This changes everything … including Viking underwear. Archaeologists digging in a Viking settlement in Stevns on the island of Zealand in Denmark found a two-meter hole unlike any they had ever seen in this area. At the bottom were feces and radiocarbon dating of them revealed that they were human waste from the Viking Age, making this 1,000-year-old hole the oldest known toilet in Denmark. What really had them flushed was that the toilet meant that rural Vikings used bathrooms (privies, outhouses, loos – whatever you want to call them) instead of just squatting in a field and using their feet to grind their waste into the dirt for fertilizer.
“It was a totally random find. We were looking for pit houses—semi-subterrenean workshop huts—and it really looked like that from the surface. But we soon realized that it was something totally different.”
PhD student Anna Beck from the Museum Southeast Denmark found out that students are brought along on these digs for the specific purpose of jumping into holes and seeing what’s at the bottom. According to ScienceNordic, this particular hole was in Viking farmland and the dark matter she found herself standing in did not have a telltale smell that would have quickly answered her Dorothy Parkerish question of “What fresh hell is this?” Instead, she had to wait for a lab analysis to tell her the matter contained seeds mineralized by low oxygen conditions mixed with phosphate and covered with a high concentration of fly pupae. In other words, dead flies on a pile of sh*t.
How did Beck know this was human waste and not cow patties? The analysis also found a high concentration of flower pollen, which indicated the producer of the waste had eaten honey, either right out of the jar or comb or in mead. Since honey was not fed to livestock, this meant it came from Vikings with a sweet tooth and sticky faces. In addition, the pollen was not airborne, which means the farm Vikings did their business inside an outhouse or small building. That was confirmed when Beck found postholes on either side of the hole that could have been used to support a structure.
Does this discovery really change everything … or anything? Viking age experts already knew that humans in towns used toilets in separate buildings but assumed that farmers simply added their feces to their fields for fertilizer and saw no need for a building or even a pit. This is the first indication that Viking farmers used a privy, even if they had nothing to read. Doubters would like to see more sites before accepting Beck’s find as a common practice.
Even after she gets her doctorate and no longer has to be the first archeologist down the dark holes, Beck knows that it’s still the best way to find out about people besides just what they ate.
“But we know from cultures the world over that the treatment of faeces is surrounded by complicated cultural and social rules and taboos. From toilet culture, you can learn a lot about the norms and rules of that particular society. For example, we know that animals, which had previously lived under the same roof as humans for thousands of years, were moved out of people’s homes at this time. The distance between humans and animals became larger, both physically and mentally.”
While the physical distance between humans and animals has grown, the mental distance is still debatable.