The wealthy and privileged elite of Jerusalem in the 7th century BCE were plagued by poor sanitary conditions and the resulting parasitic intestinal diseases, according to a recent article published in the International Journal of Paleopathology. An analysis of soil samples taken from a stone toilet found in the ruins of a posh villa revealed the presence of parasitic eggs of four different species. The work is expected to help document the history of infectious diseases in the area, providing additional insight into the daily lives of people who once lived there.
“The results of this study are among the first observed in Israel to date,” says author Dafna Langgut of Tel Aviv University and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, who is a leading researcher in the emerging field of archaeoparasitology. “These are durable eggs, and under the special conditions provided by the cesspool, they have survived for nearly 2,700 years. Intestinal worms are parasites that cause symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea and itching. Some of them are particularly dangerous for children and can lead to malnutrition, developmental delays, damage to the nervous system and, in extreme cases, even death.
Yes, that sounds crude, but archaeologists can actually learn a lot by studying the remains of intestinal parasites in ancient feces. For example, according to Langgut, previous studies have compared faecal parasites found in hunter-gatherer and farming communities, revealing dramatic dietary shifts, as well as changes in settlement patterns and social organization coinciding with the growth of agriculture. The domestication of animals in particular has led to more parasitic infections in farming communities, while hunter-gatherer groups have been exposed to fewer parasites and communicable diseases given their nomadic lifestyle. This is even reflected in modern nomadic hunter-gatherer communities.
There are references to intestinal parasites in many ancient texts from the region of Israel, and “the Fertile Crescent most likely predates other regions in the occurrence of intestinal parasitic infection,” Langgut wrote. In 2019-2020, the Israel Antiquities Authority began excavating the ruins of a large estate known as Armon Hanatziv, or Commissioner’s Palace, dating to the mid-7th century BC. , that is, the First Temple period, probably falling between the reigns of King Hezekiah and King Josiah.
The architectural elements of the limestone structures reflected the “porto-Aeolian” style, according to Langgut, and included lavish window frames and balustrades showing expert workmanship. Spectacular views from the site include the City of David to the north and the Judean Desert to the south. A preliminary pollen survey revealed that there was a garden of fruit trees and ornamental plants adjacent to the estate.
When the garden was excavated, archaeologists found evidence of a large water reservoir and a cubic limestone object with a hole in the center – probably the remains of a primitive toilet seat. Pine air pollen at the site suggests the toilet was housed in a small room with windows or no roof for better ventilation, while the pine would help mask the pungent aromas.
There is limited archaeological evidence of toilets in ancient Israel, according to Langgut, with the first three examples dating back to the Late Bronze Age – all located in palatial areas, indicating that toilets were a privilege given primarily to members of groups leaders. But there have only been two studies looking at possible parasitic remains in one of the toilets found so far, only one of which reported the retrieval of intestinal parasite eggs. Langgut saw a great opportunity to add to the scientific literature with the discovery of the toilets at Armon Hanatziv.