An often overlooked aspect of history is how societies have dealt with the issue of excrement and waste during the development of fixed settlements and urbanization. All too commonly, the issue of poop inevitably escapes our minds as we are generally averted to the subject. Yet, the issue of waste management can either make or break a civilization.
Take for example the Greenland Norse whose rise and fall serves as an excellent example of how improper waste management can lead to disaster. The Greenland Norse settled a harsh region in which crops yielded little food, and the indigenous Inuit Nations sought to eradicate the newcomers. Although several issues have been identified as part causes in the demise of the Vikings in Greenland — including the import of invasive species, lack of adaptability to the harsher cold of Greenland, and the refusal to cooperate with the Inuit — one among them deals specifically with ecology. It appears through archeological digs of former settlements that the Greenland Norse, in an effort to stay clean and healthy, attempted to use the same methods of waste management as their counterparts in Scandinavia: cesspits. While this method worked further south, it created a problem the Norse had not foreseen. The pits contaminated the little fresh groundwater they had because the porous ground in Greenland during summer thaws circulated the waste, and poisoned the settlement.
What the Greenland Norse do show us, however, is that the waste management systems in Scandinavia followed a predictable and commonly prescribed system which, for the most part, worked well for them through the medieval period. This system developed as a result of the push towards agrarianism rather than the traditional hunter gatherer lifestyle. Evidence of the crisis which took place to invent a viable waste management system in pre-Viking Age Scandinavia can be seen in the well preserved bogs in Denmark where a variety of wastes have been found. They show that successively, as the cesspit became more viable, Scandinavians used the bogs to rid themselves of waste less, until they eventually no longer had to travel so far to dispose of their waste.
Excrement can tell scientists and historians a great deal about what Vikings ate as well. In fact, one of the prized possessions of the Jorvic Viking Museum is a fossilized coprolite (pictured above), otherwise known as poop. It reveals something interesting: the producer of the artifact ate mostly breads and meats, and had a particularly vicious case of a parasitic infection. What do the parasites tell us? The host was not particularly clean, and must have, at some point, ingested fecal matter to acquire the parasite. This is not surprising since animals were expensive to raise and feed, so human excrement was used as the primary fertilizer for fields throughout the Middle Ages.
It turns out poop is as interesting as it is disgusting.
Albee, Sarah. (2010) Poop Happened! A History of the World From the Bottom Up. Walker Publishing.
Diamond, Jeremy. (2013) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Penguin UK.
Miller, Frederick P. (2010) Lloyd Banks Coprolite. VDM Publishing.