Toilets and sanitation have a history that is as rich as the history of mankind itself. This is the story of the evolution of toilets through time
Toilets have been vital to the development of the plethora of cultures and traditions we see in the world today. Toilets and sanitation have a history that is as rich as the history of mankind itself. Toilets have developed and evolved along with entire civilizations. Here, we take a historical voyage from toilets and sanitation in the Stone Age to the Iron Age and beyond.
The Stone Age
The Stone Age was figuratively, humanity’s first milestone (pun intended) in this long journey through time. Did the prehistoric humans have the luxury of toilets? As it turns out, some of them actually did use toilets. Archaeologists have uncovered indoor plumbing structures from the Neolithic era or later stone age. The earliest examples of indoor toilets were found at the Skara Brae settlements in Orkney Islands just off the coast of modern day Scotland. The Skara Brae is a Neolithic settlement on the Bay of Skaill where humans occupied clusters of dwellings around 3100-2500 BC.
Europe’s most complete Neolithic village, the Skara Brae (Scotland) was discovered in 1850. Till its discovery, it had remained well preserved and excavations were carried out with extreme care. The Skara Brae settlement was built onto and inside the remains of a previous settlement. A kind of old garbage dump that contained material that provided insulation against harsh climates at the high altitude it was in. Skara Brae inhabitants built stone structures and furnishings.
Toilets in the Stone Age
The dwellings would contain small chambers commonly referred to as “cell” at the Skara Brae site.
According to the interpretation of some researchers, the material and design at Skara Brae point towards the fact that these hidden ‘cells’ were, in fact, toilets. These cells would be like a “secret compartment”, a small storage area located behind the cabinets in the dwellings.
The Indus Valley Civilizations is one of the first ones to have developed sanitation and toilet systems. A Bronze Age civilization, the Indus Valley Civilization/Harappan Civilization thrived from 3300 – 1900 BCE mostly in the northwestern regions of South Asia extending from present day Afghanistan, through Pakistan, to Northwest India. The Indus Valley Civilisation, along with Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt made up the earliest cradles of civilizations in the Old World. Flourishing near the basins of the Indus River, the northwestern region was aridified during the 3rd millennium BCE which is believed to be the initial spur of urbanization associated with this era.
The first toilets in India were in the Indus Valley Civilization, which had evolved around Harappa and Mohenjodaro. The excavated archaeological remains bear evidence to the widespread use and presence of water-borne toilets used by the Harappan people living in Lothal, only 62 km from Ahmedabad. Harappa houses had private toilets linked to covered outdoor drains. The architects who planned the city were well versed in the science and engineering of sanitation and drainage systems.
During the Mohenjodaro era, only the affluent had access to toilets. While most people would squat over plots on the ground or over open pits to defecate, the people living in other parts of the Indus Valley Civilization, near modern day Pakistan, were using primitive water-cleaning toilets which utilized flowing water. These primitive toilets were present in each house and linked to covered drains outside. The drains would be created using burnt clay bricks. This was the first known incidence of the use of flowing water for cleaning after defecation.
The primitive toilets in use were essentially, brick structures that had holes that would pass the waste down to the drains outside. For urination, the Mohenjodaro people would use small pits dug on the ground that were directly linked to the drain running underneath. The toilets used during this era were drastically different than those present in the Greek and Roman civilizations. Unfortunately, with the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization, these drainage systems and toilets were forgotten and the practice of open defecation made a comeback to the land.
The Greek civilization flourished for a period of over two millennia from 1600 BC until 395 AD. A city northwest of Athens, Delphi, was a major religious centre for the Greeks. Dedicated to the spirit of Mother Earth, Gaia, Delphi saw a change in deities with the advent of Greek mythology. Now dedicated to the Greek gods, Poseidon and Apollo, Delphi was visited by devotees who would go through purification rituals before stepping foot inside the holy site that boasted various springs, baths, and fountains. With the development in toilet technologies around the world, the Greeks also started developing toilets for the population. While the private flushing toilets were a luxury only accessible to the elites, the public had access to large public restrooms that were designed by the architects. The wealthy elite used flush based toilets that used water to wash off waste into the drain systems.
Especially, the Hellenistic system was the first one to have to have implemented large-scale public latrines. These were large rooms connected to the drains underneath effectively bringing access to toilets to the middle-class albeit without the privacy enjoyed by the elites. Another peculiarity in the ancient Greek era was the use of stones for cleaning after defecation whenever water was scarce. Since there was no toilet paper back then, the ancient Greeks resorted to using small stones called πεσσοι orpessoi.
The Roman Empire thrived after the post-Roman Republic period. This was characterized with the introduction of governments headed by emperors. Rome was the largest city in the world from 100 BCE to 400 BCE.
Romans wholeheartedly adopted the concept of toilets. Public latrines were established around 1st century BCE as they became essential features of Roman architecture. The city dwellers also had access to private toilets in residences. While archaeologists weren’t able to determine the sanitation mechanisms used by the Romans, it was commonplace to see latrines in every house. The private toilets in residences were different from the ones in public latrines. The commodes in residences were usually located near the kitchens which allowed for easy disposal of food scraps as well. People would flush the toilets with buckets of water and the waste would be collected in pits. When the pits would fill up, they would be emptied either onto gardens or field outside the towns.
The public toilets, on the other hand, resembled the ones used by the Greeks – large rooms with wooden benches positioned above a sewer. The toilet holes would be round shaped on top of the wooden benches. They even had narrow slits that would extend forwards and downwards in a keyhole shape. These slits would be used for inserting sponge-tipped sticks for cleaning after defecation. While these public toilets lacked the privacy of the residence toilets, thanks to long garments and limited windows, the people using public toilets enjoyed some degree of privacy.
In human history, the A.D. period marks the beginning of our modern date system and the start of the biblical era. Since there were no recorded texts during that time other than the Bible, historians looked towards biblical stories to figure out how toilets were used. In order to analyze the differences in the toilets used by people during the time period, historians studied the different locations mentioned in the Bible.
Ephesus was a Greek city that’s part of modern day Turkey today. It sported large communal latrines with marble-topped furnishing. The long benches in public latrines would have one horseshoe shaped hole per “station”. Below the bench was a channel for carrying away wastes. The channel varies widely in depth from one site to the next. In front of benches were the shallow channels carrying clean flowing water.
These toilets were made of rougher marble. They were placed near the harbor gate, in the city of Corinthos near modern day Greece. Corinthos was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC and re-founded in 44 BC. It was destroyed by earthquakes in 375 AD and again in 551.
King Arthur Era
King Arthur, the legendary leader of early Britain. Many documents mentioned his rule dating from late 5th century to early 6th century. This was the time of medieval toilets. The inferences made about the toilets during the time period were after historians studied the Historia Regum Britanniae or the History of the Kings of Britain written in the 1130s by Geoffrey of Monmouth. These stories immediately became popular and were commonly known as “Arthurian” stories.
In medieval Britain, the famous Abbey church sported a plumbing contraption with the sign “REREDORTER”. This term specifically meant latrine associated with the monastic traditions. These were located behind the “Dorters” or sleeping quarters. Typically built on the east side of the Churches, the monastic dormitory was called necessarium. These monastic latrines were highly developed for their time sporting intricate pipes.
toilets of tibet
On the way to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar stand several pit toilets in the land of Tibet. Tibet is a deserted place. The local Ali people built toilets. The inner condition is very basic. Although lights and waters are not available here, the starry sky over head compensated!
Advent of “The Flush”
Toilets have been around at least since 3,500 BC. For example, see the Stone Age toilets of Skara Brae in Orkney, off the northern coast of Scotland. There was a drainage system to remove waste, although there are no clear signs of active water flushing. While toilets have been around since 3,500 BCE, none of them had flushing systems. There were drainage pipes and people would pour water using buckets but there was no automated flushing system. The toilets in the cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro were the world’s first flush system toilets even before the invention of the modern flush system that we see in homes today. The Minoans on Crete and Thera had flushing toilets starting around 1800 BC. The Hittite Empire’s capital of Hatuşaş had public waste disposal plumbing around 1200-700 BC. The Greeks on the sacred island of Delos had large-scale public plumbing in addition to private latrines flushed by running water in the period from 900 BC to 100 AD.The state of the art in plumbing technology entered a decline in Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire. When the Spanish explorers reached the American continent, they were bamboozled to find large cities with efficient waste disposal systems and well built latrines, both private and public. This was in sharp contrast to what the Europeans had back home, where there were open sewers.
The biggest advance in toilet technology occurred in England in the late 1500s. Sir John Harrington invented the first modern indoor flushing system. He eventually perfected his flushing device and gifted the first prototype to his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I of England. Sewage and waste disposal systems also improved around the world all through the 18th, 19th, and 20th century. Urban centres of the world, especially western states like those in Europe and Americans sported improved sewage systems and waste treatment systems that allowed for the use of indoor and flushing toilets. By now, indoor toilets with automated flushing were increasingly common.
A highly successful and famous English plumber, Thomas Crapper specialized in providing up to date plumbing fixtures. He started a plumbing firm that installed and maintained modern plumbing systems like flushing toilets, bathtubs, and modern piping. His firm was instrumental in popularizing the acceptance of the modern flushing toilet. No wonder the name Crapper became synonymous with toilets and sees continued use even today.
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