Archaeologists have unearthed 500-year-old medical flasks that were used to test (and smell) pee at a medical dump within Caesar’s Forum in Rome. The flasks may provide important insights into late medieval and Renaissance disease prevention.
Italian physicians played an important role in developing early measures to prevent the spread of disease. This included the understanding that infection could be communicated not only between people but also from touching contaminated objects. For example, protocols created at hospitals in Tuscany and at the University of Padua became the model for practice in English hospitals in the 16th century. These included recommendations for cleaning, burning, or disposing of items such as bedding, furniture, and other household objects that had been in contact with patients, especially those with the plague. Now, a group of archaeologists with the international collaboration Caesar’s Forum Excavation Project have found evidence of this medical practice in an unlikely place.
In 2021, a 16th-century medical waste dump was discovered in part of Caesar’s Forum, which was originally created in dedication to Julius Caesar in 46 BCE. In 1564, however, the space became home to a guild of bakers who founded the Ospedale dei Fornari (Bakers' Hospital) to treat sick bakers.
Not far from their premises, the hospital staff created a dump to dispose of unwanted waste. The archaeologists investigating this site found a cistern filled with ceramic vessels, rosary beads, broken glass jars and coins, spindle whorls, and ceramic figurines. Many of these items relate to hygienic practices within the hospital, which involved arriving patients being presented with their own set of items for their stay. These included a jug, a drinking glass, a bowl, and a plate, as well as a bottle used for pouring medication. The patients also had specific cooking vessels set aside for their individual use.
A substantial portion of the glass vessels recovered from the cistern were likely matula – urine flasks. During the medieval and Renaissance periods, urine was a valuable tool for medical diagnosis (called urinoscopy). A physician would collect a patient’s pee in a finely made glass vessel and examine it for its color, sedimentation, and smell. Sometimes they would even smell or taste it. This examination could reveal a range of clues about a person’s health and could indicate whether they had diabetes (their pee would have tasted sweet), jaundice, and kidney disease, among others.
We may think that this practice was the stuff of ancient quackery, but it remained a vital part of medical diagnosis well into the 18th century.
Generally speaking, urine flasks are difficult to identify in the archaeological record as they tend to look like common oil lamps. They are also pretty rare in domestic contexts, so this medical dump provides important insights into their use.
The team also discovered an assemblage of 14 lead clamps that were often used in furniture fitting alongside a notable quantity of carbonized wood. Although it cannot be verified, this may be evidence of the preventative measures outlined in Ectypa Pestilentis Status Algheriae Sardiniae, a protocol from the 16th century mentioned above, that relates to the disposal of objects and furniture belonging to victims of the plague. The instructions were published Quinto Tiberio Angelerio, an Italian physician, in 1588.
According to the researchers, once the cistern was full, it was covered with a layer of clay. This may also have been a medical precaution. The dump is the second of its kind to be found in connection with the Ospedale dei Fornari, but little work has been done on this subject.
“Prior to the present study,” the authors note, “the early modern disposal of waste from hospital and medical contexts in order to prevent the spread of disease had received only sporadic archaeological attention, with limited cross-contextual investigation.”
As such, this study adds significant information to our understanding of waste disposal in the Renaissance, as well as offering clues about hygiene practices. It nevertheless highlights, as the authors note, “the need for a more complete overview of the hygiene and disease control regimes of early modern Europe."
The study was published in Antiquity.