Sagalassos (Turquie) : Archaeologists Test Feces From Roman Latrine, Find Roundworms And Parasites

Kristina Killgrove

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Sagalassoslatrinepm 1Latrine from Room 4 of the baths complex at Sagalassos, Asia Minor

A latrine from the Roman baths at in Turkey has yielded its stinky secrets: feces contaminated with roundworms and parasites were discovered there by archaeologists interested in ancient health.

Sagalassos was an important urban settlement during the Roman Empire, in the Pisidia region of Asia Minor. Excavation of a large bath complex revealed a communal latrine, a typical feature of Roman bathing establishments, with sewage piping still remaining underground. Testing of the decomposed feces discovered in the pipes showed it was human in origin, while radiocarbon dating of charcoal fragments in the sewage placed it between the 2nd to 5th centuries AD.

Writing today in the International Journal of Paleopathology, author Faith Williams and colleagues report the results of five human fecal samples and four animal samples from Sagalassos that were analyzed by the project leader Piers Mitchell and his team at the University of Cambridge.

SagalassosroundwormeggpmRoundworm egg from latrine at Sagalassos

Every human sample was positive for roundworm eggs, although the concentration of the eggs was not high, but roundworm was not found in the animal dung. Additionally, one human sample tested positive for Giardia duodenalis, a protozoal parasite that causes dysentery. The animal samples were all negative for Giardia. Importantly, through additional testing, Williams and colleagues write that "the parasites we found in the human feces layer indicate genuine infection of the people who used the latrine, and not contamination of the human layer by parasites that percolated downward from the herbivore layer."

In interpreting their results, Williams and colleagues note that roundworm was exceedingly common in the Roman world, with a wide geographic spread across the Empire. "Because roundworm is a fecal-oral parasite spread by the contamination of food or water with human fecal material," the researchers write, "its presence in every sample at Sagalassos does indicate that human feces had somehow contaminated food to reinfect the population."

The G. duodenalis result is also important because "this Roman period sample is the earliest evidence in the Old World to date by several hundred years, and improves our understanding of this parasite," Williams and colleagues write. We can therefore add dysentery -- or bloody diarrhea from inflammation of the intestines -- to the growing list of diseases known in the ancient Roman world.

8619071956 58b942aeac zThe Roman baths complex at Sagalassos, Turkey

Although we may imagine Roman baths to be relaxing, sanitary places, that is far from the truth. Both sick and healthy people bathed together, and the water in the baths wasn't always changed often enough. "There would be potential for roundworm and protozoa that cause dysentery to spread in warm, dirty water," the researchers conclude, "especially if people were eating while bathing, as seems to have been common practice."

In spite of the availability of running water and seemingly sanitary structures such as baths and complex sewers, it appears that the Romans were nevertheless affected by several infectious conditions. Still, with such eminent physicians as Galen suggesting treatments to kill intestinal worms, Williams and colleagues' discovery of a low concentration of roundworm eggs also speaks to the utility of ancient medicine.

Frequencies of parasite infections, the researchers conclude, were likely variable in different regions of the Empire. As this represents the first archaeological evidence of parasites from all of Turkey, much more work in the realm of ancient parasitology is still needed.