chapter  4
34 Pages

Pit Stops: The Expanding Technological Menu

The simple pit, with planks on top, over which to squat while evacuatingthe contents of the larger intestine, is the oldest and most widely usedtoilet in the world. Sewerage in ancient Mesopotamia, Harappa, Crete and Rome is more celebrated because it demonstrates that early civilizations had a sophisticated grasp of hydraulics and engineering. Systems with chamber pots and buckets required servants or sweepers to empty them. But the outhouse or ‘necessary room’ was self-contained: if the pit was deep and wide enough, the liquid content leached away into the surrounding soil and the remainder rarely needed emptying. Near the river bank or beach, the pit could be dispensed with altogether. Planks or trees were stretched across ditches and crude platforms constructed on stilts above streams to create what are known as ‘hanging latrines’. In places where water did not flow conveniently past, and among people who were not living in monasteries, forts, castles or palaces, with servants to carry away their ‘close stools’, but in simple town houses or cottages, a pit in the ground, capped with a shelter, was the only sanitary alternative to the great outdoors. Hence the pre-industrialization preoccupation with cesspools, ‘middens’, dunnies and jakes, or however and in whatever language the house of easement was colloquially known.