Archaeologists excavating an ancient Viking settlement in southeastern Denmark thought they were dealing with a typical medieval rural town. Then a single toilet changed everything.
Archeology researcher Anna Beck of the Museum of Southeastern Denmark was excavating what she thought was a semi-underground workshop, only to find that she was knee-deep in…yes, you guessed it. had found a layer of medieval poop.
Carbon dating confirms the toilet at over 1,000 years old, making it possibly the oldest toilet bowl in Denmark.
After a chemical analysis of material from the pit, Beck was able to confirm that she had indeed found a hole full of feces. She and her colleagues determined that the feces belonged to humans when they discovered it was full of flower pollen, which is often found in honey. “I don’t know if Vikings ate honey, or if it was mead, but at least the interpretation is that it’s pollen from honey, and that’s rarely used for feeding animals,” Beck told Science Nordic’s Charlotte Persson. Unless these Vikings fed their animals honey and mead, this excrement must have been virtually human.
Closer examination of the toilet revealed two post holes on either side of the pit, which Beck believes could have been part of an outhouse-like structure. This interpretation is reinforced by the fact that there was little airborne pollen in other layers of the pit, suggesting that it was sheltered by walls.
Toilets were common in Viking towns, where archaeologists can often identify discoveries in outbuildings by smell alone. But in the countryside, people usually relieved themselves in the barn with their animals. All manure was valuable as fertilizer, whether it came from cows or humans. That’s why Beck’s discovery was greeted with skepticism by researchers such as the director of Museum Nordsjælland, Kjartan Langsted. He states that toilets were unheard of in the Danish countryside until the 18th century.
But Beck thinks this toilet was part of a larger cultural shift. She told Science Nordic:
We know from cultures around the world that stool handling is surrounded by complicated cultural and social rules and taboos. You can learn a lot from the toilet culture about the norms and rules of that particular society… For example, we know that animals, which previously lived under the same roof as humans for thousands of years, were taken out of people’s houses today. The distance between humans and animals increased, both physically and mentally. That ideal may not fit so well when they are in the stable defecating with the animals.
Toilets were important enough to the Vikings that there are references to them in Viking literature. Medieval scholar Sarah Künzler, of Trinity College, Dublin, notes that Old Norse has several words for outhouse, including garohus (yard house), náð-/náða-hus (rest home), and annat house (the other house). Künzler writes that these words “[confirm] the idea that a separate house was built as private.”
But archaeologists prefer to uncover history through “ground observation” or finding material evidence. Until we can find more examples of Viking toilets in the country, we can’t be sure that Beck found the first toilet in Denmark. Yet we cannot wash away all our dreams. We will get to the bottom of this mystery.
Frame image by Anna S. Beck