Why Archaeologists Should Always Remember to Wash Their Hands

Wash Hands thumbnail

Archaeologists face all sorts of hazards – from extreme weather to raging bulls. But none presents as big a hazard as the archaeology itself, as this discovery just goes to show…

Pottery can tell us all sorts of surprising things about medieval life. But when we sent some of our own discoveries off for analysis by Time Team’s pottery expert Paul Blinkhorn, what he sent back was a clear and undeniable warning: never, ever forget to wash your hands on a dig.

During excavations at 14th century Leiston Abbey, a team of diggers including Venturers Sian and Simon found what looked like an ordinary pot. Originally thought to have been part of the midden (a.k.a rubbish heap) for the abbey’s medieval kitchen, it was mostly complete, but with a crack down the middle and a small hole drilled into the bottom of it.

But when Paul took a closer look, he found something that surprised him; coating the inner surface was an unusually thick amount of limescale…

What exactly IS that limescale?


Near-complete urinal pot found at Monk Bretton

Paul has suggested that this pot may have been originally used as a cooking pot before it was recycled for use as… A urinal!

Yucky urinals

These so-called urinal pots (chipped or broken cooking ware that turns out to have served a secondary purpose) have been found on a number of other sites, including the recent near-complete urinal found at the priory site of Monk Bretton near Sheffield. These urinals are often found down reredorter (latrine) drains, just like the one from Leiston Abbey. Indeed, judging from its position, the pot from Leiston Abbey looks like it was originally set in the ground to allow the contents to seep away.

The possibility that this pot was a urinal serves as a big reminder to ALWAYS wash your hands after you have been digging! But what do you think? Was this a urinal or had the pot been modified for some other domestic or industrial purpose? What else might this modification have been for? Have you seen anything similar anywhere before?

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Written by Kezia Evans

Kezia’s parents knew that she would be an archaeologist when they found her digging for ‘old things’ in the garden with a teaspoon at the age of six. She is now a fully-grown, tea-drinking museum-worker who in her spare time enjoys visiting... more museums!

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