Roman Latrines Along Hadrian's Wall
The Romans built defensive walls along their northern borders in Britain.
How difficult would it be to cross such a wall?
The Romans had figured out how to make a formidable set of obstacles
using little more than the existing soil.
At forts, the first obstacle might include wading through their cesspit!
Building a Multi-Layer Wall
Both the large-scale coast-to-coast walls and the perimeters of attached
or nearby forts used a sequence of obstacles.
They dug a ditch, piling the removed soil along the interior bank of the ditch.
The ditch and berm would be sort of like an "S" laid on its side.
Crossing from outside to in, you went down into the ditch and then
climbed the combined inner wall of the ditch and outer wall of the berm.
In some cases the berm would be topped by a stone wall.
Hadrian's Wall is the most famous Roman wall
and their largest engineering project.
It crosses the narrow area of Britain between today's cities of
Newcastle and Carlisle.
The Romans started building it in 122 AD, finishing in 128 after
moving an estimated 2 million cubic yards of earth and building a
stone wall on top of the berm.
The ditch was about 3 meters deep and 9 meters wide.
There was a gate and associated milecastle or small fort
every Roman mile (1480 meters), with two observation turrets between
Where they could, they took advantage of the terrain.
Sometimes that included cliffs on the exterior side.
Looking east along Hadrian's wall near Twice Brewed.
North, the Outside, is to the left.
By the 140s AD the Romans reconquered southern Scotland.
Now they built the Vallum Antonini or
across the isthmus from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde.
Roughly between today's Falkirk on the east coast and Glasgow on the west.
Instead of stone, they built a wooden fence along its inner berm.
So, relatively little remains today.
The Romans didn't stay here long.
By 164 they withdrew south to Hadrian's Wall.
"Evidence Concerning the Roman Military Diet at Bearsden,
Scotland, in the 2nd Century AD"
A fort at Bearsden, the fourth fort from the western end and now in the
suburbs of Glasgow, was excavated in the 1980s.
The bathhouse and latrine were at the northeast corner
of the fort.
In Europe up through early modern times there weren't proper sewers.
A garderobe was a latrine built into an outer wall of a fortified
building or city.
The waste was simply dumped onto the exterior wall,
presenting yet another obstacle to entry.
The ditch outside the latrine was the fort's cesspit.
Analysis of its contents revealed details of the Roman military diet.
Latrines at Vercovicium along Hadrian's Wall.
Wheat and Other Foods
Classical literature tells us that barley was fed to horses,
and wheat to the men.
The Roman troops had a relatively high-fibre diet.
The fecal material preserved in the cesspit contained a large quantity
of wheat debris.
It is largely fragments of coarsely ground wheat pericarp,
or fused fruit and seed wall.
It included some fragments of native wheatfield weeds
including lop-grass and corncockle.
There were also remains of figs, coriander, wild celery, and
Papaver somniferum or opium poppy.
All living creatures contain sterols, a class of chemicals of which
cholesterol is one example.
A variety of these are excreted in feces, the precise mixture depending
some on what the subject ate, and more on what their body synthesizes
and how their specific gut flora transforms that combination.
Sterols have a tetracyclic ring structure that makes them stable,
so they can still be detected in soil after two millennia or more.
Coprostanol or 5β-cholestan-3β-ol
also known as 5β-cholestan-3β-ol,
is one of those sterols.
Its presence as the dominating sterol indicates feces
"of predominantly human origin".
It is produced by intestinal bacteria acting on cholesterol
ingested or biosynthesized by the host.
Coprostanols in the Athens Agora
Other similar chemicals can serve as biomarkers for other animals.
For example, high levels of 5β-stigmastanol indicates ruminant
animals or horses.
Tracking Hannibal's elephants by their droppings
The Military Diet
They can't conclude exactly what the Roman troops ate, but
they have the ingredients.
The menu apparently included something similar to
whole-grain poppy-seed bagels.
The biochemical analysis backs up a detailed study of the Roman military
diet which was reported in Britannia in 1971.
It had concluded that:
The basic diet in peacetime will have consisted of corn,*
bacon, cheese and probably vegetables to eat and sour wine to drink.
This fare was supplemented by beef, mutton, veal, and the meat of wild
animals and birds, fish, shell-fish, chicken, eggs, olives, honey, fruit
* Note that "corn" means cereal crops in general outside North America,
Australia, and New Zealand.
Most of the world uses "maize" to refer to
the plant domesticated in Mesoamerica.
The Mayans Had A Pressurized Water Supply