There are folks who think archaeology must be one of the best jobs in the whole, wide, world. Many of them have added hot air to this ubiquitous thought-bubble after having watched a vintage Indiana Jones movie. They are magic, these movies.
But unlike real bubbles, or even Internet bubbles, this thought bubble doesn’t seem to ever have dissipated—or exploded.
Let’s face it, archaeology can be a crappy job. I once spent weeks with a crew excavating a city block of Oakland’s turn-of-the-century’s privies. Old ones*, fortunately do not stink—and since people threw their old and worn out stuff in them when they finally got real plumbing, there were some incredible finds lying in wait in those perfectly rectangular holes. Like old pottery.
“Whoopie!” I hear you muttering. (You are edging toward the exit door of your gigantic, archaeological thought bubble, aren’t you?)
Romantically backward modern archaeologists are today less concerned with shooting pistols while watching slaves excavate glittering jewelry from inside the ruins of grand palaces than they are with everyday stuff. Low life stuff. For example, they often get excited when a Coprolite appears like a fat, dull, burnt umber corkscrew in their sieving screens.
Yes, especially to paleontologists, fossilized turds are gold.
But the apple of an archaeologist’s trained eye doesn’t have to be fossilized. Listen to what one of these fellows thinks of a recently excavated Herculaneum sewer:
Specialists involved in the Herculaneum Conservation Project have excavated the ancient sewers of the city and uncovered the largest deposit of organic material ever found in the Roman world.
Yes, they came away with 750 large sacks of human excrement.
Certainly, this find has caused some sleepless nights. The excitement must be unbearable for those picked for the task of sorting it all out. (It is not likely to be a coincidence that the words “excitement” and “excrement” sound so darn similar!) In any case, like the privies of Oakland, there were some interesting things in those ancient sewers that have been found and cataloged already:
Apart from 170 crates of artifacts including pottery, a lamp and 60 coins, the excavation team has recovered bone pins, necklace beads and a gold ring with a decorative gemstone from the sewers. But it is the organic deposits that may provide the most innovative research – giving researchers an unprecedented insight into the diet and health of the Roman inhabitants.
But honestly, excrement is gold if you want to find out what the population ate and how well it all went down. Especially in Italy, a country whose whole population is thought to have some innate and selfish gene that makes them cook well and demand way-better-than-edible food.
I’m excited just thinking of the results. Like travel, it’s getting there that’s the pain in the ass.
So I wish the researchers well.
- Scholar and Chicago White Sox fan Bill Thayer reminds us via twitter that “Sometimes the ancient burial grounds do stink…”
The Esquiline cemetery was divided into two sections: one for the artisans who could afford to be buried apart in Columbaria, containing a certain number of cinerary urns; one for the slaves, beggars, prisoners, and others, who were thrown in revolting confusion into common pits or fosses. This latter section covered an area one thousand feet long, and thirty deep, and contained many hundred puticuli or vaults, twelve feet square, thirty deep, of which I have brought to light and examined about seventy-five. In many cases the contents of each vault were reduced to a p65uniform mass of black, viscid, pestilent, unctuous matter; in a few cases the bones could in a measure be singled out and identified. The reader will hardly believe me when I say that men and beasts, bodies and carcasses, and any kind of unmentionable refuse of the town were heaped up in those dens. Fancy what must have been the condition of this hellish district in times of pestilence, what the mouths of the crypts must have been kept wide open the whole day!
If you want a guided tour of Herculaneum, Viator offers several, and you can start your tour from Rome.