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See Inside Scientific American Volume 308, Issue 3

Toilet Issue: Anthropologists Uncover All the Ways We've Wiped

An analysis of old customs makes us privy to a slice of ancient life



Matt Collins

The last time I visited Boston's Museum of Fine Arts was in 2004 to see a Rembrandt exhibition. But I might have wandered away from the works of the Dutch master in search of an ancient Greek artifact, had I known at the time that the object in question, a wine vessel, was in the museum's collection. According to the 2012 Christmas issue of the BMJ (preacronymically known as the British Medical Journal), the 2,500-year-old cup, created by one of the anonymous artisans who helped to shape Western culture, is adorned with the image of a man wiping his butt.

That revelation appears in an article entitled “Toilet Hygiene in the Classical Era,” by French anthropologist and forensic medicine researcher Philippe Charlier and his colleagues. Their report examines tidying techniques used way back—and the resultant medical issues. Such a study is in keeping with the BMJ's tradition of offbeat subject matter for its late December issue—as noted in this space five years ago: “Had the Puritans never left Britain for New England, they might later have fled the British Medical Journal to found the New England Journal of Medicine.”

The toilet hygiene piece reminds us that practices considered routine in one place or time may be unknown elsewhere or elsetime. The first known reference to toilet paper in the West does not appear until the 16th century, when satirist François Rabelais mentions that it doesn't work particularly well at its assigned task. Of course, the ready availability of paper of any kind is a relatively recent development. And so, the study's authors say, “anal cleaning can be carried out in various ways according to local customs and climate, including with water (using a bidet, for example), leaves, grass, stones, corn cobs, animal furs, sticks, snow, seashells, and, lastly, hands.” Sure, aesthetic sensibility insists on hands being the choice of last resort, but reason marks seashells as the choice to pull up the rear. “Squeezably soft” is the last thing to come to mind about, say, razor clams.

Charlier et al. cite no less an authority than philosopher Seneca to inform us that “during the Greco-Roman period, a sponge fixed to a stick (tersorium) was used to clean the buttocks after defecation; the sponge was then replaced in a bucket filled with salt water or vinegar water.” Talk about your low-flow toilets. The authors go on to note the use of rounded “fragments of ceramic known as ‘pessoi’ (meaning pebbles), a term also used to denote an ancient board game.” (The relieved man on the Museum of Fine Arts's wine cup is using a singular pessos for his finishing touches.) The ancient Greek game pessoi is not related to the ancient Asian game Go, despite how semantically satisfying it would be if one used stones from Go after one Went.

According to the BMJ piece, a Greek axiom about frugality cites the use of pessoi and their purpose: “Three stones are enough to wipe.” The modern equivalent is probably the purposefully self-contradictory “toilet paper doesn't grow on trees.”

Some pessoi may have originated as ostraca, pieces of broken ceramic on which the Greeks of old inscribed the names of enemies. The ostraca were used to vote for some pain-in-the-well-you-know to be thrown out of town—hence, “ostracized.” The creative employment of ostraca as pessoi allowed for “literally putting faecal matter on the name of hated individuals,” Charlier and company suggest. Ostraca have been found bearing the name of Socrates, which is not surprising considering they hemlocked him up and threw away the key. (Technically, he hemlocked himself, but we could spend hours in Socratic debate about who took ultimate responsibility.)

Putting shards of a hard substance, however polished, in one's delicate places has some obvious medical risks. “The abrasive characteristics of ceramic,” the authors write, “suggest that long term use of pessoi could have resulted in local irritation, skin or mucosal damage, or complications of external haemorrhoids.”

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