Unusual and interesting toilets from all around the world.

The Sacred Island of Delos and its Plumbing

The Sacred Greek Island of Δήλος / Delos

The Toilets of Faith include the plumbing at various temples, shrines, and churches, while the Historical Toilets display man's lavatorial accomplishments from the prehistory of the Neolithic or late Stone Age through the 20th Century. The water supplies, latrines, and sanitation on the island of Delos (that is, Δήλος) in the Aegean fit into both categories. It's ancient Greek toilets and other plumbing, and Delos was an enormously popular religious site. Let's visit this ancient Greek island.

Aeronautical chart of the northern Aegean Sea, cropped to show Mykonos.

Aeronautical chart of the northern Aegean Sea around Delos, full map available from the University of Texas' Perry-Castañeda Map Collection.

The island of Delos is at the center of the Cyclades island group in the Aegean Sea. It's one of the most important mythological and archaeological sites in Greece. You can visit the site on a day trip from the nearby island of Mykonos.

The Cycladic Islands or the Κυκλάδες, are mostly the peaks of submerged mountainous terrain, while Milos and Thera (or Santorini) are volcanic islands. The island group's name comes from its roughly circular form centered on Delos. A distinctive Neolithic culture combining elements of the cultures of western Anatolia and mainland Greece arose in the western Aegean islands before 4000 BC. The Cycladic culture arose out of that, in the late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age.

Delos has been inhabited since the 3rd millennium BC, when it was established as a holy sanctuary. By 2000 BC, the merged Cycladic and Minoan civilizations had established a settlement at the peak of the highest point on Delos. The Ionians settled most of the Aegean islands in the 10th and 9th centuries BC, bringing the cult of Leto, the father of Artemis and Apollo.

Delos was a major cult center from 900 BC to 100 AD. It went through a number of cycles in which businesses would be established around the pilgrimage activity. At times it had the largest slave market in the region, and a number of large homes were built during these periods. But then the island would be "cleansed" of economic activity and re-dedicated purely to religion. Whether religious or commercial, Delos was the busiest island in the Aegean.

The large harbor, seen in the distance here, supported the bustling trade. During the periods of business and trade, ships traveled between Delos and other islands, the mainlands of Greece and Asia Minor, and other Eastern Mediterranean ports.

View across the sacred island of Delos.
Two peaks on the sacred island of Delos.

Two conical mounds are visible from its Sacred Harbor, the higher one is Mount Kynthos. High places were often sacred in the ancient world. These were one of the earliest holy sites, identifying the landscape as holy to a goddess of a pre-Greek religion.

Much later, in Mycenaean times (1600-1200 BC), Delos was believed to be the birthplace of the deities Apollo and Artemis.

After the Greek Dark Ages and the emergence of the Ancient Greek culture, Delos became dedicated to the Ancient Greek religion.

During the business periods when Delos was a major trading port, the Sanctuaries of the Foreign Gods were constructed along the path to the peak. The merchant communities from Egypt, Syria, and other trading nations around the Eastern Mediterranean erected temples to their deities in this district.

These are the famous lion statues on the Terrace of the Lions near the Sanctuary of Apollo. They were dedicated to Apollo shortly before 600 BC by the people of Naxos.

The Delian League started meeting here after its foundation in 478 BC, after the Persian wars. It was the primary association of Greek city-states.

Lion statues on the Terrace of the Lions near the Sanctuary of Apollo on the sacred island of Delos.
Latrine in the Lake House on Delos.

The Lake House in the Delos city center has only recently been excavated. This is the αποχορετεριον, the apochoreterion or latrine. As the sign there says,

Next to the secondary entrance, far from the main rooms, is the apochoreterion (latrine) and the mageireion (kitchen, or cookhouse). A closed door isolates these two areas from the atrium to keep the masters of the house from being disturbed by any unpleasant smells. The baths were in a separate room with clay bathtubs.

The road from the Sacred Lake district toward the twin mounded peaks is made from broad paving stones. A sewer channel runs beneath this road.

Street with buried sewer on Delos.
House of the Trident on Delos.

The House of the Trident is one of the impressive homes built during the periods when permanent settlement was allowed on Delos. Here you can see the mosaic tile of its central atrium.

Below you see two views of its large latrine.

Latrine in the House of the Trident on Delos.
Latrine in the House of the Trident on Delos.

A water supply from further up the hill washed the waste down through this channel, under the atrium floor, and out underneath the front of the house to join the sewer line running under the paving blocks of the street.

House of the Trident on Delos.
House of the Trident on Delos.
Public cistern on Delos.

Like all the Cycladic islands, back then as well as now, Delos had a very limited water supply. It's a small and rather barren island that receives little rainfall.

Very clever systems of cisterns, aquaducts, and underground channels were devised.

This series of arches forms a large public cistern for collecting and storing what water is available. It would have been roofed over and appeared from above to be just another plaza.

If water was not available, the Greeks used πεσσοι or pessoi, small stones, to clean themselves after defecating. The tradition started with the ancient Greeks that three stones should be enough to finish the job. This convention has been very long lived, with a hādīth attributed to Muhammad specifying three stones as the ideal number for anal cleaning. The pessoi were also used in an ancient board game in Greece. Aristophanes wrote a scene involving pessoi in Peace in the 5th century. Here's the Penguin Classics translation:

Arms dealer [displaying a cuirass]: And what, alack, shall I do with this rounded cuirass, a beautiful fit, worth ten minas?

Trygaeus: Well, that one will not make a loss for you, anyway. Give me that at cost price. It will be very convenient to crap in ...

Arms dealer: Stop this impudent mockery of my goods!

Trygaeus [placing the cuirass on the ground like a chamber pot and squatting on it]: Like this, if you put three stones beside it. Is it not clever?

The Greeks would use όστρακα or ostraka, small pieces of broken ceramic goods, to vote to shun or ban their opponents. This is where we get the word ostracize.

Some scholars have suggested that the ostraka could be used as pessoi, literally wiping your feces onto the names of hated individuals.

The abrasive characteristics of broken ceramic material suggest that long-term used of these as pessoi could have resulted in localized irritation at the least, progressing to skin or mucosal damage or the irritation of external hemorrhoids. For more on toilet use of pessoi and ostraka and the medical implications see the paper "Toilet hygiene in the classical era", Philippe Charlier, Luc Brun, Clarisse Prêtre, and Isabelle Huynh-Charlier, in BMJ (the British Medical Journal) 2012;p345-346.