January 23, 2013

Roman Empire-era stones, long thought to be gaming pieces, turn out to be ass-wipers.

Or that's the new theory in the British Medical Journal. It's not as if there's ancient poop on them. They've just decided to present them differently. Instead of hey, kids, the Romans played checkers, it's hey, kids, can you imagine wiping yourself with a rock. And the kids all go EEEWWW!!! which the adults take as a sign of gratitude for the trip to the Fishbourne Roman Palace museum in West Sussex, England.

The museum curator,  Dr. Rob Symmons, said: "I love the idea we've had these in the museum for 50 years being largely ignored and now they are suddenly engaging items you can relate to."

I wonder what other museum labels could be tweaked to pique the imagination of the younger generation.
"They would have probably been quite scratchy to use and I doubt they would be as comfortable as using toilet (paper)," Symmons said. "But in the Roman era it was that or very little else."
Like the Romans were cavemen! From Bill Bryson's wonderful book "At Home: A Short History of Private Life":
The Romans were particularly attached to the combining of evacuation and conversation. Their public latrines generally had twenty seats or more in intimate proximity, and people used them as unselfconsciously as modern people ride a bus. (To answer an inevitable question, a channel of water ran across the floor in front of each row of seats; users dipped sponges attached to sticks into the water for purposes of wiping.) 
Maybe the stones were for taking a first pass, and the sponging followed. But let's not picture this dry scraping. The Romans had water galore. They were up to their asses in water. Bryson writes:
The Romans loved water altogether—one house at Pompeii had thirty taps—and their network of aqueducts provided their principal cities with a superabundance of fresh water. The delivery rate to Rome worked out at an intensely lavish three hundred gallons per head per day, seven or eight times more than the average Roman needs today.
I'm going to posit that the Romans would find our reliance on paper pathetic and Symmons's sniffing untoward.

50 comments:

Erika said...

Ooops, Romen?

Erika said...

And I also love that book. Stayed up all night to read it in one sitting. Husband called me a dorkus maximus.

Paco Wové said...

I notice we go from

pieces were actually used as toilet paper!

in the headline, to

may have been used as toilet paper

in the photo caption, to

probably in fact used as toilet paper ... theorized that they were in fact a primitive form of tp

with the only evidence cited being:

"a Greek proverb stating, “Three stones are enough to wipe one’s arse,”"

From a dead certainty at point A to a proverbial (and we always interpret proverbs absolutely literally, of course) comment by a different culture at point Z.

Pshaw, I say.

sydney said...

I doubt they were used as toilet paper. It's easy enough to find softer materials in nature to use. Even dogs don't use stones.

Robert Cook said...

My understanding is that in the many countries in the world today that use bidets, our use of only dry paper to clean ourselves after evacuation is regarded with some degree of dismay, as we similarly regard those who use only their hands, or, if true, as we would regard the use of flat stones.

Shouting Thomas said...

The Romans were particularly attached to the combining of evacuation and conversation. Their public latrines generally had twenty seats or more in intimate proximity, and people used them as unselfconsciously as modern people ride a bus.

Poor comparison. In NYC, nobody converses while riding a bus. One retreats as deep as possible into silence and invisibility.

Were the Romans also likely to engage in public sex? Do cultures differ significantly in their expectations that elimination and sex should be concealed? Why did the custom of concealing elimination and sex evolve?

Clyde said...

Sadly for the Romans, the Meso-Americans had a monopoly on corncobs until the end of the 15th Century.

Shouting Thomas said...

Filipinos place a bucket of water and a ladle beside the toilet. I've discussed this numerous times with Filipino friends, and I still don't know how in the hell to do it. I, of course, was game and tried it, but quickly reverted back to TP.

Tee Pee Bob, our resident expert on natural living in Woodstock, recommends squatting in the woods and using dried leaves for TP. Squatting, rather than sitting on the toilet, confers health benefits, per Tee Pee Bob. What he does in the winter when the leaves are frozen, I can't say.

Clyde said...

And of course, the Sears-Roebuck catalog wasn't invented until the 19th Century...

gerry said...

In some bars, gaming pieces and ass-wipers are the same thing.

gerry said...

Even dogs don't use stones.

FYI. If a dog wipes by sitting on the ground and dragging his butt, take him to the vet to have his anal glands gleaned.

Rusty said...


Tee Pee Bob, our resident expert on natural living in Woodstock, recommends squatting in the woods and using dried leaves for TP. Squatting, rather than sitting on the toilet, confers health benefits, per Tee Pee Bob. What he does in the winter when the leaves are frozen, I can't say.

Except for the ticks.
Everybody knows you use fresh leafy greens to wipe you bottom in the woods. The broader the leaf the better.

Kate Danaher said...

Nah. I think it's Roman-era ex-lax myself.

see paragraph three

http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Shulchan_Aruch/Orach_Chaim/3

Clyde said...

And one of the funniest scenes in the awesome Sylvester Stallone sci-fi movie Demolition Man is the "three seashells" scene, where Stallone's character has been defrosted some 40 years in the future and doesn't know how to use the three seashells that have replaced toilet paper in the bathroom. He comes up with a creative solution.

The linked scene is probably NSFW due to the profanity, by the way.

Icepick said...

"I love the idea we've had these in the museum for 50 years being largely ignored and now they are suddenly engaging items you can relate to."

He can relate to wiping his ass with stones?

yashu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darrell said...

British doctors under the NHS no longer know their ass from a hole in the ground. No one ever used a stone to wipe their ass. The Romans knew how to weave cloth as many previous people had done. I suspect they also knew how to boil water to attempt to clean it.

yashu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
yashu said...

"The Romans were particularly attached to the combining of evacuation and conversation. Their public latrines generally had twenty seats or more in intimate proximity, and people used them as unselfconsciously as modern people ride a bus."

"Do cultures differ significantly in their expectations that elimination and sex should be concealed? Why did the custom of concealing elimination and sex evolve?"

Heh, I'm reminded of this scene from Buñuel's Phantom of Liberty.

vet66 said...

European toilet paper leaves a lot to be desired. Handi-wipes? Haven't seen them. Had to explain to our Swiss friends what dental floss was. The Europeans also think we shower too much in the U.S. Try using an outhouse and Montgomery Ward catalogue on a freezing day. I judge a country on their toilets.

Mitch H. said...

Sounds like the curators literally pulled that interpretation out of their asses, if they don't have any coprolitic remnants on the artifacts.

Fritz said...


"Were the Romans also likely to engage in public sex? Do cultures differ significantly in their expectations that elimination and sex should be concealed? Why did the custom of concealing elimination and sex evolve?"

Having recently seen the ruins of the brothels in Pompeii, I'd have to say yes.

It's customary to blame the Victorians, but I think the shift started earlier. Cycles, it's all cycles.

Rick67 said...

In the Hadith - collection of oral traditions/teachings supposedly going back to Muhammad - there are several statements on how properly to use *stones* to wipe yourself.

So that's at least one other source that refers to using stones to wipe oneself.

LarsPorsena said...

"The Romans were particularly attached to the combining of evacuation and conversation. Their public latrines generally had twenty seats or more in intimate proximity, and people used them as unselfconsciously as modern people ride a bus...."

That's how it was in one of my barracks in the army. A 6 x 6.

James said...

Whether for gaming or cleaning, chance is still involved.

Darrell said...

In the Hadith - collection of oral traditions/teachings supposedly going back to Muhammad - there are several statements on how properly to use *stones* to wipe yourself.

Nah, it's a mistranslation. They meant "stoners," hashish users. When they weren't assassinating anyone.

traditionalguy said...

Don't squeeze the Charmin. We have a better way than the Roman's way.

But we had better hope Mayor Bloomberg and Emperor Obama don't think about regulating Charmin's softness to save the weather.

Darrell said...

I believe there is a positive correlation between people who accept anthropogenic global warming and believing that people commonly wiped their asses with stones.

Peter said...

Forget about toilet paper, Romans would not have cared for our 1.6 liters-per-flush toilets. Let alone the 1.28 lpf ones that likely will soon replace them. They loved water.

BTW, is there any brand of toilet paper that just labels the product "toilet paper" and not "bathroom tissue"?

Tibore said...

You know what I hate about the linked story, or the further link to an ABC story on the same topic? It's the fact that they claim a scientific - archaeological, to be specific - theory and don't print the support for the theory.

Unless you count this crumb thrown at the masses as "support":
"According to ABC News, Philippe Charlier, a medical forensics expert at the Raymond Poincaré University Hospital in Paris who co-authored the paper, cited as evidence a Greek proverb that said, “Three stones are enough to wipe one’s arse.”

At least the ABC link says there are other pieces of supporting evidence, but my whole complaint is that we as readers can't tell if the theory is strongly or weakly supported. So we can't tell if it's good or bad science. All we get is a whole lotta "giggly poo" (pun intended) over the notion. And that's just lousy writing.

I don't mind a story being funny at all. In fact, I think it helps. But that can't come at the expense of being informative. And the stories published are far from being truly informative.

Like I said in one of the prior threads: Journalism without fuckups... what a fantasy!

T J Sawyer said...

I like to recommend the Wikipedia article on "anal cleansing" for people who think there is only one way to do anything.

We are back in Cairo for the winter and it takes a few days to get used to not throwing the toilet paper in the toilet. If Americans only appreciated what their wealth means ...

Amexpat said...

My understanding is that in the many countries in the world today that use bidets, our use of only dry paper to clean ourselves after evacuation is regarded with some degree of dismay,

Our toilets are primitive compared to the Japanese. Most toilet seats there are heated and have a console next to them that controls the velocity, angle and temperature of the integrated bidet. Some even have a blower to dry you and eliminate the need for toilet paper.

As to toilet paper, it dries but doesn't do a good job cleaning, unless you've had an immaculate evacuation.

As to third world countries, I prefer squat toilets there as you don't have to sit on a disgusting toilet seat. The ladling of water into the left hand works well, as long as you use your right hand to eat with.

Hagar said...

I would be very much surprised if the average Roman today indeed gets along on 40 gals/day.

The average usage I was taught in school to design for was 350-400 gals/person/day, which is still good practice since the population increase will always exceed expectations, so that even if you get down to the current "green" goal of 150 gals/person/day, the end result will still be marginal after a few decades.

Bob Boyd said...

My take away from this long and winding post is that you think Warren Buffet is a stone cold asswipe of historical proportion.

YoungHegelian said...

@ST,

...and using dried leaves for TP

I have a runner friend who tried that once. He got off the path to not be sen and accomplish nature's business. Unfortunately, he used poison ivy leaves as TP.

The nurse & doctor found the entire business quite amusing. My friend, needless to say, did not.

mariner said...

I generally read to learn rather than to be entertained.

I loved The Mother Tongue until I read its reviews on Amazon.

I can no longer trust what Bryson writes, so there's no reason for me to read his work. YMMV.

mariner said...

I generally read to learn rather than be entertained.

I loved The Mother Tongue until I read its reviews on Amazon.

I can no longer trust what Bryson writes, so there's no reason for me to read his work. YMMV.

edutcher said...

Rick is right about the Hadith. Ayatollah Khomeini wrote several papers on the subject.

Make of that what you will.

Rusty said...

Tee Pee Bob, our resident expert on natural living in Woodstock, recommends squatting in the woods and using dried leaves for TP. Squatting, rather than sitting on the toilet, confers health benefits, per Tee Pee Bob. What he does in the winter when the leaves are frozen, I can't say.

Special Forces manuals warn you to do that with extreme caution lest you be smote with extreme prejudice.

Strelnikov said...

Well, that would certainly toughen our slack jawed youth up.

Strelnikov said...

Re: using dried leaves for TP.

My older brother is the head of the Horticulture at a major Midwestern university, which shall remain nameless, As such he has spent most of his life out of doors, often in wilderness areas without facilities, and has followed this practices hundreds, if not thousands of times, without problem. Of course, he is savvy enough to avoid the local poisons. Also, he does carry a handkerchief for severe emergencies. When he has to use that, he calls that a "$1.50 poop."

FuzzyFace said...

Wiping with stones? Definitely, yes. There are passages in the Babylonian Talmud (c. 200-400) about doing so, including discussions of how sharp a stone needs to be to make it appropriate for the purpose.

Saint Croix said...

I'm going to posit that the Romans would find our reliance on paper pathetic

I would like to take this opportunity to give a shout out to Cottonelle, world's best toilet paper. Incredibly soft, yet does not leave bits of t.p. in your ass.

Keep on rockin', Cottonelle.

Also, and I realize I am starting a controversy with this one, the toilet paper should come out over the top.

Forthenri said...

Ann leaves no stone unturned in her search for interesting topics.

ricpic said...

Squatting is good because less straining, you're helping gravity along. The worst are those high seat toilet bowls in public restrooms that are so high your feet barely touch the floor, forcing you to strain.

Didn't Pompeii reveal that upper crust Romans had there own private bathrooms? It was practically racist the way they could go communal or go private.

ricpic said...

their own

Basta! said...

Something else one could do with the sponge-on-a-stick asswiper, from Seneca, Epistles (70.19-21):

"Nay, men of the meanest lot in life have by a mighty impulse escaped to safety, and when they were not allowed to die at their own convenience, or to suit themselves in their choice of the instruments of death, they have snatched up whatever was lying ready to hand, and by sheer strength have turned objects which were by nature harmless into weapons of their own."

"For example, there was lately in a training-school for wild-beast gladiators a German, who was making ready for the morning exhibition; he withdrew in order to relieve himself, – the only thing which he was allowed to do in secret and without the presence of a guard. While so engaged, he seized the stick of wood, tipped with a sponge, which was devoted to the vilest uses, and stuffed it, just as it was, down his throat; thus he blocked up his windpipe, and choked the breath from his body. That was truly to insult death!"

"Yes, indeed; it was not a very elegant or becoming way to die; but what is more foolish than to be over-nice about dying? What a brave fellow! He surely deserved to be allowed to choose his fate! How bravely he would have wielded a sword! With what courage he would have hurled himself into the depths of the sea, or down a precipice! Cut off from resources on every hand, he yet found a way to furnish himself with death, and with a weapon for death. Hence you can understand that nothing but the will need postpone death. Let each man judge the deed of this most zealous fellow as he likes, provided we agree on this point, – that the foulest death is preferable to the fairest slavery."

Sam L. said...

"Symmons's sniffing untoward."

And nobody commented on that!

Re: Bryson. I find him sniffy.

Basta! said...

A Roman public latrine anecdote involving the poet Lucan and, obliquely, Nero. First, though, one must keep in mind how seriously Nero took himself as an Artist. Elsewhere Suetonius noted that it was forbidden to leave the theater whenever Nero was performing. He did tend to go on and on, loving as he did his own Artistry, so there were stories of women in his audiences giving birth, and others climbing up and jumping off the walls, because they couldn't stand it anymore. Apparently, Nero, who had befriended Lucan, eventually became jealous of his talent, and they were on the outs when this incident happens.

In the fragments from Suetonius' Life of Lucan, he wrote that Lucan, a sassy fellow, responded to Nero's displeasure with "words and acts of hostility to the prince, which are still notorious. Once for example in a public privy, when he relieved his bowels with an uncommonly loud noise, he shouted out this half line of the emperor's, while those who were there for the same purpose took to their heels:

"You might suppose it thundered 'neath the earth."

Yeah, BA-boom! right out my ass, that's the equivalent of Nero's Art.

sinz52 said...

The latest state-of-the-art toilets for those who can afford them, incorporate bidet water streams. You can use the one stream of water for cleansing after evacuation, another stream for cleansing after female urination, hot air drying afterward, etc.

Of course, with all these new settings, the control panel takes a while to learn.

http://www.protocolsnow.com/wp-content/images/tinypic/090107_toto2.jpg

Like the Zero Gravity Toilet in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," it's best to learn the instructions before you need to use them.

Sigivald said...

In historical re-creation circles we have a running joke that anything the archaeologists couldn't figure out is "a gaming token".