History of Toilets

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy

Toilets are one of the most essential things in our lives. We actually cannot imagine a life without toilets. A toilet is known as an object that people use to collect and dispose of their urine and feces. A clean toilet and a well-managed toilet system (sewage and sanitary) are vital for public health and for the environment. Unmanaged sewage is a breeding ground for many harmful diseases and mixing it with drinking water is extremely dangerous.

A well-managed sewage system and toilets are an indication of wealth, technology, and knowledge of health. Some past societies paid special attention to toilets while some didn’t. Still, there are some cultures that do not use toilets, instead use the open. Thus a well-managed toilet and sewage system indicated the civilized nature as well as the development of past and present societies.

The history of toilets varies in different places around the globe. Let us embark on a brief journey around the world to know the history of toilets.

Around the World of Toilets

Ancient religious texts have instructions about toilet manners and how to keep them clean. These are results of the observations of people who lived in the past. Research on ancient civilizations such as Egypt Mesopotamia and the Indus valley has shown that they knew about the health risks if sewage was not disposed of properly and how dangerous it would be.

Talking about well-managed toilets, the Indus valley civilization tops the list. People who lived in the Indus valley civilization were so concerned about their sanitary they had a super system to manage their toilets. They are known to be the owners of the world’s first known urban sanitation systems. Mohenjodaro (2800 BCE), had toilets that were built into the outer walls of the houses and in Lothal there were private toilets in each house. These toilets were connected to a sewer system which was built of bricks and well covered. Archaeologists have discovered that these bricks were joined using a gypsum-based mortar mixture. There had been cesspits to which this water was emptied. Archaeologists have also found that these toilets had pipes underground that were connected to drains. The cesspits were cleaned regularly. Also, excavations have revealed that there had been clean water supplies for each house and they were regularly flowing water supplies through which the toilets were cleaned.

A little earlier, during the 4th millennium BCE, Mesopotamia had used pipes and toilets made out of clay. Archaeological excavations have revealed evidence of pit toilets in cities of Mesopotamia.

Well-managed toilet systems were in use in ancient Egypt, Persia, Crete, and Vietnam. China had pig toilets which means the feces and urine were directed to a pit where pigs lived and they would consume them. And once humans eat the pig, they indirectly eat their own poop! Sounds disgusting. China also used them as fertilizer.

In ancient Sri Lanka, according to the Mahavamsa king, Pandukabhaya of the 6th century BCE had arranged for a well-managed sewer system and he has set two hundred chandala people to the work cleaning the sewers of the city.

The next important place when talking about toilets is the ancient Roman civilization. What is special about their toilets is they had sitting toilets. They had toilets with flowing water to clean them. Common and public toilets were common in Rome which may sound awkward to us today. Imagine sitting among a row of people who are all using toilets, chatting together?

Another feature in Rome was that they had portable toilets, which are known as chamber pots. Greeks also used chamber pots. Romans also had aqueducts carrying the waste towards dumping pits.

In Anuradhapura, sewage water was disposed of through terracotta pipes that ran through and beneath buildings, and urinal waste was also sent into large pits through these terracotta pipes. At the Abhayagiri monastery, huge clay pots have been placed one above the other, to filter the sewage water before they are disposed into garbage pits. These pots consisted of sand, lime, and charcoal which are natural purifying and filtering compositions. Terracotta also has the ability of cleansing water or any form of liquid. At Polonnaruwa, water and urine have been diverted from the toilets of the Buddha Seema Pasada through terracotta pipes into a separate septic pit while excreta were diverted to another septic pit. The toilets we had in Sri Lanka during ancient times were squatting style ones and they are still in use. There had been two types of squatting toilets in ancient times, one for urinating and the other for defecation.

After the fall of the Roman empire, the well-managed toilet system or the sewage management also collapsed. In medieval Europe, there were no advanced toilet systems like the Romans had. Castles had small rooms or chambers known as Garderobes. A wooden seat was inside the Garderobe and the waste was collected outside the castle. These toilets were made away from bedrooms as they would stink but built close to kitchens to keep them warm. But, wouldn’t the kitchen get the stink? Castle waste was emptied into cesspits without any hygienic managing system. These were later dumped into the open.

As Europe entered the dark ages, public sanitation and public health also entered the dark ages. There were pit toilets and chamber pots that had no proper emptying or cleaning systems, hence they were just emptied into the open.

Although the situation fairly changed during the later times of the Medieval period, that was limited only to the privileged. Royals and aristocrats had portable toilet stools.

The modern flush toilet

The flush toilet we know today was invented in 1596 but was not popular until the late 19th century. This was designed by Sir John Harrington for Queen Elizabeth. Although it is known as the first modern toilet, it still had a problem as the smell of the sewage was notable.

1775 Alexander Cumming of Scotland created an S-shaped bend in the pipes, which resulted in reducing the smell. This S-bend was later developed into the U-bend we use now by Thomas Crapper in the late 19th century.

Uriners in ancient Sri Lanka, at the Colombo national museum

Squat toilet at Mohenjo Daro

Model of a pig toilet in ancient China. pic by By John Hill.j

Roman public toilets. pic by By Fubar Obfusco

Ancient toilet at Monaragala, Sri Lanka

Ancient toilet at Ritigala, Sri Lanka

Uncategorized, Ama H.Vanniarachchy, History of Toilets, Sri Lankan archaeology