Archaeology: The nasty task of digging in the dirt: David Keys reports on the unpleasant excavation of 17th-century excrement from Dudley Castle

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The Independent Culture
A SNAPSHOT of life and love in the English Civil War is gradually being revealed by patient scientific work on the remains of a 17th-century toilet.

Archaeologists have been sifting through the still-unpleasant excremental products of 300 Royalist soldiers garrisoned and then besieged in Dudley Castle, in the West Midlands, in the 1640's. They have unearthed thousands of clues as to how life was lived in a civil war fortress in both 'normal' and siege conditions.

Scientists have now almost completed a 10-year research programme which has examined 100 cubic feet of human excrement and other detritus.

The research, by academics from Birmingham and Liverpool universities and the British Museum, has so far revealed many aspects of the Civil War which had been omitted from the written record, including what the soldiers ate, how they avoided syphilis, and how life deteriorated under siege conditions.

In preparation for a siege, the Royalists stocked up with huge quantities of food and may even have grown some themselves within the castle precincts. An analysis of bones hurled down the castle toilets revealed that most of the meat was mutton and rabbit, with smaller quantities coming from pigs, deer and cattle.

One of the most common foods seems to have been the wild strawberry, and some may have been stockpiled in the form of preserve. Imported raisins and dried figs also appear to have been eaten in considerable quantities.

Apples were also consumed - but whether as raw fruit or in the form of cider made during the siege - is unclear. All the archeologists found were a few pips and large quantitites of apple cores.

Two dangerous poisons were also discovered in the detritus. The first - a now-rare weed called corncockle - was probably unwittingly used in bread, the seeds being similar in size to the ordinary cereal grains with which they were accidentally harvested.

The second poison - hemlock - may possibly have been used as a war-time anaesthetic - although an extremely dangerous and potentially lethal one.

The archaeologists (from Dudley Council archaeological unit) unearthed the materials which officers used to clean themselves when the supply of leaves (the precursor of toilet paper) ran out.

The excavations revealed that the leaf shortage forced them to go to incredible lengths. Silks, velvets, satins and elegant brocades from fine garments, furniture upholstery and even beautiful tapestries were cut into small squares. A desperate siege required desperate measures.

Also thrown down the toilet - ultimately - were the officers' reusable sheep-gut condoms - the oldest ever found anywhere in the world.

The need for condoms had developed out of the late 15th-century upsurge in syphilis, when around 10 per cent of the urban population became infected. By the mid-16th century, linen sheaths impregnated with herbal brews and inorganic salts were used as protection against the disease, and by around 1600, proper condoms made of animal gut were in use.

However, by the mid 17th-century, they had acquired a poor reputation. A French aristocratic lady advising her daughter described them as 'an armour against enjoyment and a spider web against danger'.

England was blamed for their invention - and the Italian adventurer Casanova called them 'English overcoats'.

The condoms were secured in place with the aid of small ribbons, 20 fragments of which the archaeologists unearthed - souvenirs of a long and often tedious war and an equally long and unpleasant excavation.

Throughout the Civil War, Dudley Castle was garrisoned by Royalist forces under Colonel Leveson. It was besieged twice, unsuccessfully in 1644, and finally in 1646, when the garrison surrendered to a parliamentarian commander, Sir William Brereton, after two weeks.

During their occupation of the castle, the Royalists made use of the massive 13th-century keep, probably as a command post. Toilets in this tower were utilised throughout the war. They took the form of chambers constructed in the thickness of the walls and connected to stone chutes which dropped 30 feet from the upper floors into pits which gradually filled with excrement and other refuse.

These deposits were, not surprisingly, left behind when the Royalist garrison left the castle after surrendering, and were further entombed with the demolition of the castle defences by order of Parliament in 1647.

(Photograph omitted)