If a culture fears a man-eating beast with a human head, animal body and dragon-like tail, would putting a tile image of it in a massive cesspool of human waste deter it from consumin’ humans or would it make it angry enough to go full all-you-can-eat buffet on them in retaliation? Those are just some of the questions in search of answers as researcher in London excavate a medieval latrine and try to figure out it contained the image of a manticore along with jewelry, riding gear and kitchen utensils. Eww!
“It’s unusual to get excited about a cesspit, but this gargantuan piece of work is the only link we have found between medieval settlements on the Strand and the subsequent palace. When its contents have been fully analysed, we will begin to understand more about who built and used such an enormous pit. It’s an incredibly significant find.”
Simon Thurley, the historian and former chief executive of English Heritage, expressed his excitement to The Guardian over the discovery of the cesspool in late 2019 while excavating under The Courtauld Institute of Art for an expansion project. Ironically, according to Antonietta Lerz, a MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) senior archaeologist, the giant latrine was right underneath where the Courtauld was going to install modern new toilets. As only archeologists can, she also expressed her excitement about digging in a cesspool.
“Almost every time we put our mattocks in the ground, something else came up. That was great.”
This particular pit of waste was underneath the toilets of a fancy mansion on the Strand dating back to 14th century that may have belonged to the Bishop of Chester’s Inn. This home predated the Somerset House, which now houses museum and the Tudor palace before it which was used by the future Queen Elizabeth I before it was torn down. Lerz says the kitchen utensils in the cesspit – condiment bowls, wine jugs, dripping dishes for meat, forks – were there because it was a convenient place to discard broken items. A fancy gold ring probably fell of the finger of someone doing their business, while a spur, a belt buckle and other non-kitchen objects were probably tossed into it as trash by the residents of an otherwise sophisticated residence.
That all sounds very interesting, but what about the man-eating monster?
Thanks for the reminder. Apparently, the original builders of this house back in the mid 1300s took such pride in their work that they actually tiled the floor of the cesspit – not with everyday bathroom tile but with an elaborated, specially-made four-tile panel created at a tilery (a tile-production shop) in Penn, a village in Buckinghamshire. (Images here.) This was a big deal, says Lerz.
"'Penn' tiles were often used in palaces and monastic sites during the medieval period."
According to Ancient Origins, the creature depicted in the tiles appears to be a manticore -- a mythical Persian monster with a human head, lion’s body and spiked tail. The Persian word ‘mardyakhowr’ means ‘man-eater’ and was first mention in the fourth century BC by Ctesias, a Greek physician in the Persian court of King Artaxerxes II, who dismissed wild stories of a man-eating creature as simply a tiger – albeit one with three rows of teeth and a tail that could fling spikes like arrows. If the shape sounds familiar, the manticore closely resembles the Egyptian sphinx, which predates it by a few thousand years.
However, the sphinx holds a place of honor in Egypt – it’s not a bottom-dwelling cesspool creature like this one. Lerz has no thoughts on why it was chosen. Leaving it open to speculation, here’s one … constipation. In his "The History of Four-footed Beasts," an illustrated collection of tales of beasts published in 1607, Edward Topsell describes the manticore like this:
“… although India be full of divers ravening beastes, yet none of them are stiled with a title of Andropophagi, that is to say, Men-eaters; except onely this Mantichora. When the Indians take a Whelp of this beast, they all to bruise the buttockes and taile thereof, that so it may never be fit to bring sharp quils, afterwards it is tamed without peril.”
After the manticore is beaten on the buttocks, its quills are rendered powerless and the beast can be tamed. Could putting a picture of the manticore at the bottom of this cesspool be a way for the rich to protect themselves against the beast of the buttocks known as constipation?
That’s my theory and I’m sticking with it until an archeologist can present a better explanation for why this medieval cesspool was tiled with the picture of a man-eating mythical manticore.