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The hygiene patterns of the wealthy of Jerusalem during the days of the First Temple

Intestinal worm eggs discovered in toilets from that period reveal that the upper class also suffered from infectious diseases due to poor hygiene conditions

A 2,700-year-old stone toilet (Photo: Yuli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
A 2,700-year-old stone toilet (Photo: Yuli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

From preschool age, we are taught how important it is to maintain hygiene in order to protect our health. Various disinfectants have been occupying a place of honor in every toilet and bathroom for many years. But what did they do thousands of years ago? It is not surprising to hear that the hygiene and sanitation conditions were poor even in wealthy homes and led to morbidity. A new study by Tel Aviv University and the Antiquities Authority discovered the remains of eggs (dead) of intestinal worms about 2,700 years old under a stone toilet, in a luxurious private estate. According to the researchers, the stone toilet was in the "comfort" room of the owners of the mansion and the presence of the worms indicates that even the wealthy residents of Jerusalem at that time suffered from infectious diseases with symptoms of stomach aches and diarrhea and may have even caused malnutrition and developmental delay among children.


They did not maintain hygiene and became infected with parasites

The research was conducted under the leadership of Dr. Dafna Langut, director of the laboratory for archaeobotanics and the study of the ancient environment In the Department of Archeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures named after Yaakov M. an alcove and in the Steinhardt Museum of Nature at Tel Aviv University. As part of the research, Dr. Langot collected soil samples from under a stone toilet in the garden of a Par estate that was uncovered on the Promenade of the Governor's Palace in Jerusalem, where the septic tank used to be. She then isolated the parasite eggs from them through a process of chemical extraction in the laboratory, and finally identified the eggs under the eye of the microscope. The remains of the eggs were identified as belonging to four different types of intestinal parasites: a diarrheal worm, a hookworm, a whipworm, and a pinworm, and they were discovered as part of a rescue excavation by the Antiquities Authority, which took place recently on the Promenade of the Governor's Palace in Jerusalem, funded by the El Ir David association. The article was recently published in the journal International Journal of Paleopathology.


"The findings of this study are among the first observed so far in the Israeli space," says Dr. Langut. "These are extremely durable eggs and under the special preservation conditions that prevailed in the septic tank, they survived for close to 2700 years. Intestinal worms are parasites that cause symptoms such as abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea and itching. Some of them are especially dangerous for children and can cause malnutrition, developmental delay, damage to the nervous system and in extreme cases even death."


Dr. Langot believes that the intestinal disease at that time was due to poor sanitation conditions, which caused fecal contamination in food and drinking water, or a lack of awareness of hygiene, such as failure to wash hands. Other possibilities for infection were using human excrement to fertilize field crops and eating undercooked beef or pork. In the absence of a cure, recovery from intestinal worms was difficult to impossible, and those infected could suffer from the parasites for the rest of their lives. Therefore, it is quite possible that the research findings indicate a disturbing and long-standing infectious disease (similar to lice and pinworms in today's kindergartens), which affected the entire population. According to Dr. Langot, the same parasites still exist today, except that in the modern western world we have diagnostic options and effective drugs, so it is not a plague.


A fertile ground for the study of archaeo-parasitology

Jacob Bilig, the director of the excavation on behalf of the Antiquities Authority, explains that the royal mansion that was uncovered dates to the middle of the 7th century BC (the end of the Iron Age). According to him, magnificent stone architectural items were found at the site, decorated at the highest artistic level, such as decorated stone capitals (in the proto-Aeolian style), in a quantity and quality that had not yet been seen in the Israeli space during this period. Adjacent to the royal mansion was a magnificent garden that faced the sublime view of the City of David and the Temple Mount. Remains of fruit and ornamental trees were found in the garden, as well as a square limestone facility with a hole in the center, which was identified as a toilet.


For Dr. Langut, it was an opportunity to apply a field of research that she had begun to develop in her laboratory, called archaeo-parasitology. The aim is to identify microscopic archeological remains of intestinal worm eggs, which make it possible to learn about the history of diseases and epidemics. This field provides new information regarding the hygiene conditions of the person, his lifestyle and his sanitary condition.


Dr. Langot and Billig are not surprised by the revelation of a utility room in the garden of the Par estate: "Toilet facilities were very rare at that time and were a status symbol - a luxury facility that only the rich and high-ranking could afford, as already said by the sages: 'Tano Rabnan: what Rich?... Rabbi Yossi says: "Whoever has the house of the throne is close to his table" (Babili Shabbat XNUMX:XNUMX), they say.


According to Eli Escozido, director of the Antiquities Authority: "The researches of the Antiquities Authority and our partners manage to touch the smallest details of daily life in antiquity. Thanks to advanced equipment and fruitful cooperation with the corresponding research institutions, it is possible to extract fascinating information from materials that we previously did not have the tools to handle scientifically. Today, archaeological research is reaching impressive achievements and a better understanding of the ways of life in the past, which seems to only continue to develop."


"Studies like this help us document the history of diseases and epidemics in our region and allow us a window into the lives of people in ancient times," Dr. Langut concludes. These days she is conducting additional tests on the same sediments that accumulated in the septic tank, with the aim of learning about the diet and medicinal plants that were used in Jerusalem at the end of the Iron Age.

for the scientific article 

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