Ancient Ablutions

I don’t know about you, but even as a child, I was always fascinated by the way our ancestors from our distant past may have conducted the minutiae of every day life. What they ate, how they slept, how children played, how they cooked, what their homes looked like, and so on; these were the things which occupied my mind far more than the major political upheavals and turbulent events they lived through, and kept me awake at night, or coloured my dreams.

Personal care interested me; hairstyles and fashion, cleanliness, how did they manage all this? After all, we know from all the old stories that beauty and style are  not modern concerns.

Lets get this over with first, huh? I know you’re curious, don’t try and deny it. How did the ancient people go to the toilet?

Ever heard of a place called Skara Brae? It’s a stone-built Neolithic village in the Orkneys consisting of eight houses, which was occupied from about 3180 BC–2500 BC, and is older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids.

Skara Brae By Wknight94 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

These houses were sunk into the ground, presumably to protect and insulate them from the harsh weather. All the furniture in them was built from stone, as there were no trees growing on the island.

There are so many fascinating features about these dwellings, but for the purpose of this post, I will tell you about only one of them.

Each house had built beneath its floor a complete drainage system. Some of these houses had separate cubicles with a drain in them, and it is thought that these were actually toilets, probably the kind that you squat over, I should think. Over 5000 years ago… how amazing is that?

Some ancient civilisations, such as that of the Indus valley (3300 – 1900BC) and the Minoans on Crete (sooo-1600BC) had sewerage and drainage systems built under their homes with toilets that actually flushed with water.

It seems our ancient ancestors were far more comfortable with their bodily functions than we are today.

Take the Romans, for example; they had communal latrines with long benches to sit on, with numerous keyhole shaped holes which gave onto ditches flushed with waste bath water. There was no privacy;  people sat side by side to… well, conduct their business, and have their business meetings, or socialise at the same time! Eeeuw!

Ostia Roman trench Toilets By Fubar Obfusco -, Public Domain,

Ostia Roman trench Toilets By Fubar Obfusco –, Public Domain,

Our Irish ancestors left behind less evidence of their toilet habits (pardon the puns!). Medieval castles had garderobes, a small chamber with a platform over a hole in the floor. Some had chutes through which waste fell, others just had a hole, and the faeces were dumped down the castle wall. Must have been a cold and draughty experience in winter, and a particularly pungent one in the warmer summer months!

Cathair na BhFionnúrach is an incredible figure of eight shaped stone fort which has stood on the Dingle peninsula for over a thousand years. Its two rooms are connected by an internal door, and the smaller room at the rear also has access to an underground souterrain.

Beyond this room, lies a large cess-pit which the inhabitants used as their toilet; it was 2m wide by 1.9 deep and partially stone-lined. It was found to contain straw, grass and flax, which may have been used as toilet paper, as well as human faeces.

Various fruit seeds were also recovered  by archaeologists, including apple, blackberry and hazelnut as well as exotic imports, such as grapes, so clearly it was also used as a rubbish dump.

There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of a structure built over it to provide shelter or privacy. I imagine this type of toilet had not advanced in many years; it served its purpose, and our ancient ancestors were too busy innovating in other areas, metalworking, for example.

Did you know that the Celts were said to have invented soap? I don’t know if that’s true, but according to Pliny (Roman author, naturalist and philosopher 23-79AD), the Celtic Gauls introduced soap made from sheep tallow, animal fats and plant ashes, to the Romans, and called it saipo. The Old Irish word for soap is sleic.

The Romans observed that the Celts were very particular concerning their bathing habits and personal grooming. The Irish merely washed their hands  in a nearby stream or well on rising, and bathed later in the day. For this, they kept a large vessel indoors called a dabach (pronounced dau-vah). It was considered extremely important to have bathing facilities available for guests, as hospitality was vital to a person’s honour in those days.

I’m sure they often bathed in lakes and rivers, too, when the weather was mild. Even in summer, this is an invigorating experience, I can assure you! Strange things happen when people bathed in lakes, though; Queen Medb of The Cattle Raid of Cooley fame was killed by a slingshot of hard cheese (I kid you not!) while she was bathing in a lake on an island in Lough Ree, Co. Roscommon.

Fedelm and Eithne, princesses of Connacht were bathing in the sacred spring of Ogalla, when they were chanced upon by St Patrick and his priests. A discussion on religion took place, whereupon the girls agreed to be baptised and immediately died, in order to ascend to heaven in purity. Sounds suspiciously like foul play to me.

Here is the story of Gile, a young woman who went to bathe in a lake, and died of shame when she caught her lover spying on her. Her father killed the young man, and subsequently died of grief himself soon after.

“Bright Gile, Romra’s daughter, to whom every harbour was known, the broad lake bears her name to denote its outbreak of yore. The maiden went, on an errand of pride that has hushed the noble hosts, to bathe in the spray by the clear sand-strewn spring. While the modest maiden was washing in the unruffled water of the pool, she sees on the plain tall Omra as it were an oak, lusty and rude. Seeing her lover draw near, the noble maid was stricken with shame: she plunged her head under the spring yonder: the nimble maid was drowned. Her nurse came and bent over her body and sat her down yonder in the spring: as she keened for Gile vehemently, she fell in a frenzy for the girl. As flowed the tears in sore grief for the maiden, the mighty spring rose over her, till it was a vast and stormy lake. Loch Gile is named from that encounter after Gile, daughter of Romra: there Omra got his death from stout and lusty Romra. Romra died outright of his sorrow on the fair hill-side: from him is lordly Carn Romra called, and Carn Omra from Omra, the shame-faced [gap: extent: two lines] Loch Gile here is named from Gile, Romra’s daughter.”

from The Metrical Dinnsenchus

It is thought a warrior had to bathe before battle and before a meal. Some claim this was the function of the extraordinary structures found dotted around the Irish countryside, known as fulachta fiadh.

These sites consist of a low, semi-circular shaped mound of soil rich with charcoal deposits, and scattered with heat-shattered stones; a hearth on which a fire was built,  and a central trough dug into the ground. The pit was often lined with planks of wood, or slabs of stone, and sometimes clay.

The stones were thought to have been heated in the fire and then dropped into the pit in order to heat the water it contained. It could have been used to cook large batches of meat, or perhaps to heat water for bathing. You can read more about the fullachta fiadh in my post, How Do You Feed a Hungry Fianna?

Another feature of our Irish countryside are the intriguing little bee-hive shaped stone structures called sweat-houses. Their purpose is not known for sure, but soot lining the inner surface indicates fires were lit within them.

Whether they were used for smoking and preserving food, or inhaling the smoke of mind altering substances, or as ancient saunas is not known for certain. Personally, I see no reason why they couldn’t have served all three functions.

Men and women both wore their hair long. In battle, it was coated in lime, which whitened it and held it out of their faces while they fought. Often, both sexes wore their hair curled and elaborately dressed. Conall Cernach, (a hero warrior of the Ulster Cycle of mythology), for example, in The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, had fair hair which flowed down his back, and was done up in ‘hooks and plaits and swordlets’.

The Book of Kells, which is famous for its elaborate artwork, shows men and women alike with hair which has been plaited and braided and worked into sections. In fact, many of these hairstyles are so ornate, they must have taken hours to create, and could only have been dressed by a professional hairstylist.

Oisin was carried off on the back of a white horse into the Otherworld by the Sidhe princess, Niamh of the Golden Hair….

her golden hair hung in tresses, and at the end of each plait hung a bead. To some men her hair was the colour of the yellow flag iris which grows by summer water; others thought it like ruddy polished gold.”

Ciabhán, prince of Desmond, went to the Otherworld when he fell in love with Clíodhna. He was known by the epithet ‘of the curling locks’. I imagine there was some vanity involved in this, for he was asked to leave the Fianna for his womanising. Perhaps he spent a lot of time on his hair in order to attract the women!

The beard, or féasóg, was given much the same treatment. Think dwarves from the Hobbit movies; sometimes it was worn long and fashioned into two points, sometimes squared, sometimes divided into sections and twisted into ‘slender fillets’. Mustaches were curled and pointed at the ends, and not always accompanied by a beard. Sometimes, the whole face was left bare.

An ancient text known as Cormac’s Glossary mentions the common use of razors, and many bronze examples have been found by archaeologists. Combs were also in common use, and usually made of bone or horn, often highly decorated. Mirrors were made from polished metal, and known as scathán (pronounced ska-han) or scaterc, from scáth derc, meaning ‘shadow-seeing’, which I think is quite lovely.

Cormac’s Glossary also claims that the blush of a cheek was often emphasised with pigment from ruam, the alder tree, and that eyebrows were darkened with the juice of berries. Fingernails were dyed red, although how, I’m not sure. Deirdre, in her grief for the deaths of the sons of Uisneach, who were killed protecting her, claims that she will never sleep or crimson her nails, for she will never know joy again.

Etaín, for example, was described in the ancient text Togail Bruidna Da Derga, The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, as having shimmering waves of fire-gold hair, skin as white as snow, and blushing cheeks red as foxgloves. White skin and red cheeks are mentioned often in the old tales. I wonder how much of this was enhancement by early cosmetics.

And there’s me thinking that all these Celtic goddesses were just natural beauties…

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100 Comments on “Ancient Ablutions

  1. This is a fantastic post, Ali. I’ve always been fascinated with everyday life in the past too. And I’m very impressed by all the details you found. I mean, I research the 1920s and details on everyday life are hard enough to find. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be finding this kind of details about ancient populations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know! This one was hard. It doesn’t seem to be a subject academics are interested in so archaeologists and historians haven’t really investigated it. But some stuff, like all that about the Romans,,is well known, cos they documented their lives so well, and left plenty of ‘evidence’ behind… Oh pardon the puns! 😁😂😄

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This article has some fascinating information. Thanks. As usual, you have an interesting take on the subject – any subject you take on. Missing your articles on Irish Central, but I understand.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Mention in Dispatches – Irish Ablutions – Lollipops – The Camino Trail- Copycats | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  4. As a child, I lived for many years in the Welsh town of Chepstow. The town has a castle and I always remember one of the small rooms haveing a ledge which had a grill in it. When you looked down through the grill all you could see was the River Wye. That, we were told, was where people in the castle went to toilet with everything ending up in the river. The castle was build in 1067, so much later than the times you are talking about, Ali. Nevertheless, it seems the same ideas went a long way down the timeline.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a fascinating read! Thanks so much for sharing all this information. When I visited Pompei (more than 20 years ago) I was completely enthralled by the baths, hairstyles and other grooming habits. I guess no one said maintaining beauty was easy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh you went to Pompeii? I am so envious! I’ve wanted to go there since I was a child and first heard of it. No, and the beautifying hasn’t got any easier, but definitely more painful! 😂

      Liked by 1 person

      • You should go, Ali, it’s beautiful! I went there with my family when I was thirteen. I loved it, but I admit I did not pay any attention to the beauty styles at the time. I was pretty haunted by how they all died.

        Hmmm, I still don’t put much weight on looks, particularly my own, at least when it comes to make-up and anything else that takes a long time. I’m a bit of a tomboy and look fine either way.

        In my very personal opinion, modern methods to inject stuff into or otherwise physically alter a person in some way with the single aim of just making them more beautiful falls under culturally acceptible torture. It makes me cringe.

        But we’re not unique in that, just think about the victorian era when people wore make-up which was so toxic that they’d get immediately poisoned if they ingested it (which was very easy to do, all it took was touching your face and then picking up your food later on.) I’ve heard that people could die from poisonous dyes in socks too. From that point of view we’re much better off. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Boy, I get exactly what you mean with your dreams and wondering how our ancestors lived… It is fascinating to wonder how they lived their lives versus how we live ours here now in the “modern world.” It is surprising that they had relatively sophisticated drainage systems, but then certainly makes sense. How I would like to spend a day/week/month/year back in those days ~ wonderful post Ali, thank you for the wonder and dreams it created 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hey Dalo! Thank you. I am surprised at how many other people wonder about the same strange things I get stuck on… I’m glad I’m not the only one! I know, it is so amazing what ancient civilisations were able to do. They weren’t primitive at all, even though some of their customs may seem quite barbaric to us, like Roman gladiator fighting, etc. I’m glad the majority of us have moved on from that sort of thing. Yes, I’d like to join you on that trip… I hope you’ll have your camera at the ready, and a huge supply of fully charged battery packs to back it up. I’ll bring the toilet roll, lol!!!


  7. I remember way back when some of the public toilets in Greece were a hole in the floor.- and those in Italy that had no seats. Of course males always had that handy thing for picnics and hiking. I love your tales of the toilets Ali, and yes ancient Rome where they passed around the bucket with the sponge stick in it! yikes! Our ancestors were very resourceful it seems. Sadly so much was lost in the middle ages in Europe like all that indoor plumbing while the arabs entered a golden age and had all that and great libraries too!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Oh the sponge on a stick… proper YUK! haha! Greek toilets are fine now, but you cant flush paper down them. That doesn’t bother me, but some English people are a bit prim about it. You are right though about the Middle Ages losing so much knowledge in the west, whilst the Arabs entered their golden age, that is so true.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Fascinating never thought about the fact that they had no issue with public toileting.

    All reminds me of Nepal and trekking in the Himalayas and their… ‘Drops’ *shudder*

    Liked by 2 people

    • Lucky you! I never made it to Nepal. I hope I still will. Have had some rather horrendous toilet experiences myself on my travels, lol! Great to reminisce over, but not quite so great to experience at the time!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I think it humanises the ancestors to learn about their, er, ablutions. Everyone is fascinated by all that indoor lumping going back thousands of years. There’s a lovely sweat house right behind Newgrange – relatively recent, of course, and a fine example of this country custom.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Bloody brilliant post, Ali. As you can tell by my sense of humour, there’s nothing I like better than some toilet history. As for the grossness of the communal excretions, I suppose they were so used to bad smells pretty much anywhere that the bog was no exception.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Suzanne! 😊 Strange, the unimportant details of life which occupy our minds. Maybe its because no matter the separation of centuries between us, there are some things which remain common to all humans and provide the connection between us.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I also find this type of information fascinating. Thanks for an interesting post!
    My World of the American Revolution includes entries on privies, menstruation, laundry, etc. Revolutionary Era Americans used soap for laundry, but not for washing themselves. But they didn’t do a whole lot of that either. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

            • Agreed, I’d love to learn more about that particular subject, too. I … have definitely thought about it. Whatever women did, they seem to have not been so adamant about privacy. We’re much more secretive and discretionary about bodily functions now. People seem to have been much more comfortable with their own bodies, too. I suppose some women could die of shame if someone saw them with little or no clothing. But for what it is worth, Ailbhe expressed some surprise over that kind of reaction and says it never bothered her any. 🙂

              Liked by 2 people

            • I think some of that is true in that people have often lived together and shared quarters so that there was little privacy. At the same time, in some cultures women have had to live apart in separate huts during their menstrual periods.


            • I’ve learned about the separate huts and even red tents, too. My intuition is that women in ancient Ireland didn’t live apart while menstruating. It might have been considered part of women’s mysteries but no need to separate people over.

              Liked by 2 people

            • Yeah there’s o indication of this in the old stories. Although there is the mysterious Isle of Women I’d love to know more about. I’m sure this was more of a religious commune of some kind, rather than anything else.


  12. Fabulous post, Ali! I can’t imagine assembling for a chat on the toilet. LOL. How interesting though, that the ancients had sewage systems and a primitive water heater. I have to say, I hung on to every word in this fascinating essay.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Wow. That’s really quite interesting, despite the obviousness grossness to the toilet parts. LOL I would have never guessed in a million years that those keyhole seats were community toilets. You definitely get an A+ for your phenomenal research skills here, Ali! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Utterly fascinating! I didn’t know that Skara Brae had sewer systems. There are some places in the UK where girls can share a bathroom when clubbing. I think I would have to be very drunk…

    Liked by 1 person

  15. How interesting, Ali! Seems our ancient ancestors were as vain with their looks as we are today – in some places. I do know the Pilgrims (a more recent history) aboard the Mayflower used a communal bucket attached to the wall of the ship – and didn’t bathe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ugh can you imagine? Actually, I think I’d rather not. I think in later times there was a fear of bathing. I suspect it had something to do with waters magical properties and it’s association with the Sidhe and the fairies, who were quite demonised following the onset of Christianity. Also awareness of one’s body and how sinful it was. But I’m not sure, it’s use a thought.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve had similar conjectures, Ali. I think Christianity played a huge role in changing people’s views on their bodies and how they related to them – and not for the better. I have been told that our ancestors washed quite a bit more and took much better care of themselves than most people in the middle ages. It’s so strange how powerful belief systems are. Beliefs cause people to do some very odd things. That’s still true today of course. I sometimes think about behaviors and habits we engage in every day, and why we do them: if you think hard enough about some of the things we do, you get pretty baffled. I do, anyway. But perhaps that’s because I sometimes find myself observing my own culture through a more ancient perspective.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s probably true, Êilis. I suspect you are able to see things from quite a unique perspective. I agree with you about the effect of Christianity on knowledge and wisdom and so on. It can’t be coincidence that the two occurred in the same period of time. It certainly ushered in some horrific superstitions and rules.

          Liked by 1 person

    • I know. I think things had changed quite a lot by medieval times. We do have this idea that ancient people’s were primitive, ignorant and savage. Its not quite how things were, but we only have the old stories and archaeology to go by, and that means our interpretations of them, which can vary from person to person. But even so, what we can glean is quite enlightening. Thanks Don. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Another interesting post, Ali 🙂 if I had a time machine I’d love to go back in time to see these places in their heyday – however, I do think I’d struggle with the ‘facilities’ – I don’t even like camping 😆😆 In some ways Skara Brae seems the most ‘civilised’ of them all – it’s somewhere I’d love to visit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, me too. And I’ve done my backpacking and wild camping and loved ever minute of it. But now I want my comforts. A proper bed and my own shower and toilet at the end of a days tracking, thank you very much! 😀😂😄

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Great post, Ali. I’d love to go to Orkney some day to see Skara Brae.
    In rural parts of Afghanistan there may be a couple of pit latrines – a hole in the ground – in the village. They have walls but usually only a piece of sacking for a door. When inside you cough loudly if you hear someone approach. Everyone takes a jug of water with them for washing purposes. However, if travelling and there is no water, a couple of stones can be used. I travelled round with my own toilet rolls, which I think people thought very unhygienic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha! I bet you got really good at coughing while you were there, Mary! Funny that they would see toilet paper as unhygienic, I think stones would be worse, and quite uncomfortable. I lived in Kuwait for a child, and every toilet is accompanied by a bidet, it’s the norm there, and I think in a lot of Arabic countries.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Agreed, stones… ouch! Even leaves would be a bit better than that? …

        My brothers and I had our first experience with a bidet while we were in Italy as children. We honestly didn’t know what it was, what you’d even do with it. Our favorite activity was to play truth or dare and immediately dare someone to go use it. The person who took up the dare would sit on it and turn it on, or just turn it on and speculate about why it was there… all while remaining fully clothed. Then one of us finally asked my mom about it. We stopped messing with it after that, I for one found it intimidating once I figured out what it was used for. Lol!


  18. great post thank you. Especially for mentioning Skara Brae coming from Orkney Island called Rousay, also named “The island of the Dead” for all the cairns and tombs and structures that are on it. Midhowe broch on Rousay was a favourite haunt when a kid, I tried to share a pic here with you but it wouldnt work. This is a very interesting subject and one that I think a lot about as well, down to the soap, washing and yes, the toilet . lol

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lol! So I’m not alone then? Hooray! So you come from Orkney? Yes it is covered with structures isn’t it? All pretty well preserved because there has been so little action by man on the land. So we can learn so much from it. I’d love to see your pictures, maybe you can email me if you can’t post them here? I think you would have to upload the pics into your media library, then click on each one to gets its url, then copy and paste the url into your comment. That should work. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  19. I admit it, Ali, I have exactly the same type of curiosity as you. What ancient people used for toilet paper was always one of the questions I asked myself as a child. When my parents went on a trip to China (with the Yorkshire Communist Party) the toilet facilities were communal. Men’s and women’s. My mum said there would be women sitting there chatting, not actually ‘doing’ anything, just there for the craic. Maybe that’s a Chinese girl thing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha! I can imagine. Doesn’t sound like my idea of fun though. Your parents sound interesting, going to China with the Yorkshire Communist party??? Didn’t even know there was such a thing. I guess you didn’t have a regular upbringing either. I’d love to hear about that some day. 😊


      • They should have written a book about it. You’d have loved their story of the trip to the battlegrounds of the Spanish Civil War that they advertised in the Catholic churches to fill up the left over seats on the coach—told them it was a trip to Lourdes! There was mutiny, sit down strikes and refusal to comply with orders on both sides.

        Liked by 2 people

  20. It’s not often someone could make a person’s toilet habits into an interesting History Lesson Ali. You not only managed to alter our perception of the peoples of old but also showed just how sophisticated they could be in terms of personal care. And here’s us thinking we were top dog for trips to the grooming salons and that they were only just invented by comparison.
    Our perception of what people were like so many years ago has changed a lot over the years to show they were not the savages once thought but traders of the finest luxury goods with many contacts abroad.Having thought the Romans so advanced with their systems, it’s good to know the ancient Celts also knew how to live on Skara Brae.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi David. I think there are two reasons the Romans get all the credit for their advanced civilisation; 1. They recorded everything they did. 2. They manipulated the landscape to suit themselves, whereas the Celtic people’s, for example, lived as part of nature and within the landscape, and did not leave so much of a ‘footprint’ behind. So hence people assume that everyone earlier than the Romans were primitive savages, which couldn’t be further from the truth. It has to be remembered as well that the Romans absorbed other peoples customs and traditions in their inexorable sweep across Europe, making all the good things they adopted seem like theirs, soap and straight roads being 2 examples. Stara Brae is just amazing. I’d love to go there. Sigh! So many places to visit, I wonder how many of them I’ll manage? Hope you’re having a good week David. Huge hugs! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  21. So interesting, Ali. The toileting customs rarely enter into books (for good reason), but the bathing and hair care and makeup and all the other parts of personal care are so interesting and can add rich detail to a read. 🙂 Lots of great stuff in here! Have a great week.

    Liked by 1 person

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