Biblical-era Toilet With Possible Air Fresheners Found in Jerusalem

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The recently unearthed toilet from the First Temple-period in Jerusalem.
The recently unearthed toilet from the First Temple-period in Jerusalem. Credit: Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority

Yet another toilet has been found from ancient Jerusalem. This time, the archaeologists have reported not just a limestone slab with an indicative hole, which is reminiscent of a toilet seat but whose identification remained controversial. The new discovery, of what may be a whole lavatory cubicle from the First Temple period, was unearthed on the Armon Hanatziv promenade in Jerusalem – within the ruins of a palace overlooking the Old City whose existence was announced last year. And it may have come complete with air freshener.

Excavation director Yaakov Billig and the team on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority date the toilet to the seventh century B.C.E. 

What did they actually find? The cubicle with a septic tank beneath it had been hewn out of the limestone bedrock of Jerusalem. Its excavation hasn’t been completed, in part for budgetary reasons, but Billig and the team estimate the latrine’s area was about 1.5 by 2 meters (about 5 by 6.5 feet).

The toilet seat itself was also found in situ, but the archaeologists aren’t sure at this point if it was carved out of the same bedrock or from a finer stone, Billig says.

The seventh-century B.C.E. toilet unearthed on the Armon Hanatziv promenade in Jerusalem You should probably give it a few minutes.Credit: Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority

He points out that the toilet was found in the framework of the palace, which featured column capitals made of a better-quality limestone than was immediately available to the locals. “The natural rock in Armon Hanatziv is chalkier, softer,” he says.

Indeed, the palace, dated to the Iron Age, was identified as a “royal building” or at least an important one, based on the quality of the architecture, including elaborate column capitals carved with the symbolism of the Judahite monarchy.

The toilet cubicle didn’t sport any symbols of monarchy, but did have several dozen bowls – perhaps 30 to 40, Billig says.

What might bowls be doing in an ancient toilet, which was one of a piece with its septic tank? Billig allows himself to speculate that they held air freshener, an aromatic oil or incense – anything to make use of the facility less onerous.

A fragment of the column capital found at the archaelogical site in Jerusalem.Credit: Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority

Some 2,700 years ago, toilets were a perk of the rich, Billig says. Few loos have been identified so far, and it seems the hoi polloi were left to do their business as best they could.

Archaeologist Aren Maeir, who isn’t connected with this research, says that it does seem they found a toilet, of which other examples have been found in Iron Age Israel. One famed example is the lavatory in “Ahiel’s House,” in Jerusalem’s so-called City of David, he says.

“The one from the gate of Lachish is definitely a toilet. The question is whether the interpretation that it was placed there to cancel out an earlier cult corner has been debated,” Maeir says, referring to a brouhaha that erupted following that announcement. The Lachish toilet had apparently been built in a shrine, leading to the theory that this wasn’t coincidental – it was designed to defile the pagan spot of worship. Not all agree that it was a toilet or that its builders aimed to scorn the shrine.

Part of the elaborate column capitals, carved with symbolism of the Judahite monarchy. Credit: Shai Halevi / Israel Antiquities Authority

Back in Jerusalem, that septic tank carved into the bedrock beneath the john was stuffed with other junk – fragments of pottery and animal bones. One gains the impression that it was a toilet-cum-garbage pit.

Since the septic tank couldn’t have been naturally emptied, and it would eventually fill up and be objectionable, one may surmise that the distinguished owner of this facility had undistinguished functionaries or slaves who would periodically clean it out, Billig suggests.

He adds that a thousand years after the palace and toilet were in business, among the criteria defining a person as rich in the Mishnah and the Talmud is “to have the toilet next to his table” – the wisdom of one Rabbi Yossi. By which he presumably meant, within the home.

In the case of our Armon Hanatziv loo, it was carved into the rock not far from a garden featuring fruit and other trees, and aquatic plants, that may have helped provide the raw material for the theoretical air fresheners in the bowls. One is hard pressed to think of another purpose for dozens of bowls by the toilet, of all places.

An archaeologist examining the recently unearthed Iron Age-era toilet in Jerusalem. Credit: Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority

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