Thursday, June 2, 2016

Dr. Eileen Reilly: Dirt, hygiene and health on early medieval settlements | Drumclay Conference 2014 | Review

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Jackie McDowell, the chairperson for this session, welcomed Dr. Eileen Reilly to the podium and introduced her as a post-Doctoral research fellow at UCD. Reilly initially studied archaeology, following up with a graduate degree in environmental studies, specialising in insects. Reilly explained that she’d be discussing issues surrounding dirt and hygiene at Drumclay and comparing the evidence with data from other sites, chiefly Fishamble Street in Dublin and Deer Park Farms, Co. Antrim. She stated that she would ‘discuss some of the more intimate aspects of people’s lives during the Early Medieval period, the conditions in which they lived and how they managed that living space.’

Over many decades, many notable anthropologists, historians, social geographers have discussed ideas and approaches around human behaviour and attitudes towards dirt and hygiene. While she noted that she could deliver an entire lecture just on that topic, she would instead limit herself to nothing that biological and cultural legacies have created a 'dirt-ridding' culture. Thus, everything from basic bodily evacuation, to grooming and our living environments have resulted in a plethora of customs, manners, structures, habits, engineering developments etc. The questions following from this are 'when do these ideas become culturally embedded and normalised?' and 'how can we recognise these things in the past?' From an archaeological perspective, we have much evidence in the forms of structures and their layouts and several types of artefacts. Among the artefacts may be included combs and various toilet implements. Added to this are refuse features such as middens and cesspits along with material dumped over palisades and into ditches. All of these activities show how Early Medieval people managed waste and how they thought about it. While these things were clearly important to medieval people, we cannot assume that the motivations behind these responses were simply about the disposal of waste materials. In some cases the piling up of rubbish may have been about the display of wealth, or ritual/religious cleansing, as well as removing dirty or smelly things from the immediate vicinity. Reilly is justifiably keen to stress that one of the most powerful and insightful strands of evidence available is that brought by environmental archaeology. She adds that the evidence from a waterlogged site like Drumclay has the potential to yield numerous data and new insights. The site has evidence of insects, plant materials, intestinal parasites, animal and fish bone etc. She describes this as a ‘circle of evidence’ that comes back to the human body, and the effects of that environment on the individual. As an aside, Reilly notes that although the study of insects is fascinating in its own right, from an archaeological perspective they may be used as a proxy to the past. Thus, to get an understanding of how we lived in the past, it is imperative that we look at the things that lived with us. In this way, all the insects recovered from the meticulously recovered samples from house floors, ditch deposits etc., ultimately reflect our choices, our behaviours, and the activities we engaged in.

We also have a body of interesting literary evidence from this period which is of use in understanding attitudes towards dirt, hygiene, and health. We can see whether the archaeologically recovered features such as cesspits were discussed in the past (while they are mentioned, it is far less than we’d like). The literature also allows understandings of the expectations of cleanliness, including the cleaning of entrance ways. On the other side of the coin there are indications of the things that are considered unacceptable within houses, such as allowing animals to walk through dwellings. There are also insights concerning how various craft workers were viewed in terms of personal cleanliness. For example, comb makers are regarded as people who ‘grapple among the dirt’ to get their basic materials. The literary sources also include numerous references to diseases and the impact of the living environment on health and hygiene.

She argues that the best way to show the strength of the environmental evidence is to demonstrate what they can tell us about conditions both inside and outside the houses. Within the island of Ireland, we have some of the best bodies of data that can illustrate these points, one of which is, of course, from Deer Park Farms. Reilly describes it as ‘the site that keeps on giving’ as she is now re-evaluating the results of the original environmental analyses, more than two decades later, and finding new details and drawing out new insights. The other major corpus is from the excavations at Fishamble St., Dublin. These excavations were carried out in the late 1970s and 1980s, but the environmental samples have only been examined in the last two years. With these amazing datasets at her disposal, Reilly can now directly compare the inside of a house in Dublin in the 10th century with one from the 7th and 8th centuries at Deer Park Farms. As the Fishamble St. material is from an early, first-wave urban settlement, it may be assumed that there would be significant differences between it and Deer Park Farms. Although differences do exist, her research has shown that there are some remarkable similarities between the two sites. As the post-excavation work (hopefully) progresses on the Drumclay samples the obvious expectation is that it will add significantly to this body of knowledge.

Human flea (source)

Reilly argues that if we stepped inside a house of this period, the dominant smell would not be of something foul or nasty. Everything would have been dominated by the all-pervading smell of wood smoke. Looking at the ecology of the insects that are turning up within these houses, particularly within the bedding areas, these are actually very clean and dry spaces. They are made up of quite deep layers of locally-available plant material and would probably have been covered with blankets or hides. All of the insects from these locations are dominated by dry mould feeders. These are clearly not nasty, foul places. The central floor spaces would have seen more human traffic, but still the insect evidence indicates that these are not filthy spaces. There were large numbers of human parasites recovered – lice and animal parasites dominated at Deer Park Farms, while both it and Fishamble St. had high numbers of fleas. While this may at first appear to run counter to Reilly’s argument that these are not filthy places, their presence indicates that people were actively involved in grooming and that these lice were being removed from the body. Fleas are extremely difficult to get rid of today, necessitating the use of strong chemicals, but in the past it would have been a constant struggle and nuisance of life. The human flea can exist on both ourselves and pigs, so if there were swine on the site the closeness of animal-human living conditions would have ensured a constant supply. As the human flea can live in the floors and in the bedding they can prove extremely difficult to remove and probably contributed to the constant turnover of bedding material. Reilly argues that their presence is not so much an indicator of filth, as a testament to the tenacity of the parasite.

However, the evidence from outside the houses tells a very different story. Insect and fly evidence from the external spaces indicates that, for the most part, it was an exceedingly dungy and muddy environment. Samples from all external areas of the Deer Park Farms site produced a consistent signature. The presence of beetle species indicated that quantities of dung was present, along with urine-soaked plant matter. Recovered examples of fly species included the housefly and the seaweed fly. The recovery the seaweed fly remains, in particular, indicates the presence of cess pits as it was attracted to salts and urine. Blowfly remains were also recovered, indicating the presence of fresh butchery waste. Reilly paints an all too vivid picture of the amount of animal waste and products that would have been around the site, including stomach contents, blood, and raw meat … and all the various species of flies attracted to it and feeding off it. She describes the experience as ‘quite a buzzy, nasty atmosphere, during the summer especially’. She notes that there is also evidence for human parasites outside the houses and that this may be interpreted as the result of outdoor grooming, washing or removal of clothing. From anthropological studies, she notes that the evidence is that grooming was chiefly an outdoor activity until relatively recent times. In many traditional cultures this form of activity remains an outdoor activity as it is easier to dispose of waste water and materials such as hair clippings.

At both Fishamble St. and Deer Park Farms route ways through the sites were constructed of planks, wattle panels, or cobbles. The insect evidence indicates that these were a necessity, rather than any form of luxury. Reilly notes that it is unsurprising, given the volume of dirt and filth, that the surviving corpus of laws deal specifically with the roles and responsibilities of cleaning and maintaining these paths. Defined cesspits are near ubiquitous at this time on urban settlements and at Fishamble St. there is practically a cesspit associated with every plot, though sometimes one was shared between two properties. In terms of location, these were frequently at the front of the building, which may seem a somewhat lacking in privacy to a modern viewer. The insect remains demonstrate that they are, as one would expect, filled with human waste but they were also used for the disposal of household refuse. They also preserve interesting evidence for recutting, clearing out and reuse. This would suggest that the waste was cleared out from time to time and piled up elsewhere or recycled in some way. However, evidence for defined cesspits is largely absent from rural settlements at this time, including Deer Park Farms. The question that then needs to be addresses is ‘where did they go to the toilet?’ Reilly explains that ‘this is where the intestinal parasites come in and can be really useful’ (a sentence that could only be uttered by an archaeologist!). She notes that they are particularly useful for understanding contamination of human waste as the intestinal parasites live within the human host and produce eggs that are passed in faeces. Careful sampling and analysis can tell us where human waste is being deposited on sites. At Deer Park Farms over 100 samples were examined during the original post-excavation phase. Reilly has since re-examined this evidence and mapped the locations of where they were recovered. She showed a plan of one of the earlier phases of the site (Phase 4a) where two deposits (one in particular) produced significant evidence for the presence of whipworm (Trichuris trichiura). Both deposits were in the west to south-west portions of the site. During Phase 6a (one of the main settlement phases) intestinal parasites were recovered from areas to the south of the houses. The first point of note is that none of these deposits occur indoors. Indeed, there is remarkably little evidence for any form of either animal or human intestinal parasites within buildings. This would suggest that filth is not being walked into houses and that shoes and boots were cleaned before entering. She also notes that the lack of defined cesspits may indicate that wherever they were using for a toilet was above ground and was regularly removed and emptied. Bodily waste may have been spread on fields as fertiliser, or may just have easily been dumped into the surrounding ditch as numerous early medieval ditches appear to have been filled with dungy material. Reilly notes that her thinking on the reuse of excrement as fertiliser has led her to think more deeply about questions of contamination and disease. Looking at general dumping behaviour from this period, she notes that while there is a desire to remove waste out of sight (and smell) of the inhabitants, but that the locations chosen would have had a detrimental effect on health. She cites the examples of the Viking Age towns of Birka in Sweden; Kaupang in Norway, and York in England where research has shown that the watercourses beside these towns were heavily contaminated with fly pupae, animal bone, plant remains etc. This has been shown to be the case at both Irish and Scottish crannogs, including Buiston, where large middens of animal bone have been found from the surrounding waters. There is also the question as to what is happening with the human waste if it is not being deposited in a cesspit, or if the cesspit is being cleared out and recut. As noted previously, one of the possibilities is that it was being used for fertiliser. Reilly notes that research on the plant remains at Fishamble St., carried out by Siobhain Geraghty, indicates that human waste may have been used to fertilise flax plots within the town boundaries. Of course, this would have contaminated the soil and sources of drinking water with whipworm and any of the other intestinal parasites. In this way, there would have been increased exposure to waterborne diseases for the local population. Added to this are the flies and other parasites, all of which are potentially disease carrying too. Thus, she asks ‘is there evidence in the archaeological and historical records that back this up?’ Obviously, there are a large variety of different references to diseases in the historical record. Reilly cites Crawford’s research on historical references to diseases, causes and cures from this time. A significant number of the diseases, such as dysentery, are related to poor hygiene, poor water quality, or impaired immune systems generally. Research by Keating on over 140 children’s skeletons from early medieval Ireland clearly demonstrate the realities of these situations. For example, Keating found that the majority of the examined skeletons had not met their optimum growth potential and displayed evidence for stunted growth, especially in the leg bones. Many showed evidence for both dietary stress and stresses related to parasitic infections or infections that may have been exacerbated by parasitic infections, such as blood loss, diarrhoea, or anaemia. Unfortunately, when the causes are noted in the historical records they are most commonly attributed to demons, divine retribution, or naturalistic explanations such as the result of bad weather. They are not in any way attributed to dirt or hygiene issues. Similarly, the recovery strategies divide along religious and naturalistic lines. Religious strategies include prayer, laying on of hands, consumption of holy water, or interaction with saintly relics. However, the naturalistic remedies show that there was an understanding that a clean or quiet environment was good for a patient’s heath. Thus, there are rules for the exclusion of animals such as dogs, pigs, and sheep.

In summary, the picture that emerges from Reilly’s all too brief overview is that the environmental evidence, particularly from insects and parasites, is that the interior floors of houses were very ‘clean’. Reilly notes the use of inverted commas on ‘clean’ as it may not have appeared so to a modern viewer, but from an ecological point of view (‘we have to think like a beetle’: again, a sentence that could only be uttered by an archaeologist  ... or Kafka) it is a clean environment. The examined samples have almost no evidence for dung, or anything else that may be considered to be ‘dirty’. It is clear that this is a universal desire as it is the same at Fishamble St. during the 10th and 11th centuries; at Deer Park Farms in the 7th and 8th centuries. Reilly’s own research on Russian sites of a similar age, along with work at York, all show the same pattern. The next research question is: Will Drumclay agree with this pattern? Owing to its siting in a lake environment, will it break the pattern? Reilly’s instinct is that Drumclay will be the same, but that it will be an interesting research project. As noted previously, the opposite is true of exterior spaces where less control is exercised over the outdoor portions of these sites. It is clearly managed differently from the interior spaces. Although it appears to have been carefully maintained where prescribed by law, it is not as carefully monitored as interior areas. The presence of lice indicates that personal grooming was of great importance. Activities like ‘nit picking’, and general maintenance of hair was a continual process. The evidence shows that there was an abundance of nuisance and biting flies, fleas, and parasites of the intestines and were the direct causes of illness. Considering the amount of waste dumping into water, there appears to have been a lack of understanding of the nexus between this and the spread of disease. Because of the incredible level of preservation at Drumclay, there is the potential to add a very high quality corpus of data to that already available. It may challenge prevailing views or confirm the universality of the known evidence. All that can be said for certain is that it is likely to bring forth further insights and discoveries about early medieval Ireland.