archaeology. One of the great things about archaeology is that one can take almost any topic of popular interest and put an archaeological slant on it. For example, as well as analyzing poop for evidence of diet and disease, one could mention the importance of preserved poop for dating (one of the earliest sites in North America – Paisley Caves is based on radiocarbon dating of human feces).
One may even add to the discussion on the perfect feces. A recent article by Michael Specter appeared in The New Yorker focussing on Dr. Mehmet Oz, more popularly known as Dr. Oz, and branded “America’s doctor” by Oprah. According to Specter, Dr. Oz suggests our feces should be “brown with a hint of gold, shaped like an S…” Archaeologists may like to give some perspective on this, factoring in diet. I recall someone suggesting the human feces at Paisley Caves look like dog droppings and someone else describing the feces at Hinds Cave being shaped like cow-patties, indicative of a diet high in fibre.
When discussions about things archaeological involve experiments, taphonomy, faunal assemblage, unusual research, or the lengths some archaeologists will go to in the name of science, I like to bring up a study by two North American archaeologists who studied the feces of one. Interested in studying the impact of human digestion on faunal assemblages one archaeologist ate an insectivore with its entire skeleton intact. It became evident that all that went in, did not come out.
One of the things I’ve noticed is that estimates of feces volume generated per person per day fluctuate a lot. In The Last Taboo: Opening the Door on the Global Sanitation Crisis, the authors state “Every day, each human being emits an average of slightly less than 100 grams of faeces….” In Poop Culture: How America is Shaped by Its Grossest National Product, the author indicates “An adult averages roughly a half pound of excrement per day.” A clinical report on faeces, on the other hand, indicates people defecate an average of seven pounds per day. Perhaps an archaeology field project in a remote area, where a single outhouse or privy was created and used by all members of the field crew for a fixed period of time could offer some useful data in this regard.
One of the most difficult things involved with writing about feces is restricting the puns and euphemisms. Make no mistake though – the study of feces and other matters related to sanitation is serious. Close to three billion people in the world lack access to adequate sanitation and global attention to it is increasing. For much of the world, it is a crisis.
Archaeologists can make valuable contributions to helping resolve the sanitation crisis in a number of ways, including using archaeological method and theory in researching contemporary and recent sewage systems, making completed research on sanitation in the past public, and undertaking more research on sustainable sanitation in both the recent and distant pasts.
Robert Muckle has been practicing, teaching, and writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. He has had his own CRM firm, worked extensively with Indigenous peoples, and directed many field projects. Publications include Introducing Archaeology, Reading Archaeology and The Indigenous Peoples of North America, all published by the University of Toronto Press. He has archaeological field experience in both the United States and Canada, continues to direct field projects in the summer months, and is based at Capilano University. He may be followed on Twitter at @bobmuckle or contacted at email@example.com