How did prehistoric people handle baby poo?

Every parent knows: there is pee and poo. Plenty. In the first few months pretty much everywhere. Nowadays, we contain them – for the most part – in disposable nappies (diapers). Disposable nappies are an invention of the second half of the 20th century. In Britain, Valerie Hunter Gordon, who recently died aged 94, invented a two-part nappy system after her third child in 1947. It was composed of an outer layer sewn of old nylon parachutes, and an inner layer of tissue wadding and cotton wool, which could be disposed of.  In the US, Pampers began to be developed in the 1950ies. Form the start, Pampers were designed as an all-in-one system and became incredibly popular throughout the western world.

Disposable nappies (diapers) are a blessing to many parents, although they produce a lot of waste. Today, there are wide range of re-usable cloth nappies (diapers) on the market, which promise to be better for baby’s skin as well as environmental benefits. If they are indeed better for the environment, is still under debate: it depends largely on how cloth nappies are produced, laundered and dried. My experience with re-usables was brief. It turned out they were not for me. I did not factor in that cloth nappies are a lot bulkier, and regular baby clothes do not account for the added volume!

Wickelkinder Kreta Vorpalastzeit

Swaddled babies from Bronze Age Cyprus, Greece

Before disposables, cloth nappies were used in the western world. Early potty training was desired to avoid the tedious process of laundering. But going back in time, there is not much information available on how people got on with baby pee and poo. A significant amount of prehistoric iconographic and classical textual information concerns wrapping and swaddling babies. This practice is suitable in cold and dry climates and provides warmth and protection for the baby, whilst it also restricts movement and is associated with beliefs about helping the baby finish growing correctly outside the womb, moulding the body. Archaeological evidence of swaddling dates back to 4000 BC in Central Asia, and votive offerings from Agia Triada on Crete attest to the practice for the Bronze Age (2600-2000 BC). Swaddling remained popular throughout the Roman period into the Middle Ages and beyond.

Soranus (Gynaecology 2.14) recommends the use of “clean, soft woollen cloth which will not shrink, bruise, irritate or compress unevenly” to wrap the baby immediately after birth and the first bath; the baby was gradually unwrapped after forty to sixty days (Graham 2013: 223-224). There is not much mentioning on how baby’s pee and poo were handled. One can assume that babies were unwrapped and changed on a fairly regular basis, perhaps twice a day (although it appears that many babies were swaddled for long periods without washing and changing). Darker descriptions of swaddling do talk about how infants stewed in their own excrement for days at a time (Shorter 1977: 170-171), leading to crying, skin irritations, ulcerations and disease. The baby who died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 70 AD was likely swaddled this way – the remains were found in a carbonized wooden cradle found in the House of the Gem, Herculaneum, Italy.


Wooden cradle from Herculaneum, first century AD  © Sopraintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei

As soon as the infants could sit, they were encouraged to pee and poo outside, or into a potty. There is archaeological evidence for high-chair/potty chair combinations from Archaic and Ancient Greece (sella cacatoria, Lynch and Papadopoulos 2006). The most famous example is held in the museum in the Agora, Athens, dating to the 6th century BC. An image on the inside of a red-figure kylix dated to c. 460 BC shows how the chair was used. It also shows how the mother (?) lovingly interacts with the child, looking directly at him, smiling. Sommer and Sommer (2015) recently argued that this interactive, caring way of raising children that brought developmental advantages may have even led to Athens’ cultural superiority throughout the region.


Baby on high-chair/potty, c. 460 BC  © Musées royaux d’art et d’histoire, Brussels

Any archaeological evidence for practically handling baby’s pee and poo in European prehistory is scarce. We know that newborn babies were brought into the salt mines of Hallstatt, as evidenced by a fur cap that only fits newborns (Pany et al. 2010). From the same site, leaves of petasites hybridus, a plant used in Traditional European Medicine for its antiseptic properties, were recovered. It is likely that the leaves were used as toilet paper – perhaps also as wipes for cleaning infants.

There are, however, other options. China is famous for its open-crotch trousers that are worn by toddlers, designed to allow the infants to urinate and defecate without undressing them. Babies are held by the parents a bowl, toilette or appropriate outside place; toddlers can simply squat and the parents clean after them (or not). This eliminates the use of nappies/diapers, and has recently caught on to a limited degree in the western world. Notably, boy and girl infants and toddlers were dressed in lose garments and skirts for much of European history, perhaps for the same reason – that it is easier to go whenever needed.

Elimination communication is a term for an ancient practice that has recently been re-introduced into the western world by copying from non-industrialised societies. This technique seems particularly useful in hotter climates, where there is not much clothing to remove. It capitalises on the principle that babies tend to empty their bladder when held in a squat position. If the caregivers – usually the mothers – hold the baby close at all times, they can use timing, intuition, as well as baby’s signals and cues to understand when the baby has to go. The baby is then encouraged to urinate and defecate in an appropriate place, sometimes accompanied with a specific sound the baby learns and reacts to.

Nappies (diapers) are not the only answers to the universal problem of baby pee and poo. Throughout (pre-) history, people came up with more and less ingenious solutions to the problem, solutions that likely had effects on infant health, survival and development. Almost certainly, prehistoric people were less squeamish than we are today, and whether the connection between cleanliness and health was understood is unclear. Regardless of which technique is and was used, the most important factor is certainly to keep baby happy – whatever this implies.

Graham, E.-J. 2013. The making of infants in Hellenistic and early Roman Italy: a votive perspective. World Archaeology 45(2): 215-231.

Lynch, K. M., and J. K. Papadopoulos. 2006. Sella Cacatoria: A Study of the Potty in Archaic and Classical Athens. Hesperia 75(1): 1-32.

Pany-Kucera, D., H. Reschreiter, and A. Kern. 2010. Auf den Kopf gestellt? Überlegungen zu Kinderarbeit und Transport im prähistorischen Salzbergwerk Hallstatt. Mitteilungen der Anthropologischen Gesellschaft in Wien 140: 39-68.

Shorter, E. 1977. The Making of the Modern Family. New York: Basic Books.

Sommer, M., and D. Sommer. 2015. Care, Socialization and Play in Ancient Attica. A Developmental Childhood Archaeological Approach. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.

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Finding interactions between the old and young in past societies – SSCIP sponsored session at EAA in Vilnius

It’s conference time!


Committee members Eileen Murphy and Grete Lillehammer are currently at the European Association of Archaeologists 22nd Annual Conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, chairing a  SSCIP sponsored session “Giving New Meaning to Cultural Heritage – The Old and the Young in Past Societies”.

Eileen tells me, “Since older members of society, particularly grandparents, can play such an important role in the lives of children we wanted to see if we could find evidence of such interactions in the archaeological record.”

See here for a full session description.

Below we share photos of the participants and topics from the session.
Eileen and Grete
Mother-child relations in Early Bronze Age Lower Austria. Dr. Rebay-Salisbury, Katharina (Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria)
Family constructions and adult-child relationships in the ancient Greek Oikos. Sommer, Maria (Skanderborg, Denmark)
Circle of Life? Aspects of youth and old age in Viking Age and Medieval Scandinavia. PhD Mejsholm, Lotta (Uppsala, Sweden)

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Baby care simulator backfires

This week, the BBC headline Concerns raised over teenage pregnancy ‘magic dolls’ caught my attention. In a course of a programme to prevent teenage pregnancy, Western Australian girls were given baby dolls to look after that simulate the needs of a new baby. The baby simulator programme, which was meant to put girls off having a baby, however, backfired. Rather than making it less likely for girls to have a baby or an abortion by the age of 20, the programme made both more likely.

The only thing I found strange about this finding is that some people apparently thought it would work in the first place! (My husband immediately suggested the idea could have only come from male researchers…). If the experience of looking after a baby would be that off-putting, our species would have gone extinct a long time ago. There is no immediate, measurable benefit of raising a child, and yet it is in our instinct – rewarding enough to keep us all going.

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” (Dobzhansky 1973) springs to mind….

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European Reasearch Council project start

Today is the official start date of my ERC Starting Grant project “The value of mothers to society: responses to motherhood and child rearing practices in prehistoric Europe”.

ERCThe European Research Council offers competitive grants for top researchers from all over the world. There are programs for all stages of career, Starting Grants (2-7 years after completion of the PhD), Consolidator Grants (7-12 years after PhD) and Advanced Grants for the most senior scientists. Competition is open for all disciplines. The host institution must be located in one of the 28 EU Member States or associated countries. As of 2016, the list of associated countries includes Iceland, Norway, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, Israel, Moldova, Switzerland (partial association), Faroe Islands, Ukraine, Tunisia and Georgia.

The Austrian Research Fund supported my FWF-pilot project that started in January 2015 and focussed on developing methodology. From this platform, I was in the position to apply for an ERC Starting Grant to significantly expand my research chronologically and thematically.

Although the completion of my PhD dates back to 2005, I could still apply for the Starting Grant scheme because my two children extend the eligibility window by 1.5 years each. This seems a fair solution for working mothers, at least it has worked for me!

The ERC grant scheme is competitive, but is one of the most generous one out there. It gives the principal investigator the chance to build a research group and focus extensively on the research topic for several years. Ideally, it builds the solid foundation of a scientific career, as well as advancing knowledge in all disciplines.

This, too, is my personal answer to the question “What has the EU ever done for us?”.

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Motherhood and marginality

Last week, I attended the workshop The End of the Spectrum: Towards an Archaeology of Marginality at UCL London, organized by my lovely colleague Elisa Perego.

The marginality network is especially interested in social exclusion in present and past societies. Traditional archaeological approaches have often focussed on wealthy elites, and in turn, the economically disadvantaged. Marginalisation, however, may have many different roots and causes, including gender, age, disability, ethnicity, and others.

It was a good opportunity to think about how motherhood intersects with social marginalisation in the past and present. Perhaps the most recent example I came across is this:

Nursing pod

Nursing Pod, Newark Airport

I have recently travelled from New York to Vienna and discovered Nursing Pods on Newark Airport. These are small cabins placed at the flight gate, equipped with a bench and mirror (not 100% sure what the mirror is for, exactly). As someone who has breastfed her babies on several airports, my first thought was – great! Finally a peaceful, quiet, comfortable place for breastfeeding. I remember that my babies were often too distracted to eat on the buzzing airport, but were then easily soothed by breastfeeding on the plane. But then I though – wait a minute. Why should mothers be excluded from participating in society, and attend their baby’s needs hidden from everyone’s view? Social marginalisation because of motherhood happens in our own society on a daily basis.

Motherhood, and conversely, infertility and childlessness may have led to social exclusion in the past, too, on a temporary or permanent basis. Taboos and regulations of female participation in society during the post-partum and lactation period may govern a substantial part of women’s lives. Many traditional societies, for example, have a period of confinement for mother and baby several weeks to months after birth, in which the mother is exempt from certain kinds of work and supposed to rest, focussing on the new member of society.

In Austria, where I live, there is a six week period before and again after birth in which mothers are not allowed to work (luckily, the pay is usually continued). In the UK, where I used to work, women are not allowed to work only for two weeks after childbirth (with no guaranteed pay, although many employers provide maternity allowances). There is an interesting ambiguity and tension between the thought of protecting mothers and allowing well-deserved rest, and preventing them from doing what they themselves decide to do. In the case of financial implications, decisions are even tougher. And not all births are equal – some women feel fine soon after, some suffer for a long time from the repercussions of childbirth.

Motherhood bears considerable risks to the health of women and may lead to death and disability. Only in very rare cases we are able to pick this up archaeologically, as traces on skeletons or through archaeological findings. Prolapse of the uterus, caused by strain through pregnancies and birth, is likely to have been a common condition, but as it affects only the soft parts of anatomy, it is hard to find in the archaeological record.

A common treatment of prolapse, however, is the use of pessaries, and this technique, in which a ring is used to hold the womb in place, seems to go back at least to 600 BC. At Stuttgart, Germany, a 30-40 year-old woman was found with a ceramic ring in the pelvic area. She was buried off the regular cemetery, in a settlement pit, perhaps because of her disabling condition. Diane Scherzler documented about a dozed similar cases from Germany. It is likely that more such cases exist – archaeologists need to know what to look for to document them properly.


Scherzler, D. 1998. Der tönerne Ring vom Viesenhäuser Hof – Ein Hinweis auf medizinische Versorgung in der Vorrömischen Eisenzeit? Fundberichte aus Baden Württemberg 22(1): 237-294.

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Embryotomy – Fetotomy

If you are squeamish, you may want to skip this blog post. For those of you, who love gruesome stories, here you are: Not too long ago I reported on the origins of the C-section in this blog post. Meanwhile, an 18th century mummy kept at the Natural History Museum in Budapest (Hungary) was presented as the oldest direct evidence of a C-section performed on a deceased mother. The incision was made vertically between the umbilical ring and the pubic symphysis and was c. 15 cm long. Cutting the baby out of the womb of the dead mother to baptize the child in time was certainly a Christian motive. In Antiquity, the life of the mother was privileged over that of the child.

Let me introduce you to embryotomy, or, more fittingly, fetotomy. This term refers to cutting a foetus into pieces within the womb so it can be removed. Still used in veteriary medicine, this procedure was carried out in humans when it was foreseeable that a vaginal birth would not be possible and the only way to fit the foetus through the birth canal would be a reduction in size. At that point, the foetus may have already died in the womb due to a long, unsuccessful birth.


Set of obstetrical tools, 19th/20th century, Budapest veterinary museum

Soranus of Ephesus, a Greek physician practicing around AD 100 in Rome described the process as following in his gynaecology (Molleson and Cox 1988: 58):

If the foetus is already dead, one should throw a piece of cloth over it to prevent it slipping and draw it forward slightly. Then, depressing it in order that the ports lying above may become more visible, one should amputate at the shoulder joints… Then one should turn the rest of the body with the fingers and deliver by inserting the hooks… If, however, the impaction is caused by too big a head … one should split it with on embryotome or a knife for removing polypi…. If, however, because of the large size of the whole body, the foetus does not respond even if so pulled … one must plunge the knife into the jugular region until it has penetrated deeply into the foetus. For when the blood is drained off, the body becomes thin. If the foetus is dead and of excessive size, it is dangerous to morcellate it entirely within the uterus. It is better to cut each of the parts as it presents. In theses cases amputations of the joints are indicated, for at their ends even the bones are easily freed from their connections.

Archaeological finds of foetal bones with cut marks from Roman contexts, for instance from Poundbury (Molleson and Cox 1988) and Hambleden in England (Mays et al. 2014) demonstrate that fetotomy was indeed practiced as described.

Really surprising is the recent find of parts of a foetus from Cagny, Département Calvados in France (Corde et al. 2015). It was found in the top layer of a ditch complex near some late Iron Age graves and radiocarbon dating confirmed and age of 399 to 303 cal. BC. The foetus’ age is estimated at 36 to 37 gestational weeks and bore cut marks on the bones as well as signs of inflammatory processes. Most likely, the foetus had died in the womb and was surgically removed. Whether or not the mother survived remains unclear.

This find suggests that fetotomy is several hundred years older than Soranus’ description. It was practiced in a pre- or protohistoric context – far away from contemporary civilisations of the Mediterranean, in a society we usually do not attribute this kind of medical knowledge. Perhaps this ancient case of fetotomy also shows how well-connected societies were in the past. The social networks of antiquity enabled knowledge transfer across wide regions, and proof of this turns up in the most unexpected places.

Corde, D., L. Laquay, A. Augias, J. Poupon, J.-M. Dewitte, and P. Charlier. 2015. “Un cas ancien de foetotomie, La Tène (399-303 av. J.-C.),” in P. Charlier and D. Gourevitch (eds) Colloque international de pathographie – Mai 2013. Paris: De Boccard: 21-31.

Mays, S., K. Robson-Brown, S. Vincent, J. Eyers, H. King, and A. Roberts. 2014. An Infant Femur Bearing Cut Marks from Roman Hambleden, England. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 24(1): 111-115.

Molleson, T., and M. Cox. 1988. A neonate with cut bones from Poundbury Camp, 4th century AD. Bulletin de la Société royale Belge d’Anthropologie et de Préhistoire 99: 53-60.

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Scanning bones

We have been very busy lately – work on our Bronze Age case studies is progressing well, not least because three researchers have joined our team. We are working on all fronts – filling data bases, recording sites in GIS, analysing bones and writing articles. None of this looks very glamourous, but it is essential for good research. Last month we also did some 3-D micro-surface scanning.

3-D scanning is a very useful tool to document and better understand the morphology of human remains. The analysis of human remains within our project is, for the most part, destruction-free and primarily involves a visual evaluation of skeletal features. Building 3D-models of the skeletal indicators of pregnancy and parturition we are studying helps enormously in their accurate description, documentation, scoring and measuring.


Anna Sonnberger scanning pelvic bones at the Natural History Museum in Vienna

In addition, some of the cutting-edge research methods we employ – DNA, isotope and tooth cementum analysis, involves the sampling and destruction of a small amount of skeletal matter or the thin-sectioning of teeth. We think very carefully about our sampling strategies in order to minimise damage. If we decide to perform analyses on teeth, for example, we do the uttermost to preserve as much information on as possible. 3-D scanning documents the morphology accurately – and future generations of researchers with questions we cannot yet anticipate can go back to the virtual models, if not the original.

Here are a few pictures of the latest scanning sessions at the Natural History Museum in Vienna. We are very lucky to have access to a 3-D micro-surface Scanner (Breuckmann smartSCAN) through our host institution OREA.

2016-03-31 09.41.12

A pelvic bone of our Bronze Age study on the scanning platform. The projection of stripes helps the scanner to measure all features accurately.

Screenshot 2016-04-07 15.50.17

The 3-D model is available as a *.stl file, which can be viewed and printed in any 3-D viewer.


The next step will be experimenting with 3-D printing. We will see if the resolution is good enough to replace conventional casting of replicas.

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