Death and Toilets: The Only Certainties.

Picture from English Heritage

Picture from English Heritage at

The Romans were good at certainties. They were excellent, as you will all know, at Death. They did death spectacularly. And they were really great at Taxes, too. For everyone else, not themselves, obviously.

But they were also super-efficient at that third certainty, which no-one likes to mention.

Toilets. Latrines, dunnies, bogs, privies, lavs, potties, crappers, commodes. Thrones.

The best-preserved latrine from Roman Britain is, as I write, shrouded in dark and wet, much as it was two thousand years ago. These days, however, it does not have a roof, and local folks prefer to use the water closets which have been gracing Northumberland for the last couple of centuries or so.

It is one of the most prominent features of Houseteads, the remains of a Roman fort perching high up in the green wastes of English borderland on Hadrian’s Wall. It was built in 124AD.

Despite the ravages of English weather, the centuries of relentless rain which once soaked Roman sandals, the toilets are in fairly good nick. What you see is a central rectangular raised island, surrounded by a small,deep, dry-stone moat.

It does not take much imagination to realise that here ran water, once upon a time. The tanks sit nearby which used to collect one of the most plentiful commodities of Northumberland: rain. And rainwater was sluiced through the little man- made moat, or sewer if you prefer, as soldiers sat above on wooden planks with rear-shaped holes and passed companionable time of day together.

Together being the operative word. This latrine was the main port of essential call for 800 soldiers garrisoned there.They fought together, they drank together, they defecated together. They would sit there, giving the inevitable plenty of time together; and where modern man disappears into a small private water closet, they would talk and ruminate.

I am reminded of my cat; who, once he has dropped his log for the morning, is put in immediately frisky and positive mood.

Is this how the soldiers were? Does the frisky effect magnify if there are many defecations happening at once?

Alas, they can unearth long dead villainous kings from underneath car parks, but not even the most incisive archaeology can answer that question.

Housesteads was not just a fort. There were hangers on; and outside the fort proper were civilian houses.

And lurking there is the reminder of another certainty: Death.

These days, they call it the Murder House.

It was actually a shop, according to all the signs. But when the house was excavated in 1932, the most unsettling evidence lay under the shop floor.

The skeletons of a man and a woman were found there. Lodged stubbornly in the man’s ribs was part of a sword.

For such aficionados of death, the Romans had some funny attitudes towards it. Burials were forbidden within a settlement as a matter of course.

Ergo, concluded the archaeologists who uncovered this strange untold story: ergo, these two were murdered and buried under the floor.

And no-one ever found them. Not until the whole Roman civilisation had gone back home, and many others had risen and fallen.

And man had discovered water closets.


59 thoughts on “Death and Toilets: The Only Certainties.

  1. Hmmm. Interesting, Kate, and I like the picture you have used to illustrate your post – they even had graffiti in those days! I don’t think I could pass that time of day with anybody else though… (by the way, I think you may need to tweak your post slightly from your cat paragraph – hope you don’t mind me mentioning it…)

    1. Tom, thanks so much! There’s a rather nasty drag-and-drop facility in WordPress for Macs which can backfire. I must have copied and dropped just before posting.

      No, I am the same. Prefer those moments to myself, thank you very much πŸ˜€

      1. There’s something that could be said about copying and dropping, especially with regards to this post, but I won’t go there, Kate! Hehehe… πŸ˜‰

  2. Never read a poo post before, fascinating, I assume those two tub/bath like structures were any early form of bidet as there is no sign of lavatory paper anywhere.
    Need to tighten up a bit Kate getting a bit slack with the info for old codgers like me :

      1. Sounds a bit more hygienic than the seat’s of ease aboard the wooden walls of the old Royal Navy, there they used a shredded piece of rope; one piece of rope per seat, I’ll spare you further details πŸ˜‰

  3. I wonder if this was for the rank and file only or if the head honcho, went to the same facility… Must have been a smelly place to pass the time.

  4. Having a sensitive sense of smell (and taste) I can’t begin to imagine the “aroma” of these community toilets…the restrooms at work can smell pretty ripe at times and that is with proper plumbing and ventilation. It is no wonder the Roman Empire fell. They probably gassed each other to death!

      1. Yes it is Kate. Thanks for asking. Was busy with lots of things at home and work.

        Oh yes, it makes me shudder. It is almost unthinkable now.

  5. Very reminiscent of Bunuel’s film ” The Phantom of Liberty” in which the guests at a “dinner” party are seated on flushing toilets around the table where they openly discuss the joys of defecating. When they feel like eating they ask the host for directions to “the smallest room in the house” where they enjoy their food in privacy and silience:)

  6. Sitting down in the dumps, or flushed with success?
    With it being a community sport, I am surprised they didn’t make provision for mutual admiration of their productions.

  7. Would it not be poetic justice if all those popping off into the woods for a little privy privacy were found with their like minded behind the next bush to theirs? I have an hilarious picture of them all in mind πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ˜‰ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ What fun that would be ahh to be a butterfly floating by said woods

      1. Somehow I don’t think a fly would be on a tree under those circumstances, there would be so much more to interest it. I’m sure this post whetted the appetite of many a fly.
        Think it’s time to stop all this πŸ™‚

  8. In the days when I did real live archaeology (as opposed to today’s armchair variety) we were warned about the dangers of digging in midden and the like — who knows what bugs still lurked there! So I pity the diggers who have to excavate ancient lats. H&S will have procedures for that nowadays.

    Ancient fossilised faeces are called coprolites (good Scrabble word). The most recent one I’ve heard of, from Viking York, goes by the name of the Lloyds Bank Coprolite. And that isn’t a joke or satiric statement: you can even google an image of it…

  9. I admit to having given much thought to the notion that the worst part of prison life would be communal bathrooms. It would be my undoing and I would not be in a good mood, no matter how much bowel synchronicity was achieved. Must admit, though, I’ve never given any thought at all to the history of latrines–or latrine life!

  10. While working at summer camp, I have socialized while utilizing the toilet. It is a good time to tell stories, sing songs together, and you have a captive audience.

  11. Dear Kate, I grew up out in the country and we had a two-seater outhouse, but I can never remember anyone sitting next to me while I used one of the seats. Did Victoria help introduce our need for privacy? I think of the slums of New York in the 1880s and wonder if the poor then . . . and now have the privilege and the option of privacy. Peace.

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