Before the development of advanced plumbing, internal parasites were no respecters of status. Rich and poor, city and country, everyone was subject to unpleasant digestive infestations, at least if the outcome of one dig is to be relied upon.
All too often history and archaeology focus on the lives of the wealthy few, ignoring conditions for the vast majority of our ancestors. One exception has been the study of previous generations' defecation. Fecal samples have told us quite a lot about by-gone eras, but the focus has been on the poop of poorer city dwellers whose dungheaps are easier to find.
Dr Theresa Gildner and Professor Jesse Casana are helping to change that and didn't have to travel far to do it, having dug up a former privy on the campus of their own Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. Using ground-penetrating radar, they identified the site of the privy of what was once a rural mansion, known as the Ripley/Choate House, and then dug it up.
The house was built in 1786 by Sylvanus Ripley, one of Dartmouth's initial graduating class and later a professor of divinity there. It was bought by Mill Olcott, who lived in it with his wife and nine children. The family was among the wealthiest in New England. In the 1920s the building was relocated to another part of the campus to make space for the library, but decades of the family's accumulated feces were left behind. Garbage was dumped in the same location, so Gildner could date layers of the dung from ceramics and other long-lasting items.
The excavations unearthed three recognizable fecal samples. In the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, the pair describe finding both tapeworm and whipworm eggs, and bottles marketed to cure digestive ailments. Both worms still plague people in places lacking advanced water treatment facilities, contributing to malnourishment and stunted growth
“The state of medical care during this time period was pretty terrible," Casana said in a statement. "A lot of people probably experienced symptoms of parasitic infections but wouldn't know what was causing them. Privies would have been getting a lot of use at this time," he added. "If people had the means, they would order special medicines to treat an upset stomach, which were really just tinctured alcohol that offered no medicinal benefits."
Although this is just one location, the findings are striking because the Olcotts should have had the most unsullied intestines of the era. Besides their wealth and the semi-rural location, their educations probably meant they were unusually aware of the importance of sanitation and available treatment options. Considering parasites like these are adapted to tropical conditions, New England's chilly climate probably would have offered additional protection.
"I think that we take a lot of our health and infrastructure that we have today for granted," said Casana. "Our results show that even wealth could not protect you from these parasitic infections 200 years ago."
Pandemic or not, the 21st century definitely has its advantages.