Earliest toilets
SECOND MILLENNIUM BC

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(Picture: Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, Diyala Archaeological Database. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 Unported License)

This ancient toilet is one of several unearthed in the ancient city of Eshnunna (now Tell Asmar) during 1930s excavations.

More brick pedestal toilets like this one, as well as squat toilets, were discovered at sites in Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq, in private houses as well as palaces, some dating back to the third century BC. They typically emptied into a column-shaped pit made with interlocking ceramic rings, allowing liquid to seep out into the soil. Some, though, drained into under-street sewers.
 

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(Picture: Jonathan Mark Kenoyer/harappa.com)

 

Even earlier evidence of drainage systems and, possibly, loos has been found in Orkney, Scotland, where Neolithic (late Stone Age – from around 3200BC) houses at settlements such as Skara Brae incorporated channels running through small rooms within the walls to join larger communal drains. Historians have speculated that these cells may have been used as toilets, with flowing water washing away the waste.

Whether latrines in Orkney, Crete, the Indus Valley or Mesopotamia were emptied by hand, flushed with water or served by complex sewage systems, it’s clear ancient peoples were keen to deal with the waste they excreted. Humans produce a large amount of faeces each year – depending on diet, estimates range from 35kg to 190kg per person annually – and, as populations rose, it became more and more important to find ways of collecting and removing it.

 

That remains true today, where hundreds of millions of people who don’t have access to safe, hygienic toilets still have to defecate outside.

(Picture: Dr Andreas N Angelakis)

 

This hole, channel and doorway represent the remains of what’s believed to be one of the first-known flush toilets, built by the Minoan civilisation (c1700–1300BC) in the palace at Knossos, Crete. Rainwater, collected and stored in a cistern (water tank), was poured into a hole outside the door, flowing along a clay channel to flush waste from the pan beneath a wooden seat (now gone) into a clay drain and on to a large stone-built sewer.

 

The Minoans, who occupied islands in the Aegean Sea from around 3000BC, weren’t alone in building systems to remove rain and other wastewater from dwellings and streets. As static human communities grew and large permanent settlements became common, first in Asia and around the Mediterranean, the need for sanitation – the removal of human waste from dwellings – became more urgent.

 

Water supplies and covered drains served Harappa, Lothal and Mohenjo-daro, cities of the Indus Valley (or Harappan) civilisation that flourished in what’s now Pakistan around 2600–1900BC. Indoor toilets found at these sites are mostly simple pots or pits, though two brick-built structures, not unlike those found at Tell Asmar, drained into a separate basin and may have been ‘flushed’ using jugs of water also used for personal washing. One of these brick toilets is shown here.