Pondering privies: construction, use, reuse and other speculations about cesspits in the archaeological record

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Colleges, School and Institutes


Should cesspits be excavated and recorded in detail? In the UK, cesspits often are considered ‘mundane’ and frequently overlooked during excavation or only half-heartedly recorded. This paper explores the biography of cesspits – their construction, use, re-use and closure/ abandonment, as well as their archaeological investigation and interpretation. What does a cesspit look like? How might we better recognise cesspits archaeologically? By exploring modern NGO guidance and high-quality archaeological studies of cesspits and latrines, we can begin to understand something of the common biography of these features. Comparison between the approach to the excavation/ recording of cesspits in the USA to that of the UK also may inform our collective approach to these features at any archaeological site. Perhaps our own assumptions and approaches to the archaeological interpretation of these features may be hindering our understanding of their significance as important records of status and societal behaviour? This paper will conclude by exploring the interpretation of cesspits from two different chronological periods in the UK, outlining entirely different approaches to quite similar data.


Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Archaeological Method and Theory
Early online date4 Jun 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 4 Jun 2020