Roman Toilet Seat by Rhys Williams (Teesside University) on Sketchfab

Here is a very rare example of a Roman toilet seat made from wood.  It had been re-used to cover a bad patch on a floor. The seat was excavated in 2014 and it is the only conserved wooden toilet seat in Britain.

Digging up memories - making connections

The Romans and the netty

Imagine a house not being connected to the sewage system.  Who has shared Trustee Lawrence’s memories using the netty (the Northumbrian word for toilet)?

Listen to...

Burning bottoms
Did you ever dread going to the toilet at school?  How would you cope with the prank that Lawrence (Trustee) describes from his schooldays?

Listen to...

Further information 

Toilet talk by Liz Pounds (Volunteer)

Need to go to the loo? If you lived in Roman times, just like today, you would visit a public latrine.

But be prepared! Because the Romans did not worry about privacy, there would be no private cubicles. Instead, communal toilets would seat up to 20 people at once!

These latrines would be dirty and smelly. You would sit over a keyhole-shaped hole which was cut through wood, or on hard, cold stone seats. Below you, dirty water from the nearby bath house would flush the waste into a sewer system which emptied into a nearby river. You might be surprised to find both men and women using the latrines at the same time, and some people would be enjoying a good gossip!

Vindolanda 16-seater latrine in the south east corner of the stone fort

Perhaps you would be looking around in desperation for the loo roll but there would not have been any! Someone might offer you a sponge on a stick to use instead. Look out for the wooden bucket filled with water, salt and vinegar to rinse your sponge when you are done. In the outer reaches of the Empire such as Vindolanda where there were no sponges available, you could use a handful of small stones or fragments of smooth pottery, or perhaps even some moss.

In the city of Rome, it was the Etruscan people who built the first great drainage channel, the Cloaca Maxima, to drain rainwater. Later the houses of Roman citizens had sewers that linked into the Cloaca Maxima, emptying waste into the River Tiber. This sewage system was very advanced for the time and was copied in towns and forts throughout the Empire, though sometimes house owners were worried about connecting their private loo to the sewage system as they thought rats would come out of the pipes into their homes. Others feared the sewer gases that could ignite in the open toilet seats.

Roman houses not connected to the sewage system had a ground floor latrine near the kitchen where all sorts of waste went into the cess pit below. The pit was occasionally emptied, and the solid waste was used as fertiliser on crops. However, it wasn’t composted long enough to kill parasitic eggs, so intestinal worms were common, causing dysentery and other gut diseases. 

Ancient Parasites at Vindolanda

If you lived on an upper floor, you might use a pot and empty it from your window into the street below. As there was no street cleaning, waste built up and smells and disease were rife.

People sometimes saved their urine and emptied it into a large jar placed in the street. The urine was collected and used to wash clothes, as the ammonia helped to remove stains.