This is the story of how a Viking's trip to the toilet some 1,200 years ago made archaeological history.
A different type of historical discovery
For many of us, archaeologists conjure up images of Indiana Jones, lost treasure, and precious jewels. However, the everyday life of an archaeologist is often less glamorous than Hollywood would suggest. In fact, on one day in 1972, in modern Yorkshire in England, it was a bit…dare we say…crap.
The center of the city of York has seen it all: emperors, empires, and kings come and go. York itself was founded by Romans in the late 1st century CE and then seen Anglo-Saxons, Norse Vikings, Normans, Tudors, Parliamentarians, and more recently, Leeds United football club fans conquer and subdue the city. This is an archaeologist's paradise as digging under the streets of central York can offer a rare glimpse of the civilizations that have made York home for more than two millennia.
The discovery of these different historical phases of York was the reason why the York Archaeological Trust was established in 1972. It was during this year that researchers were digging around the "Pavement" area of the city, one of the main central streets. In a space that would soon become a Lloyd's Bank, archaeologists made a (quite literal) crappy discovery: a coprolite – that is, a fossilized piece of human excrement that was moist and peaty.
The so-called "Lloyd's Bank Coprolite" was measured to be over 20 cm (8 inches) long and 5cm (2 inches) wide. An analysis of the stool suggested that it had been excreted over a millennium before when York was part of an area controlled by Norse warrior-kings and called "Jórvik" in Old Norse. Closely associated with the Viking Kingdom of Dublin further west, York was the centerpiece of a Viking warrior-dominated area from about 875 to 954 CE.
A good indication of Norse-era societal diet
When the stool sample was analyzed, it gave historians a good indication of the diet of those that lived in this area during the Viking Era. The person who excreted this had a diet that consisted heavily of meat and bread, and the presence of several hundred parasitic eggs suggests that they also suffered from intestinal worms.
It was not until 1991, however, that this historical "artifact" gained worldwide exposure. Dr. Andrew Jones, now retired, was a history buff, a York Archaeological Trust employee and, most importantly, an expert on the study of historical feces.
He was taken to study the coprolite for insurance purposes, and the media soon picked up this quirky archaeological story worldwide. Articles and interviews soon appeared in The Guardian, The New York Post, and The Wall Street Journal. In fact, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, in 1991, Dr. Jones proudly claimed that the coprolite was "the most exciting piece of excrement I've ever seen…in its own way, it is as irreplaceable as the [British Monarch's] Crown Jewels."
Pride of place in Jórvik Viking Centre
Following its insurance appraisal, the coprolite was put behind glass and on display. However, visitors managed to drop it, breaking it into three pieces. Since 2008, however, it now takes pride of place in a more secure exhibit at the Jórvik Viking Centre in York.
The Center annually celebrates a virtual 'Poo Day,' on February 15, with workshops that help explain why human excrement is so important for archaeologists and even some recipes to make your own replica poo fossil.
So next time you've had a sandwich and feel the call of nature, just remember that old saying that…one person's trash is another person's (stinky) treasure?
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