December 31, 2009

So anyway, back to toilets

Filed under: Biblical archaeology — acagle @ 12:26 pm

I spent much of yesterday morning investigating the old Essene/Qumran story from a couple of years ago. The upshot of that was that Zias and Tabor, based on some research done by Albert Baumgarten in 1996 on Essene toilet practices, found an area northwest of the Qumran village that seemed discolored. Soil samples contained parasites suggestive of use of the area as a latrine. Hence, if seemingly Essenian toiletry practices — contrasted with “normal” Jewish practices of the time — were apparently in evidence at Qumran, then the inhabitants must be Essene. There are (potential) problems with this work. They did not, apparently, look at all areas around the village so we aren’t completely sure that this is the only place possibly used as a latrine. The date of the sediment isn’t clear either, so we don’t know if the, well, poop, is from the same time anyway. (my library doesn’t have the Zias and Tabor journal online so I haven’t been able to read the original paper yet)

The Baumgarten paper is interesting though. The text that points to a particular Essene toilet practice is from Josephus (Jewish War 2, 147–149):

[On the Sabbath] they do not even go to stool. On other day they dig a trench a foot deep with a mattock – such is the nature of the hatchet which they present to neophytes – and wrapping their mantle about them, that they may not offend the rays of the deity, sit above it. They then replace the excavated soil in the trench. For this purpose they select the more retired spots. And though this discharge of the excrements is a natural function, they make it a rule to wash themselves after it as if defiled.

The Temple Scroll also describes appropriate practice for setting up latrines although it differs somewhat:

You are to build them a precinct for latrines outside the city. They shall go out there, on the northwest of the city: roofed outhouses with pits inside, into which the excrement will descend so as not to be visible. The outhouses must be three thousand cubits from any part of the city. (11QT 46:13–16)

Both of these seem to get their basic idea of sanitation from Deuteronomy 23:

You shall have a place also without the camp, to which you shall go out [to relieve yourself]: And you shall have a paddle with your weapon; and it shall be, when you relieve yourself outside, that you shall dig therewith, and shall turn back and cover that which comes from you: For the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you, and to give up your enemies before you; therefore shall your camp be holy: that He should see no unclean thing in it, and turn away from it. Deuteronomy 23:12–14

Baumgarten goes into some detail on the cultural significance of the “mattock”; presentation of it was part of the ritual associated with becoming a member of the community and signifies the acceptance of the ritual practices of the group. This is all wrapped up in the notion of “defilement” of the body and whether certain behaviors made the individual ritually unclean or not. Was defecation an act that defiled the body and required purification? It seems that in the Jewish tradition at the time (note: I am a total neophyte here) some regarded defecation as an act of defilement that required some amount of washing afterwards where others did not. There is also the matter of how private evacuation is supposed to be. The text above indicates toilet facilities should be far outside the settlement, which seems to be in accord with other texts, a difference being in the amount of privacy: the Essenes apparently just squatted over a hole they’d dug with their mattock, while other texts (e.g., the Temple Scroll above) seem to require a special building (i.e., a single common facility as an outhouse). The difference is between permanent holes for common use, as opposed to a special trench excavated for each, uhhh, event.

IIRC, Zias and Tabor also made some comment on how this practice affected the health of the community. Here’s why: First, a wide area is being used by many people thus making for a wider area of potential contamination (i.e., walking across it). This opposed to a single or multiple outhouses with contamination restricted to the immediate area. Second, in an arid area, fecal matter left on the surface will quickly dry out and kill the various microorganisms, whereas buried material will not dry out and remain contaminated. Zias and Tabor made this argument in explaining why their samples a few centimeters down were contaminated. Third, they argued that the Essenes practiced complete immersion in a pool of water after coming back from defecating, which relates back to the business about the extent of defilement and what needs to be done to become ritually pure again. Obviously, tramping around on contaminated ground and then dunking oneself in a pool with a couple hundred other people is ripe for disease transmission. I don’t recall offhand what their evidence was for health effects on the population.

Aha, I do remember: This article was linked to in an earlier post. Doesn’t seem like really good evidence for parasite-driven disease/death, just speculation based on the demographic profile of a burial population. So pretty indirect. Also, another post links to a (now missing) article stating that a toilet was found within the Qumran settlement so apparently at a minimum emergencies (heh) were taken into account.

This got me thinking about some of these large dense urban settlements and how waste was disposed of. I can’t imagine everyone walking from one end of town to the other every time they had to take a dump, so I assume there were either public or household facilities available within the city, which had to be subsequently disposed of elsewhere. Was sewage transported to the same location as latrines? Was there even a central location for sewage disposal or was it just all dumped on the periphery along with other garbage? What cultural/religious differences controlled this? This also brings up the difficulty of siege warfare for walled inhabitants that I hadn’t really considered before: not only do they need a supply of food and water, they also need some way to dispose of the resulting waste and the potential disease associated with it.

I may be remiss in not creating a specific tag for this topic, but that doesn’t really bother me right now.


  1. (tongue firmly in cheek)
    So, you don’t give a $#!+ about a tag, huh? :)

    Perhaps I could suggest “poop”?? Or maybe “night soil”?

    Regardless of the — ahem — fun we could have, it’s a pretty fascinating subject. I reckon it shows that somehow, washing one’s hands after defecation came to be recognised as “a good thing”, and it was made (or perhaps ‘morphed’ is a better word) into a religious requirement so that the majority of people would practice what was preached.

    …if I may be permitted to murder a simile or two.

    Comment by Leitchy — December 31, 2009 @ 11:59 pm

  2. I just saw the time on my post; it’s been 2010 where I am for 18 hours now. ;)

    Happy New Decade, everyone.

    Comment by Leitchy — January 1, 2010 @ 12:01 am

  3. I picked up your post from a Google search and was glad to see you were interested. We did in fact check other adjacent areas as controls for our study and the material was also properly dated. You can find the full article in Revue Biblique, at any good research library. Also there is in a followup issue a critique of our work and our response.

    Best in the New Year!

    James Tabor

    Comment by James Tabor — January 2, 2010 @ 6:13 am

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