Barrels of 700-year-old poop found in Denmark

Archaeologists excavating I. Vilhelm Werners Square in Hans Christian Andersen’s hometown of Odense, Denmark, are delighted to have found barrels full of medieval excrement. Poop is a boon to modern archaeology because it can tell us more about the daily lives of past people than golden treasures, and this particular poop is very well preserved thanks to having been buried in an oxygen-poor environment.

The content of the barrels was immediately identifiable from the odor which was still pungent after 700 years in barrels under layers of the city. The first round of analysis found that 14th century Odensians were fans of raspberries, as well they should be. Scientists also found fragments of moss, leather and fabric all of which are thought to have been used as toilet paper. (Moss toilet paper? Would it have been, like, a clump attached to soil? How does it stay intact otherwise? Because if the structural integrity issue was dealt with, I imagine moss would make a pretty comfortable tp.)

Markings on the barrels indicate that they were not initially used as latrines. An anchor carved on one suggests it was used to transport or store herring, a major source of trade for medieval Odense. The barrels themselves are generally in good condition, which makes sense because you wouldn’t want to recycle a busted barrel for use as a cesspit. Containment is key to sewage management.

The poop barrels were unearthed last year. Continuing excavations on the site this year discovered even more barrels in an unusual configuration. Three barrels were stacked on top of each other and strapped together with strong wicker. At the base of the pit archaeologists found a mat of reeds and a pipe system made of recycled roof tiles. It seems this was a homemade water well, with the pipes used to draw water into the barrel well and the reed mat as a filter to keep sludge out of the water. On each side of the barrel stack are the remains of pillars, probably used to hold aloft a small roof to project the well water from bird poop or leaves or any other such contaminants.

The well is also from the 1300s and may have originally been in the courtyard of a home. It could also have been part of a beer brewing apparatus. Near the well archaeologists found a store of partially germinated barley, a key supply for beer making.

The Werners Square area is thought to be the oldest area in Odense, settled from at least the 11th century, and possibly as early as 988 when historical sources claim a bishopric was established there. The first recorded bishop, Reginbert, was sent to Odense by King Canute the Great in 1020 or 1022. The excavation, which began in 2013, hopes to reveal the earliest days of Odense going back to King Canute’s day. Preliminary studies found the remains of one of the oldest datable streets from around 1100.

The dig, which is the largest in the city’s history, is open to visitors every Tuesday and Thursday at 1:00 PM. The archaeologists’ workshop is also open to visitors on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from noon to 3:00 PM. I wonder if there were visitors present when the fragrant poop barrels were discovered.

26 thoughts on “Barrels of 700-year-old poop found in Denmark

  1. You find the *best* stories! I beamed when I read the first lines. (And I’m delighted that archaeologists can value a trove of poop; while it’s not as pretty as ornaments of enamel or gold, it’ll probably reveal a lot more about the lives of the people who produced it! [I also like to imagine possible tourists busily taking photos – and then wrinkling their noses as the aroma reached them…]

    1. Let’s face it, everyone is interested in poop, even if they pretend their own don’t stink. I hope Odense schools have taken advantage of the opportunity to bring the kids on a field trip to I. Vilhelm Werners Square. How better to get children started loving history than via barrels full of poop?

  2. Oh, how I wish I was an archaeologist…… (seriously) and owned stock in oxygen-mask manufacturers…… (snicker) 🙂

  3. Doubtless the (ahem) “gold” in those barrels teaches them more about the period than a pot coins or whatever would. 🙂

  4. I admire their resourcefulness in recycling the barrels, something that must have been plentiful for them back then. It will be interesting to see if more turn up put to any other creative uses.

  5. Mark this down, folken. Despite the lost riches that have been found this year, this poop story is the top number one story of the year.

    I also know a couple of people who would just love to talk more about livius’ poop find.

  6. Ok call me dumb but.. Why were the people of the town saveing barrels of pooh? And if that was such a comon pratice back then why dont they turn up under more excavations more often?But I’m sure burring it in barrels would be better then dumping it out the window in to the street.

  7. Medieval sanitation
    Danish dug up dung
    Sensed odour in Odense
    Raspberries, herring and beer!

    P.S. When it comes to ‘medieval’ sanitation: Could -very early- ‘camorra’ methods of waste management be a plausible solution here ?

    1. That may be my favorite haiku ever. :notworthy:

      I suppose it could be, but I think the idea right now is that this was the waste disposal system for a single home set up on their own property.

  8. Reading the comments section of this blog may well be the only web site
    wherein the comments are as erudite and enjoyable as the articles. All
    across the web we are assaulted by angry depraved writers whose only
    motivation seems to be how deeply can we insult our fellow human. I
    applaud all of you for the dignified and uplifting way you communicate. Thank you all for making this place an oasis of civility. Especially when discussing the merits of poop…

  9. I’m thinking that it must have been late spring/early summer (ripe raspberries) and I wonder if it was raining excessively so that the poops had to be stockpiled. It’s a guess.

  10. There are no doubt hundreds of variables to consider before coming to any conclusions. It will be interesting to see if this was a commonality amongst the local population, or an isolated circumstance within a confined geographical area; and was there a relationship between all the artifacts depicted in the photos (were they all within close proximity of each other)? I’d like to see a layout of the site and it’s surrounding geography and geology.

  11. It really looks like a septic system today, just without leach lines & added bacteria to break the poop down. Without that part, they needed to contain the poop, lest it contribute to disease through contaminated water supply.
    What I like about it, more than being an archaeological gold mine, is that it shows, once again, the medieval people knew that this was a necessary aspect to keep disease at bay.
    They didn’t know about germs, per se, but they were keenly observant.

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