Thursday, March 12, 2009


As Valuable As the Crown Jewels

From a review by Valerie Allen of Susan Signe Morrison, Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer's Fecopoetics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008):
It is perhaps time for literary studies of the scatological to merge their appreciation of the symbolic and cultural significance of excrement with the scientific findings of archaeology, chemical soil analysis, and environmental studies. The resplendent Viking human stool discovered in York's Coppergate in 1972 (a regrettable omission in Morrison's study, especially since the Jorvik Centre, which exhibits the stool, is specifically mentioned by her [59]) offers a rare chance to ask some exact questions. How might this product have been used as fertilizer? Did its owner regard it as valuable or dirty and useless? More generally, how did differing diets, in fish-rich coastal cities or in areas where either dairy or grain predominated, change the value of human excrement? What happened to the cultural value of human ordure in the face of manure shortages such as M.M. Postan identifies in the thirteenth century, brought about by reduction of pastureland for conversion to arable? [2] The more we think about such details and questions, the more we will see that excrement, like language, is infinitely various in meaning, that its material value can change dramatically according to environmental need and context.

2. M. M. Postan, The Medieval Economy and Society: An Economic History of Britain in the Middle Ages (London: Penguin, 1972), pp. 63-7.
I don't usually quote from Wikipedia articles, but I make an exception here for the article on the archaeological find in question, also known as the Lloyds Bank coprolite:
The Lloyds Bank coprolite is a large human coprolite, or fossilized dung specimen, recovered by archaeologists excavating the Viking settlement of Jórvík (now York) in England.

It was found in 1972 beneath the site of what was to become the York branch of Lloyds Bank and may be the largest example of fossilised human feces ever found. Analysis of the nine-inch (23 cm) long stool has indicated that its producer subsisted largely on meat and bread whilst the presence of several hundred parasitic eggs suggests he or she was riddled with intestinal worms. In 1991, paleoscatologist Andrew Jones made international news with his appraisal of the item for insurance purposes: "This is the most exciting piece of excrement I've ever seen. In its own way, it's as valuable as the Crown Jewels."[1]

The specimen was put on display at the city's Archaeological Resource Centre (now known as DIG), the outreach and education institution run by the York Archaeological Trust, where it delighted generations of awestruck schoolchildren.[2] In 2003, it broke into three pieces after being dropped whilst on exhibition to a party of visitors. As of 2003, efforts were underway to reconstruct it.[2]

In 2008 it was on display at the JORVIK Viking Centre.

1. The Wall Street Journal, 9 September 1991
2. The Guardian, 6 June 2003
The Guardian article (Simon Jeffery, "Museum's broken treasure not just any old shit") is available online. I haven't seen either the Wall Street Journal article or A.K.G. Jones, "A Human Coprolite from 6-8 Pavement," in A.R. Hall et al., Environment and Living Conditions at Two Anglo-Scandinavian Sites (London: Council for British Archaeology, 1983) = The Archaeology of York, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 225-229. There is a color photograph here.

The careful phrase "he or she" in the Wikipedia article reminded me of something I recently read in Frank G. Speck, Penobscot Man: The Life History of a Forest Tribe in Maine (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1940; rpt. Orono: University of Maine Press, 1997), p. 250 (discussing nicknames):
Mali me'sadwədjan, "Mary big-faeces" (identity omitted), derived from advertising her ability to surpass the tribal cannon21 in capacity of discharge.

21 At feast days and elections an old iron cannon is discharged, one acquired by the Penobscot in Colonial times.
Speck's treatise has some other odd scatological tidbits, which I excerpt here.

p. 245:
Within certain limits of relationship, restrictions exist against the use of obscenity, suggestive joking, teasing, insulting remarks, and above all against breaking wind in presence.
p. 246:
In another tale, a man falls dead from shame after accidentally breaking wind before his sister.
p. 268 (on figurative sayings, expressions, and etiquette):
"Do not pare your fingernails because before next Sunday your hand will smell." This is explained as meaning that long fingernails are a protection to the fingers when put in a "soft place." It leaves something to the imagination.
p. 268:
Crepitus evokes several exclamations, among which is "So-and-So is going to spread a feast." And the individual, if he is a good fellow and financially able, would do so for the company.
p. 268:
One preparing a special dish for himself is said to do so "because his anus orders it."

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