- The flat, disc-shaped relics were unearthed in West Sussex in 1960
- British Medical Journal article proposed their personal hygiene function
- Museum curator says he doubts they would have been comfortable to use
The flat, disc-shaped Roman relics have been in the collection at Fishbourne Roman Palace in Chichester, West Sussex, since the Sixties.
Up until now museum experts thought the items were used for early games like draughts, but an article in the British Medical Journal has now proposed that they have a very different function.
It is well publicised that Romans used sponges mounted on sticks and dipped in vinegar as an alternative to toilet paper.
Yet the idea these ceramic discs might also have been used for such personal hygiene is a revelation.
The broken pieces – known as ‘pessoi’, meaning pebbles – range in size from 1in to 4in in diameter and were excavated near to the museum in 1960.
It had been thought that they were chips used to play an ancient game, also known as ‘pessoi’, but research published last month in the BMJ drew from classical sources to present evidence that they were also used to clean up after going to the toilet.
Noting the ancient Greek proverb ‘three stones are enough to wipe one’s a***’, Philippe Charlier, assistant professor in forensic medicine at the Raymond Poincaré University Hospital in Paris, points to archaeological excavations which have uncovered pessoi inside the pits of Greek and Roman latrines across the Mediterranean.
In one such dig in Athens, American archaeologists found a range of such pessoi 1.2-4in in diameter and 0.2-0.8in thick which, Professor Charlier wrote, were ‘re-cut from old broken ceramics to give smooth angles that would minimise anal trauma’.
THE FIRST FACEBOOK WALL?
Ancient Roman householders revelled in having graffiti on their walls, especially if an election was coming up, researchers believe.
Hundreds of political slogans have been found in Pompeii and the walls of the wealthiest voters offered prime advertising space for candidates.
It would have been the Roman equivalent of posting a Facebook message, hiring an advertising hoarding or sticking a campaign poster in a front window.
The discovery of slogans on the walls of the homes of Pompeii’s riches inhabitants would have meant that homeowners gave their active approval to whoever scrawled the messages, archaeologist Eeva-Maria Viitanen said.
‘The facades of the private houses and even the streetwalks in front of them were controlled and maintained by the owner of the house, and in that respect, the idea that the wall space could be appropriated by anyone who wanted to do it seems unlikely,’ she told LiveScience.
Other evidence from the classical world has been passed down to us in the form of ceramics painted with representations of figures using pessoi to clean their buttocks.
According to Professor Charlier’s article, the Greeks and Romans even inscribed some of their pessoi with the names of their enemies or others they didn’t like.
Thus everytime they went to the toilet they would literally be wiping their faecal matter on the names of hated individuals.
Examples of such stones have been found by archaeologists bearing the names of such noted historical figures as Socrates, Themisthocles and Pericles, Professor Charlier reported.
Museum curator Dr Rob Symmons said: ‘When pottery like this is excavated it is someone’s job to wash it clean.
‘So, some poor and unsuspecting archaeologist has probably had the delight of scrubbing some Roman waste off of these pieces.
‘It is not beyond the realms of possibility that we could still find some further signs of waste or residue.
‘However, these pottery pieces have no monetary value because we are essentially talking about items once used as toilet roll.
‘The pieces had always been catalogued as as broken gaming pieces but I was never particularly happy with that explanation.
‘But when the article produced the theory they were used to wipe people’s bums I thought it was hilarious and it just appealed to me.
‘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.’
Dr Charlier’s research indicates that the use of such stones would have probably been rather hard on the rear ends of the ancients, and could have caused a variety of medical issues.
He suggests the abrasive texture of the pessoi could have led to skin irritation, mucosal damage, or complications of external haemorrhoids.
He wrote: ‘Maybe this crude and satiric description by Horace in his 8th epode (1st century BC) — “an a*** at the centre of dry and old buttocks mimicking that of a defecating cow”— refers to complications arising from such anal irritation.’
Dr Symmons, who has been at the Fishbourne Roman Palace museum for seven years, added: ‘We will obviously have to think about re-classifying these objects on our catalogue.
‘But we hope the pieces will make people smile when they learn what they were used for.
‘They would have probably been quite scratchy to use and I doubt they would be as comfortable as using toilet roll.
‘But in the Roman era it was that or very little else.’