Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Finer Points of Roman Hygiene

We've been spending a lot of time at the Roman Bath Museum recently, and consequently find ourselves in possession of new information regarding Roman toilet paper.  Regular readers will recall that we in a previous post referred to the vinegar-soaked sponges used by Roman soldiers to attend to their hygiene.  However, James Crow, in an intriguing passage from the book Housesteads (B. T. Batsford Ltd, London, 1995), would argue otherwise:

Ancient writers such as Martial and Seneca refer to the use of sponges in lavatories and there has been considerable discussion and illustration in popular reconstructions of the use of sponges on sticks for this purpose, so the water channel at Housesteads is frequently called the "sponge channel".  This, however, raises a major problem since the "bath sponge" is a Mediterranean sea creature and is not native to the seas around Britain.  A possible sponge fragment was identified from the Roman sewer at York but this is uncertain and it does not confirm the widespread use of sponges.  What material was used as a substitute for this ancient lavatory paper is not clear.  Recent excavations from the fort of Bearsden on the Antonine Wall suggest moss was used, and there are a number of suitable plant-based degradable materials available in the area around Housesteads, including bracken.  In Siberia, snow suffices.

Sea sponge; image from

While we are a bit worried by the cryptic comment about Siberia (did the Romans go to Siberia? And if so, what might they have done there, apart from going to the lavatory?), we find this input from James Crow interesting, and welcome further contributions to the discussion.

Outraged? Bewildered? Tired of talking of ducks flying to Siberia? Got an opinion on the use of sponges as lavatory paper? E-mail us at

Related Reading:
The Roman Bath Museum - Crap on a Stick
Wasting Away: More Roman Bog Roll
Wasting Away: More Roman Bog Roll II

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...