BMCR 2012.11.14

Manure Matters: Historical, Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives

, Manure Matters: Historical, Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. xi, 249. ISBN 9780754669883. $124.95.


Few substances are nowadays considered as ‘low’ and ‘dirty’ as excrement, and it is therefore not surprising that it is not a common subject in classical studies. Yet, before the advent of modern sanitation, faeces and urine were certainly more present in everyday life. As recent studies show, they were also valued differently, both socially and economically.1 Excrement (and other organic refuse) was an important resource to increase agricultural productivity: systematic and targeted application of manure could lead to agricultural intensification, associated with significant increases in labour input.

The volume Manure Matters clearly illustrates the importance of manure to past societies. The twelve papers it contains examine manure from a variety of angles and in a variety of geographic and chronological contexts. They offer a mix of reviews, presentations of analytical techniques, and case studies. With the volume, the editor aims “to promote dialogue between disciplines and across period specialisms.” While having a scope that covers much of Europe, the Near East and India, it is certainly of relevance to classical and Mediterranean archaeologists, where the interpretation of off-site distributions as resulting from manuring strategies has been hotly debated.2 After discussing the book, I will comment on its relevance in light of this discussion.

The first two chapters may be read as the introductory section. In the first chapter Jones provides an introduction to the importance of manuring: “Across the great sweep of time, few issues have been more important to the great majority of the human population than the maintenance of soil fertility” (p. 9). Soil fertility was of prime importance for crop yields, agricultural production levels, and therefore a deciding factor in population growth. As farmers relied on animals for traction and people did not directly dispose of excrement through sewers, natural manure of high quality (even in comparison with modern artificial fertilizer) was commonly available. The importance of manuring is also clear from Jones’ review of the ancient sources, which focuses on the Roman agronomers. The second paper (by Shiel) addresses a number of basic questions: why does a soil need manure? what types of manure were available? what are the best kinds of manure, what is in them and how much of it is needed? It reviews a range of potential manure sources, including bone meal, sea weed, wool and hair, and presents telling calculations of the potential impact of manuring on productivity: one human’s manure can yield 60 kg of wheat extra per year, while a bull, producing 240 kg of meat, also provides enough manure to each year produce another 315 kg of wheat.

These two introductory chapters are followed by contributions that (as stated in the subtitle) give historical, archaeological, and an ethnographic perspective on manure. Some of the archaeological papers outline research methods and techniques, others explore social aspects of manure in specific historical contexts.

The evidence for manuring in the Roman agronomers is introduced in the first chapter. Later sources are discussed in chapter 9 by Varisco, focusing on Arabic literary sources, and in chapter 12 by Ramprasad, considering the Vedic literature. They describe the terms used for different types of manure and the ways in which they were applied. Both underline the importance of manure in maintaining soil fertility over very long periods of time and in very different regions. They also highlight the elaborate procedures and specific choices involved in processing and applying manure, with clear influences from the Roman agronomers. On the downside, both chapters are very descriptive and hardly explore the analytical potential of the sources they discuss. The authors of chapter 7 (Cullen and Jones) present a study of the toponomastic evidence for manure and manuring in the UK in (post-) medieval sources. While it forms a welcome addition to the other historical studies, it equally does not explore the full potential of this type of data to study, for example, regional and chronological variations in manuring strategies.

In chapter 10, Jones presents a more innovative historical approach. He explores the social and symbolic dimensions of manure in the medieval world, showing that manure was appreciated for its elemental and humoural properties rather than in terms of chemical composition. Different types of manure would accordingly be applied to different soil types: animal dung, being warm and wet, was beneficial for cold and dry soils, while cold and dry animal bone was considered fit for warm and wet soils. Based on a range of written sources and the conspicuous absence of manure in iconography, Jones explores the social and theological connotations of dung. This chapter provides interesting leads to study attitudes towards manure and its perceived working in the ancient world, as there may be similarities with the medieval perception of elements and their properties.

A central problem in the study of manure, and perhaps also the reason for the limited attention it has received in archaeology, is its identification: archaeologists have primarily hypothesized manuring through indirect evidence (off-site pottery scatters). While some techniques to detect manure (phosphate analysis) have been around for several decades, the volume introduces a number of less known science-based and botanical techniques. In chapter 5, Bull and Evershed discuss the use of geochemical signatures, decay-products typical for faeces of different animals (including humans). Chapter 6 (by Kenward and Hall) reviews potential palaeo-biological markers of stable manure deposits: like geochemical signatures, certain plants, but also beetle species, pollen, fungal spores, intestinal eggs and mites are typically found in stable manure deposits. Chapter 8 (by Pears) presents a comparative analysis of anthropogenic soils, using micromorphology, geochemistry, and macro-organic analyses. Besides offering an introduction to these techniques, this chapter also demonstrates their potential to identify different manuring strategies within a single farm estate (with different levels of intensity in gardens, in-field and out-field areas) and between regions (in this case the Netherlands, Ireland and Fair Isle, UK).

Besides these methodological chapters, there are two archaeological papers that focus on the meanings of manure in ancient societies. Bogaard in chapter 3 discusses existing models that consider Neolithic agriculture to have been primitive and extensive. By contrast, she argues that the availability of manure implies that intensive manuring on a limited scale could take place. Moreover, she suggests that manure, as a source of increased production and wealth, would have contributed to status differentiation. While Bogaard presents little direct evidence to support this thesis, in view of its implications for models of social development it certainly merits further investigation. The fourth chapter (by Waddington) focuses on late Bronze Age mound sites that probably served as central places for surrounding communities. These mounds, coming into use in a period of climatic change and social stress, were new meeting places where “knowledge relating to new technologies, trade and cosmologies was disseminated.” (p. 59). Dung would have had social, symbolic and economic roles: not only was potential manure contained in the mounds used as fuel in craft production, it also (literally) provided a platform for festivals, gatherings and rituals. Furthermore, the mounds could represent a symbolic act of stockpiling valuable manure in the face of stress on agricultural resources.

Forbes in chapter 11 presents an ethnographic approach to manure. Drawing on interviews with traditional farmers on the Methana peninsula (Greece), he brings two welcome nuances to the above-mentioned debate on off-site distributions and their interpretation as manuring spreads. A first observation concerns the composition of manure: the use of ceramics was limited in this community, and other artefacts (glass, metal) were often disposed of in different locations than on spoil heaps. This implies that manuring should not always be expected to leave clear off- site distributions. A second point concerns the spatial configuration of manuring spreads. As manure was scarce (households typically had a few sheep and/or goats), it was applied consciously to specific areas and crops, and not evenly across an estate. This implies that manuring should not necessarily result in continuous off-site ‘carpets’, as sometimes suggested.

Perhaps the reader finds my discussion of the chapters somewhat confusing, zapping back and forth through the volume. This is also the main flaw of Manure Matters : the order in which the papers are presented seems arbitrary, if not illogical. Furthermore, they cover such a wide range of topics, regions and periods that the cohesion between them is weak. As a result, the wider implications of the case studies and the potential of the different techniques discussed remain unexplored. A concluding chapter pointing out common themes and future perspectives would have added much. At the same time, the well-written introductory papers on manure and manuring serve well as basic reading. The methodological papers provide less easy reading, but are also valuable in introducing research strands to a wider audience. Similarly, the papers that focus on the social meaning and context of manure present useful, new approaches to the subject. Therefore, the broad scope helps introducing manure as a multifaceted research topic, and hints at the potential for comparative studies, for example where it concerns the ritual meanings and religious associations of manure.

The same holds true for the economic dimensions, and in this light the volume is of direct relevance for classical antiquity: it may inspire more refined studies of land use patterns and off-site distributions. We must acknowledge that manuring strategies varied, and we should therefore not expect manuring spreads to be homogeneous. In fact, manuring may not be represented by off-site distributions at all. To understand land use patterns and the importance of manuring, we need complementary approaches, and the volume offers a range of possibilities in this respect. Another potential avenue of research concerns the relation between types of manure and land use strategies: both Jones’ work on Medieval England and Forbes’ work in Greece suggest that small-scale animal husbandry is likely to yield manure mixed with domestic waste and thus to result in off-site distributions. By contrast, large-scale animal husbandry implies spatial separation of animals from domestic areas and would therefore not lead to such mixed-composition manure. This observation may suggest that surface distribution patterns relate to specific scales and types of land use, but also to specific socio-economic groups. It could imply that in field surveys farm sites with associated irregular off-site distributions represent independent smallholders practising intensive small-scale farming.3 Alternatively, this may imply that extensive and dense off-site spreads (such as recognized in Boeotia, Greece and in some parts of the Pontine region, central Italy 4) derive from urban waste, and may preferably be associated with larger elite estates. This hypothesis could well be tested, as it seems likely that urban manure differed in artefact content and organic composition from ‘rural’ manure. Unfortunately, urban manure is as a subject lacking in the volume – like many other relevant issues, as is also acknowledged by the editor in his Postscript. Nonetheless, Manure Matters offers important starting points to further this discussion and to direct future research.


1. Jansen, G., A. Koloski Ostrow and E. Moormann (eds.) 2011, Roman toilets, their archaeology and cultural history. Peeters, Leuven; Flohr, M., 2010, The world of the fullo. Work economy and society in Roman Italy, PhD thesis, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, 114-116.

2. Bintliff, J. and A. Snodgrass (1988) Off-site pottery distributions: a regional and interregional perspective. Current Anthropology 29, 506-513; Alcock, S., J. Cherry, and J. Davis (1994) Intensive survey, agricultural practice and the classical landscape of Greece. In: Morris, I. ed., Classical Greece: ancient histories and modern archaeologies. Cambridge, 137-170.

3. Hayes, P., 1991, Models for the distribution of pottery around former agricultural settlements, in Schofield, A (ed.), Interpreting artefact scatters, contributions to ploughzone archaeology, Oxford, 81-92.

4. Bintliff, J., P. Howards and A. Snodgrass (eds.), 2007, Testing the hinterland: the work of the Boeotia survey (1989-1991) in the southern approaches to the city of Thespiae. Cambridge; De Haas, T., 2012, Beyond dots on the map: intensive survey data and the interpretation of small sites and off-site distributions, in Attema, P. and G. Schörner (eds.) Comparative issues in the archaeology of the Roman rural landscape. [JRA supplementary series vol. 88] Portsmouth, 55-79.