Toilet Parasites Date Back to 7th-Century Jerusalem, Show Impact on Region's Elite

A new study reveals that samples collected underneath a toilet in Jerusalem dating back 2,700 years show that parasites widely affected the region, notably the elite.

The study was solely authored by Dafna Langgut, head of the Laboratory of Archaeobotany and Ancient Environments at Tel Aviv University, to determine the species of intestinal parasites present in the 7th century B.C. as part of understanding the history of regional health and sanitary conditions.

Dafna Langgut
Dafna Langgut, right, at the Laboratory of Archaeobotany and Ancient Environments at Tel Aviv University, authored a study on the species of intestinal parasites present in the 7th century B.C. Sasha Flit

Langgut was part of an excavation that took place at Armon Hanatziv, in southern Jerusalem. A total of 15 sediment samples were collected from a cesspit, or a spot where liquid waste or sewage is normally disposed.

At the site existed a stone toilet installation located in a garden adjacent "to a monumental structure with extraordinary architectural elements"—which makes Langgut believe that the high-status individuals occupied that particular area of Israel.

"It was a kind of status symbol," Langgut told Newsweek in regards to the rarity of a toilet being present at that time, in an area surrounded by magnificent mountain views highlighted by a temple mount on one side.

Jerusalem Excavation
The stone toilet seat found during the 2019 excavation at Armon Hanatziv, in southern Jerusalem. Ya’akov Billig

After collecting the sediment samples beneath the toilet and in the cesspit, she went back to her lab to inspect them using a light microscope.

Four intestinal parasitic eggs were ultimately detected, identified and measured: Trichuris trichiura (whipworm), Taenia sp. (beef/pork tapeworm), Ascaris lumbricoides (roundworm), and Enterobius vermicularis (pinworm).

Intestinal parasite eggs recovered from sediment collected below the stone toilet seat at Armon Hanatziv. Each bar equals 25 micron and are magnified 400 times. Eitan Kremer

It is the earliest appearance of roundworm and pinworm in the ancient Israel parasitological record, the study notes.

"I was very, very surprised," she said. "At the beginning I thought I was seeing botanical remains, such as pollen. I was surprised to see parasites."

Langgut said such research is in the realm of "more than meets the eye," meaning that excavated samples only show so much. By using a microscope, she said she and others can study samples using model techniques in a way that wasn't possible a decade ago—let alone hundreds or thousands of years ago.

That includes a better understanding of the health, diets, medicinal plants in people's systems, and possibly knowing whether such people suffered or not.

"They had no medicine, no cure," she said. "It was very infectious diseases, these parasites."

The parasites discovered were dead, with Langgut adding that she just saw the eggs without the worms.

It remains unclear how many people were affected, though she clarified that such parasites typically don't cause death. Rather, they would typically cause stomach pain or some equivalent damage.

Again, there was no cure or treatment, so results may have varied. Langgut said parasites may have had a more pernicious impact on children due to their still-developing nervous systems.

There was also no freshwater in the underground installation, leading her to believe that citizens during that time period were generally unaware of the importance of hygiene, including washing hands or how to properly cook meat.

"The study demonstrates the potential of archaeoparasitological investigations to expand our knowledge of the origin and history of regional infections," Langgut said in the study. "Moreover, parasitological evidence enabled us to determine the purpose of the cubical perforated stone artifacts (stone toilet seats rather than cultic objects as currently debated)."

Future excavations of ancient Israel should include archaeoparasitological studies of rare toilet installations to prevent information loss of the regional history of diseases and to better understand their archaeological context, she added.