The town, its waste and the cesspit
The rise and fall of the cesspit in an urban context
- Roos van Oosten
- 01 December 2015
In recent decades, urban archaeology in the Netherlands has yielded a vast amount of evidence about the post-Medieval town in many of its manifestations. Aspects include the emergence of towns, their topography, material culture and its functioning. The profusion of data means that writing synthetic studies has become a complex matter. For the first time in Dutch urban archaeology, a more comprehensive picture emerges as Roos van Oosten looks beyond the boundaries of individual towns by examining the everyday phenomenon of managing and processing human excrement in seven pre-industrial towns (1200–1800 CE): Alkmaar, Haarlem, Leiden, Amersfoort, Dordrecht, Deventer and Den Bosch. She presents a typology of cesspits, distinguishing between cesspits in private dwellings and shared facilities. The author does not shrink from vivid discussions of stench nuisance and the periodic emptying of cesspits.
Traditionally, archaeologists have considered cesspits mainly as rich aggregations of discarded artefacts. By contrast, this study addresses various issues relating to the town as a community. The book provides a sound archaeological and historical analysis of the cesspit as a phenomenon and as a typical feature of urban life; connections are made between population density and the demand for fertiliser in the surrounding countryside.
The town, its waste and the cesspit provides a fascinating socio-economic analysis of urban society in the pre-industrial period and shows that early-Modern town fathers interpreted their responsibilities as guardians of the commonweal differently from their Medieval predecessors. The 'Golden' 17th century saw the early demise of the Medieval mandatory cesspit. As a result, the Dutch ‘Great Stink’ from polluted town canals could be smelled two centuries before industrialisation took hold.