Archaeologists excavating a Roman fort in northern England have unearthed a 2,000-year-old wooden toilet seat — the only find of its kind to have survived.
The seat was found in a muddy trench at the Roman fort of Vindolanda, which was a key military post on the northern frontier of Britain before the building of Hadrian’s Wall. It had clearly been well used by soldiers stationing there.
Decommissioned from its original purpose, it was then dumped amongst other rubbish before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall started in the early second century.
“We know a lot about Roman toilets from previous excavations at the site and from the wider Roman world, which have included many fabulous Roman latrines, but never before have we had the pleasure of seeing a surviving and perfectly preserved wooden seat,” Andrew Birley, director of excavations at Vindolanda, said.
The wooden seat has been perfectly preserved in the anaerobic, oxygen-free conditions that exist at Vindolanda.
“It is made from a very well-worked piece of wood and looks pretty comfortable,” Birley said.
Indeed, given the cold climate, the seat would have worked much better than the well-known Roman marble or stone toilet benches.
“Now we need to find the toilet that went with it as Roman loos are fascinating places to excavate — their drains often contain astonishing artifacts,” Birley added.
Discoveries from latrines at Vindolanda have included a baby boot, coins, a betrothal medallion and a bronze lamp.
Excavated for decades by the Birley family, Vindolanda has yielded a variety of findings, ranging from worn shoes and socks to jewelry, gold coins and unique objects such as a gladiator's drinking glass.
Vindolanda’s most famous finds, however, are some 400 wooden writing tablets inscribed with official and private correspondences. About the size of a modern postcard, these are the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain and provide a unique insight into life at the Roman fort.
Once preservation of the wooden seat is complete — the process might take up to 18 months — the artifact will be put on display at the Vindolanda Roman Army Museum, located near the modern village of Bardon Mill.
According to a statement by the Vindolanda Trust, archaeologists now need to find a spongia — the natural sponge on a stick that Romans used instead of toilet paper.
“With over 100 years of archaeology remaining and the unique conditions for the preservation of such organic finds, a discovery may just be possible,” the statement concluded.
Image: The 2000-year-old wooden toilet seat excavated from a muddy trench. Credit: Vindolanda Trust.