Thursday, 27 June 2013

This Castle’s Toilet Still Holds Parasites From Crusaders’ Feces

Cyprus, the Mediterranean island nation just south of Turkey, took centuries to gain its independence. The Greeks, Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Ottomans, British and others all took their turns taking over the island, and each left their mark on the archeological record. But in a ruined chamber in a castle on the western corner of the island, it may be more apt to say the invaders left a smear.

In 1191, during the Third Crusade, King Richard I of England invaded Cyprus and ordered that a castle be built on the island’s western corner in order to defend the harbor there. Called Saranda Kolones, the castle’s name refers to its many monolithic columns. But in typical tumultuous Cyprus fashion, the medieval castle was only used for thirty years before it was destroyed by an earthquake. By then, King Richard had sold Cyprus to Guy de Lusignan, the King of Jerusalem. Lusignan and his successors had other plans for expanding the island. The wrecked port was abandoned and the castle never rebuilt. 

As castles go, Saranda Kolones had a pretty poor run. But two University of Cambridge researchers recently realized that, precisely thanks to the castle’s short use, a priceless treasure had been left behind in the Saranda Kolones’ bowels. One of the centuries-old castle latrines (read: ancient toilet), they found, was still full of dried-up poo. That feces, they thought, could provide valuable insight into what kind of parasites plagued the former residents’ guts. And because only 30 years’ worth of waste clogged the ancient sewage system, those parasites could provide specific insight into what ailed medieval crusaders. The researchers rolled up their sleeves and collected samples from the dessicated cesspool.

To rehydrate the ancient night soil, the team placed one gram of their sample into a chemical liquid solution. They used micro sieves, or tiny strainers to separate parasite eggs from the digested remains of the crusaders’ meals. They created 20 slides, and peeked into their microscopes to see what creatures the soldiers may have left behind.

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