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Researchers Trace 300-Year-Old Lump of Poop to Danish Bishop

The upper class contents of the little nugget suggests it likely belonged to Bishop Jens Bircherod or his wife

The Bishop's lump (Moesgaard Museum)
smithsonian.com

If Jens Bircherod knew why he was suddenly in the papers 300 years after his death, the Danish bishop would likely be a bit red in the face. That’s because the latest news of the bishop was recovered from his personal latrine—a lump of poop.

The feces was actually recovered almost 80 years ago, according to Agence France-Presse, when archeologists excavated the bishop’s former home in the city of Aalborg, where he lived between 1694 and 1708. The Moesgaard Museum just outside Aalborg has stored the little nugget until this latest analysis, which is part of a study on multiculturalism in early modern Danish cities.

After examination, researchers concluded that the turd most likely belongs to the bishop or a member of his immediate family because of its high-class contents. “Now we have a specific lump of feces that we can match to a person we actually know, and through that we can study his diet,” Jette Linaa from the Moesgaard Museum and head of the project tells the AFP.

Linaa tells that BBC that she and a colleague happed upon the bishop’s waste while looking through the basement of the Moesgaard museum. It was stored in a glass container in a box containing materials from the bishop’s latrine. “Our archaeobotanist analyzed it and found various seeds, nuts and berries,” says Linaa.

The researchers identified peppercorns from India and cloudberries from Norway.  They also found nuts, figs, currents and grapes in the remains, reports Helen Mann at As It Happens. All of that points to the diet of an upper class person, either the bishop or his wife. The couple had no children at the time of their residence, and the AFP points out that commoners or servants would have eaten foods like pork, rye bread, cabbage and gruel.

The researchers identified many of the findings from the toilet with the ingredients in the “opulent” dinners served at the bishop's manor, which he chronicled in his diaries. But the strongest evidence that the poop came from the wealthy couple is the presence of buckwheat. The AFP reports that the grain is relatively rare in Denmark but was a specialty of the island of Funen where the bishop grew up and likely developed a taste for it.

Linaa tells Mann that investigating the poop is actually pretty enjoyable. “It is so much fun . . . We get this very little glimpse into one man and one diet. We get as close to the man himself—or the people themselves—that we ever can,” she says.

The research is “making history through the back door,” Jakob Ørnbjerg of Aarhus University told Danish TV, The Local reports. Though the little nugget is still under investigation, Linaa says that it's likely the Moesgaard Museum will eventually put it on display due to the attention.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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