Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fantasy, Archaeology, and Digging Thru the Poop

A. J. Walker joins me today to discuss ancient poop. Want to know more? Of course you do! Take it, A.J.

Coprolites: the fascinating story of ancient poop

Archaeology can be a crap job, but getting through the crap can be very rewarding.

Case in point: during excavations in York, England, back in the 1970s, archaeologists uncovered several buildings and streets from the old Viking town of Jórvík. They also found an outhouse with a giant, dried turd, or what scientists like to call a “coprolite”.

While such a find brings a spate of crude jokes and fervent handwashing to any archaeological team, coprolites can be very important for understanding ancient behavior. By examining coprolites, archaeologists can determine the person’s diet and health. The proud creator of this particular coprolite ate very little in the way of fruit or vegetables, preferring meat and grain instead. Hundreds of eggs of a parasitic worm showed he was eating for more than one.

The find also revealed that there was some grunting and groaning coming from the outhouse that day. The coprolite measures a whopping nine inches long and was probably bigger when it was still damp. It may hold the record for the largest human paleofeces ever found—a claim to fame that any archaeologist would want on his resume.

Coprolites are fairly common finds for those archaeologists brave enough to dig down into old outhouses. The term also applies to fully fossilized dinosaur turds. These have given us insights into dino diet and disease.

Just goes to show that even the most humble object can be important.

A.J. Walker is a medievalist and archaeologist. He’s the author of Roots Run Deep, a fantasy novel published by Double Dragon. There are no coprolites in his novel. Well, not too many.

93 comments:

Caledonia Lass said...

I don't know, Alex... having a job where you dig down into ancient outhouses just sounds crappy to me.

There, I got the bad pun comment out of the way for the rest of the day. ;)

Will Burke said...

Reminded me of that scene in Jurassic Park when they found the huge pile of dinosaur mess. The woman got all excited, pulled on a shoulder-legnth glove, and told the rest of the crew not to wait up.

Rhonda Albom said...

Is this a specialty branch of a archaeology - should we call them coprolitologists? I loved this crappy post.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Mel, you kicked this post off well! Or crappy, one of the two.

Will, I thought the same thing.

Rhonda - good question!

Tessa Conte said...

Hehehe... one of my cousins REALLY REALLY wanted to be an archeologist until she figured out that fieldwork was mostly the study of outhouses and their content... and I really had to laugh at the documentary I saw yesterday where this young archeology student waxed poetic about the fantabulastic find of a midden heap/crap heap...

The joys of science....

Old Kitty said...

What a scoop on ancient poop!!!

I hope AJ Walker is flushed with success with his book!! :-) Yay!

Take care
x

Emily Rose said...

I think I would want to be known for finding an ancient civilization or something.:)

Enid Wilson said...

That's fascinating. I know an archaelogist. She matches and identifies leather of medevial period. Seem very detail work to me. I don't have the patience. But I think archaelogy can provide very further background for fantasy or time travel stories.

Chemical Fusion

Jeffrey Beesler said...

Coprolites...I think archeology has dug up a new way for me to torture my characters! Thanks for sharing, AJ and Alex!

welcome to my world of poetry said...

Funnily enough I liked your post.
Here in England on one TV channel there is a weekly programme where a team does "A Dig" in a different place every week. It's very interesting.

Have a good day.
Yvonne.

Matthew MacNish said...

Wow, that's one fascinating stool!

Pearl said...

That was fascinating!!

Pearl

Angela Felsted said...

Way to dig deep, Alex. Dinosaur turd.

Talli Roland said...

Wow! So many things I never knew... and not sure I need to... :)

Stephen Tremp said...

Only nine inches long? I can beat that one in my sleep. My wife, for some odd reasons, doesn't seem to find it quite as exciting as I do. Clarissa Draper will like this post.

Gail said...

Thanks for the poop scoop!

Clarissa Draper said...

I never knew crap could be so interesting! While I have no desire to dig through feces to discover the secrets of old, I can see the benefits.

SharleneT said...

I shall remain above the rest and defer any puns... yes, I am above that... kind of sh--... Does a little kid stand around and say "I want to grow up and study poop. Whaddya say, Mom, ain't that great!" TMI! TMI! What ever happened to frozen mermaids in icebergs? That would be so much more refined... Come visit when you can and enter the give-away!

N. R. Williams said...

Hi A. J., and Alex. I can honestly say, I've never thought of waste in quite this way before. Interesting in a good way.
Nancy
N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium

Chris Phillips said...

I feel inspired to write a Teen Novel entitled Percy Eriksen and the Turds of Valhalla.

GigglesandGuns said...

So much for brunch with friends.

Carol Kilgore said...

LOL! You never know what you'll step in when you go blog hopping.

Bossy Betty said...

I saw your post title and thought you were writing about teaching!

BigMike said...

Some poor Viking 1000 years ago takes a crap....

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

This post and these comments have put a smile on my face this morning! Thanks. :)

Budd said...

very interesting reading while I ate my lunch.

Bob Sanchez said...

Dinorrhea. A great archaeological sub-specialty.

A.J. Walker said...

I just hope one of my creations gets studied in this fashion someday.

Sadly, I've never discovered a coprolite on my excavations, although I've worked on my fair share of middens (the PC term for rubbish heap)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Tessa, it's not as glorious as it sounds, is it?

Enid, more detail than I care to go into.

Jeffrey - get 'em!

Talli, TMI?

Sharlene, what about the guy who wants to be in charge of toilet paper production?

Chris, sounds like a winner to me.

Carol, good one!

Bob, touche!

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

Best. Post. EVAH!

Ciara said...

You got my attention with the title. LOL. I went to the Viking Museum in York a couple summers ago. Learned all about this stuff. :)
Going over to check out your blog now. :)

Sarah McCabe said...

Who knew poop could be so interesting? (Other than my kids, of course.) ;)

Wendy Tyler Ryan said...

I always wanted to be an archeologist. I even contemplated going back to school when my kids were really young because I always regretted not persuing it. Oh well, I guess I could write about it instead.

Summer Ross said...

I didn't realize they even tried for this kind of dig. Go figure- learn something new everyday- thanks for sharing this- uh- interesting post with us. :) I was thinking the whole time how much my nephew would love it.

Dani said...

How can anyone resist a beginning and ending like that? Too fascinating.

Dani said...

And now I'm reading through the comments - learning more about some of you than I want to know. LOL.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Fascinating AND disgusting, all in one!

Morgan Mandel said...

Yikes!
No privacy at all!
If they only knew what people were doing with their crap!

Morgan Mandel
http://morganmandel.blogspot.com
http://facebook.com/morgan.mandel

ali said...

Who knew crap could be so fascinating! And yet, this post totally was!

Thanks AJ!

And your cover is brilliant ~ I'm coming over to your blog now!

Laura said...

Oh yum - that went so well with my tea :)
LXxx

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I have heard the word before, perhaps in a show about dinosaurs but I never thought about studying human waste. I wonder if the guy was eating a lot or did he only visit the out house once a week? Not good.

Copyboy said...

9 inches? I think they're full of crap.

Jamie (Mithril Wisdom) said...

The first I heard of coprolite was about 15 years ago when I was hell bend on becoming a palaeontologist (dino poop, whoo!). I didn't realise that coprolite counted for less than palaeolithic specimens too.

Thanks for the post :D

M Pax said...

I love archeology. I'll have to pop over and visit AJ then.

Donea Lee said...

Fascinating. No, really! I guess it's more common than one might think.

Years ago, I made jewelry with some family members and had an idea for a fossil pendant. A cousin, who'd majored in Wildlife management said the most common fossil found (at least where I live) was fish poop. Sadly, the fish poop pendant never came to fruition... :)

Julie Musil said...

With poop in the title, of course I had to stop by and read this! It's like I'm 11 years old or something. Thanks, A.J. for the fun information :D

Helen Ginger said...

I do believe this was the first post I've read that was full of crap. Not only that, it was interesting crap!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Sarah, isn't it?

Wendy, there's always that.

Dani, isn't my army cool? In a weird sort of way...

Morgan, that thought crossed my mind...

Jamie, aren't you glad you changed your major?

Donea, think of the marketing possibilities!

JL Dodge said...

Lots of comments on this crap...LOL
both the post and the comments are a great read...

L'Aussie said...

This is a whole pile of shiiittte. During renos to our City Hall recently archaeologists have discovered a whole early settlement. Now let the digging begin, and sifting through the poop.

Denise<3

Romantic Friday Writers Second Challenge - LOST - Friday 20

Chuck said...

Alex, you had me at "ancient poop"...holy shiite muslim!

Theres just life said...

Wow this is interesting...but I think I will just stick to reading about crap and not digging through it.
Now if you will excuse me I have this urge to go scrub my hands.

Pamela Jo
http://theresjustlifeyaliveit.blogspot.com

Donna K. Weaver said...

Wow. What a topic, Alex. But there would be much to learn in that piece of ...

Leovi said...

Really interesting study habits through the poop. Currently applied to people I think would best result in the trash it generates.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

JL, Aj did good with this post - as did all of the commenters!

Chuck, I didn't know you cared!

Leovi, I can see people digging through our trash a thousand years from now...

WritingNut said...

Haha, I have to admit, I was very intrigued by the word "poop" in your title... but this turned out to be quite fascinating! :)

sue said...

hehe, my daughter is illustrating a book for an archaeologist at the moment, I must remind her to include some sketches of outhouses - I'm sure she's forgotten them! Very interesting post btw. Sue

Lydia K said...

Poop is garbage, unless it's a million years old. Then it's priceless!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Sue, that's funny!

The Words Crafter said...

I must say (wearing a grin) that I'm quite impressed at how tastefully you handled this post.

I can remember reading about the USSR people examining the leaders' poop, though I don't remember why...

This was strangely fascinating. Should I be worried?

LTM said...

good grief, Alex. A little warning please. Read this while I was eating and nearly barfed. :p

Okay, it IS fascinating, but still... ;p

Karen Peterson said...

It never occurred to me that the stuff would fossilize. Fascinating!

Rawknrobyn.blogspot.com said...

Alex, this was hysterical. I like the way you do humor: kind of subtle but serious and seriously funny.
xoRobyn

Dafeenah said...

I just don't think they get paid enough to do that job.

A.J. Walker said...

Ciara: Ah yes, the Viking Museum! I found the ride through the animitronic figures a bit embarrassing and silly. They include the Viking pooper though! He's grunting on his throne just before you leave the display. Very popular with the kids.

A.J. Walker said...

Dafeenah,

No we don't get paid enough! Perhaps you could speak with my director?

Jo Schaffer said...

Huge, geeked-out smile on my face! My first major was archaeology. I loooved going on digs with my professor. (=

Lauracea (Sue R) said...

Weeeellll...I don't suppose they actually "smell" when they're that old :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Words, I wouldn't be worried!

LTM, I did say it was poop!

Thanks Robyn!

Laurecea, I'd like to think they'd lose potency over time...

The Old Silly said...

"Coprolite" eh? I just learned a new word!

Nebular said...

Archaeology is everything but crappy. In fact, it's one of the most interesting jobs in the world :) Great post!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Nebular, considering a new profession?

Susan Fields said...

Interesting post. I never would have thought of what can be learned from a...er...coprolite, but it certainly makes sense!

Summer Ross said...

I tagged you on my blog

Margo Benson said...

9"!! I can imagine the Viking exctolling the one that got away.

Deana said...

That is about the most disgusting...yet most facinating information I think I have ever read:)

Abby Minard said...

Thanks. I just started eating a big ol hotdog for lunch when I opened your blog. Yum.

RaShelle said...

Alex - Oh, man. That was fascinating in a very disgusting way. Thanks soooo much. =D LOL!

Jennie Bailey said...

I never thought poop could be so interesting! One of the things that I love about your blog - I always learn new things and they are things that I wouldn't have sought out. So you are expanding my horizons in a good way. I just need to remember not to read your blog at lunch again...

GYPSYWOMAN said...

oh, i'd meant to leave a little note but i'm not sure i can think of anything appropriate - or funny - but uh, very interesting, well, different anyway, post!!! ;)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Margo, that's a scary thought.

Sorry, Abby!

Jennie, glad I'm taking you into new territory even if it entails poop at lunchtime.

Gypsy, I think all the angles have been covered now!

Michael Di Gesu said...

Ah, humm....

Are we reverting to slinging — now?

Interesting post, Alex.

Rusty Webb said...

Holy crap! If memory serves, it was they study of chimp poo that led scientists to the conclusion that AIDS originated in primates and jumped to humans.

Lots to discover in the world of waste.

Suze said...

I would love to write something intelligent in this little box but, alas, all I that comes to mind is, 'sick.'

Especially the part about the parasites. Blegh.

Powdered Toast Man said...

I though Stan's dad on South Park held the record for biggest turd.

manda said...

Thank you, Your writing has helped me,,
i like this blog,,
By Diet Solution Program

Rek said...

Why call it coprolite...sounded pretty heavy duty stuff to me....will there be a tale of "a Viking poop that launched a million digs"??
To think I dig archaeology programmes....

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Michael, we can sing if you like!

Rusty, I didn't know that.

Rek, maybe!

Eric said...

Wow Alex. Just wow.

I never thought I'd see a discussion of The Great Poo Poo on your blog. Just goes to show you that Alex's mind is full of all kinds of things...including this LOL.

Kari Marie said...

Wow. I thought I learned all I needed to know about poop from Oprah and Dr. Oz. Thanks for taking my knowledge to the next level - really old poop.

Archeology is kind of cool though. :)

Donna Hole said...

Fascinating. Nice to meet you AJ. I'll check out your site. The book cover looks good.

.......dhole

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Eric, I like to be different!

Mary Aalgaard said...

Funny post. And, so true, I'm sure. I'd heard that you can find more than coprolite down in those holes. That, in fact, outhouse holes were great places to dump trash and treasures alike. I have a couple kids digging up interesting objects in my next story.