Analysis of a cesspool in an ancient palace in the Old City of Jerusalem has allowed archaeologists to learn what diseases legendary biblical kings suffered from. According to scientists, the rulers had various diseases caused by intestinal parasites. Moreover, some of them appeared because of the conquest of Jerusalem by Assyrian troops. Haaretz writes about the work of the scientists in detail.
The Bible tells stories about miracles, wars, kings and prophets, but there is almost no information about the daily life of the ancient Israelites. An opportunity to learn about the various problems of life during the First Temple period is now provided by a study of a 2,700-year-old toilet found in one of the palaces of ancient Jerusalem.
It seems that even members of the elite in the Kingdom of Judah, including the kings of the Davidic dynasty, suffered from parasitic infections, says Daphne Langgut, head of the archaeobotanical laboratory at Tel Aviv University and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History.
For the study, published recently in the International Journal of Paleopathology, Langgut took samples of sediments under a stone seat with a characteristic hole in the middle, which scientists discovered during excavations of an ancient palace on Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv waterfront.
This building belonged to the nobility or may even have been the residence of the ruler. The palace was built in the early 7th century B.C. and its elaborate capitals offer spectacular views of the center of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Such a building and its surroundings were evidently the property of a very wealthy owner. In addition to the splendor of the palace, the mere presence of a specially equipped latrine with a cesspool far away from the house attests to this. For the late Iron Age, even in the developed countries of the time, such a luxury was a rarity.
However, despite having access to the most advanced means of personal hygiene of the time, the inhabitants of the palace suffered from various parasites. The eggs of various intestinal pests, including tapeworms, ascarids, pinworms, and vlasoglavs, were found in a cesspool under the stone seat. The worms themselves could not have survived in the soil that long, but their dead larvae can persist in the soil for many thousands of years.
The scientists’ study had several goals. Firstly, it confirmed that the stone slab with a hole found on the homestead was indeed one of the elements of the ancient toilet. Since only very wealthy people could afford such a facility, scientists have found only a few similar structures of the First Temple period in the Old City. For a long time the view that such plates were part of the toilets was opposed to the view that they could have been altars with a hole for pouring liquid offerings into the altar.
In a broader sense, such studies help scientists understand the mechanisms of the spread of disease throughout history, as well as the living conditions and state of hygiene of ancient peoples.
Parasites found during excavations in Jerusalem are now quite easy to deal with, but without treatment they can cause various serious diseases. The tapeworm usually enters the human body by eating raw or poorly cooked beef. The products of this parasite poison the human body, and can cause abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea and lead to weight loss.
Ascarids and helminths can be contracted through contact with feces and ingestion of their eggs. This usually occurs due to poor sanitation, consumption of food and water contaminated by waste products, and the use of human feces as fertilizer.
Various intestinal parasites, which were the scourge of the population in the ancient Levant, are mentioned in some of the earliest medical treatises, including an Egyptian papyrus written 3.5 millennia ago. But Daphne Langut wondered how these parasites of steel got into ancient Judea and spread there to such an extent that even members of the elite were infected. They could have contracted tapeworm from eating poorly cooked meat, but how could they have contracted the horseshoe worm and ascarias? According to her, one hypothesis is that this way is related to the conquest of Judea by the Assyrian armies of King Sennacherib in 701 B.C.
At that time most of the Levant was under Assyrian control, the imperialists severely punishing the inhabitants of Judea when King Hezekiah and some of his allies revolted. While Jerusalem itself suffered the consequences of the invasion, most of the other cities of Judea were sacked and the state lost much of its territory, especially in Shephelah, a fertile hilly area southwest of Jerusalem.
At the same time, the new rulers demanded high tribute and pushed Judah toward a specialized economy focused on the production of wine and oil, two products that had been luxuries in the Assyrian empire within Mesopotamia. To do this, the Jews had to begin cultivating the barren, barren land on the rocky hills surrounding Jerusalem.
In recent years archaeologists have investigated in detail the agricultural development of these lands in the seventh century B.C. They have discovered the remains of irrigation systems, royal estates and palaces there, including Armon a-Natsiv. It is possible that in order to make these lands more fertile, the locals began to fertilize their fields using large quantities of waste from the city’s cesspools. According to Langgut, this may have inadvertently led to a parasite infestation of water and food sources that affected all social strata in the area.
But Langgut’s discoveries didn’t end there. Under the stone slab of an ancient toilet, the researcher discovered ancient pollen. Daphne Langgut is an expert in analyzing fossilized pollen, which she has used in previous studies to gather information about climate change in prehistoric times, and even to reconstruct the gardens of King Herod the Great.
Microscopic elements of pollen recovered from the sinkhole indicate that the Armon a-Natziv estate had a garden in which the toilet was located. The garden was mainly full of fruit trees and ornamental plants, including some that could muffle the odors of the latrine: pine trees, cypress, vines, and olive trees.
Based on texts and engravings from Mesopotamia, we know that these plants were commonly found in Assyrian royal gardens. This suggests that the tastes and habits of the conquerors of Judea influenced the preferences of the Jerusalem nobility.
For the Assyrians, the creation of elaborately decorated gardens was a way of demonstrating their superiority over the forces of nature, especially in arid regions such as the Levant. This symbolic use of gardens for political purposes may well have been accepted by their local vassals, the kings of Judah, as a means of demonstrating their power and control.
And it was the fact that in the middle of a beautiful garden there was a latrine with a bad smell that, paradoxically, proved that the estate belonged to a very noble and wealthy person for whom such a combination was an indicator of high status and power.