Jerusalem was home to the great kings of the Biblical era, yet new research reveals that even the elite of this ancient metropolis were infested with parasitic worms. After examining sediment samples from a cesspit beneath a 2,700-year-old stone toilet, archaeologists discovered numerous types of intestinal parasite eggs, suggesting hygiene and sanitation may not have been up to scratch in the holy city.
Describing their findings in the International Journal of Paleopathology, the authors explain that “a toilet was a symbol of wealth, a private installation that only the rich could have afforded,” and that users of this rudimentary lavatory were probably people of status. Located in a lavish complex at the site of Armon Hanatziv in southern Jerusalem, the Biblical bog was suitably surrounded by “extraordinary architectural elements” and provides a fascinating insight into the intestinal troubles of the city’s privileged classes during the late Iron Age.
Using a light microscope, the researchers identified eggs of roundworms, tapeworms, whipworms, and pinworms in the sediment samples, indicating that the wealthy residents of Jerusalem probably suffered from a range of diseases.
Roundworm and whipworm – both transmitted through feces – were the most prevalent in the cesspit. According to the researchers, these worms are likely to have become widespread due to “inadequate disposal of fecal material, contamination of food and water supplies with fecal waste, and the use of human feces as field fertilizer are prevalent.”
Tapeworms, meanwhile, were the next most abundant parasite, their presence indicating that people were eating undercooked or unclean beef or pork. Though less prevalent than the other parasites, pinworm was also detected and is likely to have resulted in “intense anal itching” within wealthy households.
Commenting on these extraordinary findings, study author Dr. Dafna Langgut explained in a statement that “these are durable eggs, and under the special conditions provided by the cesspit, they survived for nearly 2,700 years.”
“Intestinal worms are parasites that cause symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, and itching. Some of them are especially dangerous for children and can lead to malnutrition, developmental delays, nervous system damage, and, in extreme cases, even death.”
Due to a lack of modern medicine, it’s unlikely that those who became infested with these parasites would have had the means to eliminate them, meaning that many people in ancient Jerusalem probably carried these worms for life. As this research reveals, even those lucky enough to have their own private toilet were not able to escape this rather disgusting fate.