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More on the Qumran Latrines

22nd December 2006

Ha’aretz has an article on the Qumran Latrines by Ran Shapira (“The hidden latrines of the Essenes“) that is worth a gander. Here is an excerpt:

Anthropologist Joe Zias, of the Hebrew University Science and Archaeology Department, recently found positive evidence of the Essenes’ adherence to these rituals. Together with Dr. James Tabor, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina and parasitologist Stephanie Harter-Lailheugue of the CNRS Laboratory for Anthropology in Marseilles, France, Zias found the latrines that were used by the Essenes in Qumran. The three researchers say that, in addition to shedding a great deal of light on the unique culture of the Essenes in Qumran, the discovery represents an archaeological bonanza: Additional proof that the Essenes wrote the scrolls. Zias explains that when feces are left on the desert floor, exposure to sun and wind quickly annihilates intestinal parasites. But when feces are buried in the earth, intestinal parasites may survive for many months and their eggs may be preserved for as long as 2,000 years, as in the case of Qumran.

The presence of the eggs of intestinal parasites, typically present in human intestines, in a relatively limited area, in the place described in the scrolls and by Josephus, led researchers to conclude that they discovered the bathroom of Qumran’s ancient residents. “Only ascetic members of a sect that paid such close attention to hygiene would bother to walk hundreds of meters beyond their camp to relieve themselves, and invest the necessary energy to dig a pit in which to bury their waste,” Zias concludes.

For what it is worth, I agree with Joe Zias. I find the non-Essene hypotheses that disconnect the scrolls from the community not as plausible as a modified Essene hypothesis. See here and here for other posts on this discovery.

Posted in Ancient Potties, Archaeology, Dead Sea Scrolls, Discoveries, News, Qumran | Comments Off

More on Potties: Qumran, World Toilet Expo, and Princess Diana

16th November 2006

I bet you’re wondering what could Qumran, Expos, and Princess Diana possibly have in common?! Well, a Google search on the “Dead Sea Scrolls” brings up the following:

  • More information available on the latrines found at Khirbet Qumran is provided by James Tabor at his Jesus Dynasty blog — including a number of pictures that show the latrine’s location.
  • Reuters has a new piece on the The World Toilet Expo and Forum just got underway in Bangkok. — gee, and I have to go to Washington for the SBL. Bummer! (haha! so punny)
  • The has a — you guessed it — spoof on the whole Qumran latrine business the connects it with Princess Diana: “Diana Fountain ‘modelled on Dead Sea Scrolls latrine’” — is nothing sacred?! (I mean poking fun at Qumran, not Diana).

Posted in Ancient Potties, Dead Sea Scrolls, Humour, Qumran | 1 Comment »

Going Potty at Qumran: Evidence of Latrines Discovered (GPAT 4)

13th November 2006

A recent news release on Eureka Alert summarizes a forthcoming article in Revue de Qumran on a remote latrine site discovered at Khirbet Qumran.

This is the fifth in a series of posts (some more serious than others) on “Going Potty in the Ancient World.� My other posts include:

All posts in this series may be viewed here.

The international team of scholars, including James Tabor, Joe Zias, and Stephainie Harter-Lailheugue, did a number of soil samples outside of the Qumran settlement and discovered a latrine site.

Here is an excerpt:

Visiting Qumran, Tabor noted an area approximately 500 meters to the northwest of the settlement which seemed likely because it was sheltered from view by a bluff. Tabor also noted that the soil in the area appeared to have a significantly different coloration from other soils in the Qumran environs, a fact which was subsequently confirmed by Zias using high-resolution aerial photographs.

“I started thinking that in the scrolls they have these very explicit descriptions of where the latrines have to be,” Tabor explained. “It has to do with religious ritual purity — the latrines have to be located in a place that the ancient texts designate as ‘outside the camp’. That’s a phrase used in the Torah, where Moses tells the ancient Israelites ‘build your latrines outside the camp.’ When you go to the toilet, take a paddle or a shovel with you and use the toilet and then cover it up,” he said, explaining that the ancient practice appears to have been revived at Qumran.

“This group is very strict and they observe this practice rigorously — in one text it says go 1000 cubits, and in another text, 2000 cubits — and they specifically state ‘northwest’ in the scrolls. Josephus, in talking about the Essenes, mentions it as a point of admiration or piety – he says that these people are so holy, that on the Sabbath day they won’t even use the toilet, because on the Sabbath one can’t go outside the settlement,” he said.

“It turns out, if you go northwest from Qumran you get to this bluff – a large natural plateau separated from further cliffs – and if you go around it, it hides you from the camp. One of the things Josephus says is that they also believe that their latrines should shield them from view of the camp, so I thought ‘this is getting really good, if I can just find some evidence for toilet practices.’”

Tabor suggested investigating the area to Zias, who took four random soil samples at the site as well as six other samples for control — 4 from surrounding desert areas, one from an area that was known to be Qumran’s stable (to test for animal parasites), and one from an area on the opposite side of the city, essentially covering other outside-the-settlement areas that could have been used as latrines.

On the basis of earlier research that has shown that intestinal parasites can be preserved in arid, sub-surface conditions, Zias sent the samples to Harter-Lailheugue at CNRS for analysis. Three of the four samples from the suspected latrine area yielded four species of preserved worm eggs and embryophores that were all identified as human intestinal parasites – Ascaris SP. (human roundworm), Taenia SP. (a human tapeworm), Trichuris SP. (a human whipworm) and a human pinworm, Enterobius vermicularis, that had not previously been reported in the ancient Near East. The soil sample from the stable contained the eggs of Dricrocoelium SP., a common parasites of ungulates. The control samples from the surrounding desert areas contained no parasites, human or animal.

“Frankly, I was surprised,” said Zias. “A parasitologist I talked to told me that my chances of finding something were just about nil. Finding evidence of parasites would be easy in a latrine, but in the middle of the desert… But small things like parasite eggs in feces can hang around for thousands of years. At the Dead Sea, we have hair and hair combs with desiccated lice in them because of the dryness.”

“The evidence shows conclusively that the area was a toilet,” Zias noted. “The samples contained eggs from intestinal worms that are specific to humans. These things had to come from human feces. The presence of eggs in three out of four 100-gram samples indicates heavy and continual use of the specific site suggested by Tabor.”

Since the other sites did not yield human parasites, the team concluded that the latrine site was most likely the area specified in the Scroll passages. Because of the remoteness of the Qumran environs, they concluded that the latrine could only be associated with Qumran, the only settlement in the area.

The scroll texts that provide the directives for going potty at Qumran which the article alludes to are found in the War Scroll and the Temple Scroll. The latter scroll contains the directives to build the latrines “outside the city” חוץ מן העיר (see 11QT 46.13), while the former gives further directions about the latrines and that they should be in discrete and private locations (1QM 7.7; see also 4Q491 frg 1, 3.7) (see also Deut 23:12-13).

This discovery accords well with the reported bathroom habits of the ancient Essenes and may be another piece of evidence supporting the Essene hypothesis, which has come under attack in recent years (see, for instance, my post Khirbet Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls). The discovery of a latrine site also makes sense of the fact that only one toilet was found in the actual Qumran site (see my initial post on the Qumran toilet in GPAT 1).

The rest of the press release goes on to highlight some of the implications about the unsanitary conditions at Qumran on the health of the inhabitants and their apparent short lifespan as illustrated by the remains at the cemetery.

I am looking forward to the full article in Revue de Qumran. In the meantime, take a gander at the news report.

This discovery has also hit the major internet news sources, including the NY Times, MSNBC, the Jerusalem Post,, among others.
(HT Archaeologica News)

Posted in Ancient Potties, Archaeology, Dead Sea Scrolls, Discoveries, Qumran | Comments Off

Going Potty in Ancient Gath?! (GPAT 3.3)

2nd August 2006

The season at Tell es-Safi (ancient Gath) has almost come to a close. We have been able to follow the progress of the dig through their excellent blog here. On their July 31st update, they had an interesting discussion of Area F. What caught my eye was the object which they identified as a stone weight — I prefer to see it as an ancient potty!

This is the fourth in a series of semi-serious posts on “Going Potty in the Ancient World.� My other posts include:

All posts in this series may be viewed here.

While the identification of the object as a stone weight is possible, I’m not sure how they missed the clear indications that this object is indeed a toilet. The toilet paper and the fallen sign are clear giveaways to this amateur archaeologist!


This is exciting news… perhaps this is even the toilet that Goliath used before being killed by David! We have already found Goliath’s cereal bowl, and now this! All I can say is “Wow!” :-)

(I sure hope Prof. Aren M. Maeir has a sense of humour!)

Posted in Ancient Potties, Archaeology, Emergent, Humour, Series, Tell es-Safi | 3 Comments »

Going Potty in Ancient Hippos (GPAT 3)

14th July 2006

I have been holding this post on ancient toilets for quite a while :-) , so I thought I go ahead and post it! (For what it’s worth, as the son of a plumber and a third year apprentice [I never finished], I come by my interest in ancient toilets honestly.)

This is the third in a series of semi-serious posts on “Going Potty in the Ancient World.” My other posts include:

All posts in this series may be viewed here.

The pictures of the ancient potty below were sent to my by Bill Fritsche. Bill was volunteering at the Sussita/Hippos Excavations last summer and uncovered what sure looks like an ancient toilet. See for yourself and let me know what you think (the individual in the second picture is Bill):


The church is tentatively thought to be a 6th century CE Byzantine structure and we know that the city was destroyed by earthquake in 748 or 749 CE; that would mean the potty would probably date to around the same period.

The dig is sponsored by the Zinman Institute of Archaeology of the University of Haifa and is directed by Prof. Arthur Segal. The Concordia University (St. Paul) team, led by Prof. Mark Schuler, is continuing a multi-year project to unearth the Northeast church. Located a short distance from the dramatic north cliff of the city, the Northeast church stands between the cathedral with its tri-apsidal baptistery and the Northwest church that is currently being excavated by a Polish team. The website for the Concordia dig may be found here.

Sussita, known as Hippos in antiquity, was a Decapolis city located 2 km east of the Sea of Galilee on the top of a flat diamond-shaped mountain that rises 350 m above the sea. It is likely the “city set on a hill that cannot be hid” (Matt 5:14). During Roman times, Hippos was a center of Greek culture. In the Byzantine era it became a significant Christian center.

Posted in Ancient Potties, Archaeology, Series | 4 Comments »

Potty in the OED

11th August 2005

Continuing in the vein of my last post, I am pleased to let you know that “potty-mouthed” has made its way into the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary. This is such amazing news that Reuters even noted it!

Filed in:

Posted in Ancient Potties, Humour, News | Comments Off

Going Potty in the City of David (GPAT 2)

10th August 2005

In my previous post on Going Potty in Ancient Times, I mentioned in passing that excavations at the City of David also uncovered private toilet chambers. Danny Frese was nice enough to send me some pictures of the comfort-sculpted toilet in Area G of the City of David.

There are two remarkable things to note in these pictures. First, I was amazed that the signage was preserved as well as it was! (Isn’t Photoshop great!) Second, in the fourth picture below (the close-up of the toilet) note the indentation at the front of the toilet stone to accommodate the male anatomy (I’ve marked it with a red arrow in case you miss it!). The only thing that is missing is the bookshelf!

Posted in Ancient Potties, Archaeology, Humour | Comments Off

Going Potty in Ancient Times (GPAT 1)

9th August 2005

A question on the biblical studies email list about the use of the circumlocution “cover your feet” in 1 Samuel 24:3 for defecating has me thinking about the potty. Not that it is very difficult to get me thinking about toilets! I am the son of a plumber and a third-year apprentice plumber (never did finish much to the chagrin of dear old Dad… got religious instead and now I’m a professor who gets paid less than plumbers!).

So here is my brief and very selective survey of going to the potty in ancient times.

Going Potty in the Hebrew Bible

Well, I thought I would begin where the email discussion did: the use of the expression “cover feet” (סכך + רגל) in 1 Samuel 24:3 to describe Saul going into a cave relieve himself. This more than likely indicates the posture taken when defecating. Thus it’s a circumlocution for the act of squatting with robes covering/cloaking the action (For the posture of squatting see Deuteronomy 23:13 where יש×?ב “sit” is used to refer to going the bathroom). This passage doesn’t say anything about permanent potties, however. This expression is also found in Judges 3:24, where perhaps we get a bit of insight into more permanent facilities. The Judges passage narrates Ehud’s somewhat colourful killing of Eglon king of Moab (this passage is chok full of potty humour!). Most translations represent Eglon getting killed by Ehud in the throne room. Recently, however, Tom Jull has made a persuasive case for the room being the other throne room, the potty (JSOT 81 (1998) 63-75). Thus the image we are left with is an enclosed chamber ensuite off the throne room in which Ehud killed Eglon as he was getting up off the potty. Bummer… no pun intended!

Potty-Time at Qumran

A toilet was discovered at Qumran in locus 51. Here are some pictures from Humbert and Chambon, Fouilles de Khirbet Qumran (1994).

The toilet at Qumran was private. It consisted of a pit dug into the floor of an enclosed, roofed chamber. One toilet for the whole Qumran community clearly suggests this wasn’t the toilet used by everyone (talk about a line-up!). Perhaps it was reserved for full-fledged members of the community (kind of like getting keys to the executive washroom at work!). It appears that Israelites/Judahites liked their privacy when in the loo (Enclosed chambers were also found in the Iron Age II level in the city of David).

Public Potties in Ephesus

While people in ancient Israel were bashful about going potty, that wasn’t the case for ancient Greeks and Romans. My first experience of an ancient toilet was in Ephesus some 16 years ago. Here’s picture of my dear wife sitting on the potty in the Scholastika Baths in Ephesus… and look, she’s even reading!

I always thought that the watercourse in front of the seat was for cleaning the dust off your feet while you do your business. While that may be the case, I’ve also heard that instead of toilet paper or leaves, people would clean themselves with a sponge fixed onto a short wooden stick and that the water channel was used to “dip the stick” to clean it. Some people even think that this is where the expression “wrong end of the stick” comes from.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this brief toilet tour… now I really have to go…

Ancient Potties, Archaeology, Humour, Translation Theory | 2 Comments »