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Archaeologists Unseal 17th-Century Danish Latrines to Discover Copenhageners’ Dietary Habits

The Danish finds reveal their owners’ rich diet of fish and meat, fruits, spices—and the presence of parasites, including tapeworms and roundworms

Archaeologists discovered evidence of an array of foods, including herring, eel, cod, apples, raspberries, cherries and rye bread (Mette Marie Hald)
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Two wine barrels filled with human excrement, sand and gravel fragments, animal bones and an array of Renaissance-era rubbish have enabled Danish archaeologists to map the dietary and hygienic habits of a 17th-century Copenhagen neighborhood.

Archaeologists found the barrels, which were converted to toilets in the mid-to-late 17th century, while conducting excavation work in the central district of Kultorvet back in 2011, Cosmos’ Andrew Masterson reports. The makeshift latrines were originally housed in the yard of a city house but ended up sealed beneath the ground when a road was built in the 1680s. Thanks to this, the barrels remained untouched—and exceptionally well-preserved—for more than 300 years.

Researchers from the National Museum of Denmark, the University of Copenhagen and the Copenhagen Museum retrieved samples of organic deposits found in the barrels in order to analyze their grain, fruit and seed content. The team also studied traces of pollen and spores, parasite eggs, and animal bones. The findings, published in the August issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, suggest the latrines’ users enjoyed a rich diet of bread, fish and meat, fruits, and herbs and spices.

“Most of the food items were locally grown," Mette Marie Hald, a senior researcher at the National Museum and the paper’s lead author, said in a statement, "but some of the food plants were exotics, showing us that it was possible to buy, for instance, cloves, which would have come all the way from Indonesia."

According to Live Science’s Laura Geggel, the archaeologists discovered evidence of a wide range of foods, including herring, eel, cod, apples, raspberries, cherries and rye bread. Hald tells Geggel that fruits originating from the Mediterranean region, such as figs, raisins and lemon peels, were likely prepared as dried delicacies in order to prevent them from spoiling on the journey north to Denmark.

In addition to highlighting the contents of a typical 17th-century Danish diet, the latrines reveal the poor sanitary conditions of the period—roundworm, tapeworm and whipworm eggs were all present in the deposits. Roundworm and whipworm are excreted with human feces and spread via food contaminated by insufficient handwashing or the use of fecal matter as fertilizer. Tapeworms spread to humans via the consumption of raw or undercooked meat.

“The finds show that hygienic conditions were quite low, with contaminated and undercooked food being served, though this was not unusual for the time,” the paper states. “Parasite infections such as these result in malnutrition and general reduced health.”

Still, Hald tells Geggel that the diet of these Copenhagen residents was “really quite sophisticated.” The low hygiene standards were common during the period, but they apparently didn't stop Copenhagers from chowing down on gourmet foods.

The barrels, which reportedly originated from the Rhineland, are each 35 inches wide. Originally surrounded by a wooden shed, they were dug into the ground and placed about 12 inches apart. Although the barrels were mainly used as latrines, the presence of sand, gravel and brick fragments, as well as certain plant and animal remains, suggests they were also used for rubbish disposal.

Traces of moss, likely used as toilet paper, were found alongside fragmented animal bones, including the remains of a kitten and small bird. The absence of gnaw marks on these bones, according to the report, suggests they were not eaten, but swept into the barrels as an individual cleaned the backyard.

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