Wastewater treatment operators may be surprised to discover that their job has a long history — a history at once strange and perhaps all too familiar.
According to an article by Will Hunt in the most recent issue of Archaeology magazine, a team led by archaeologist Roos van Oosten is now researching sanitation infrastructure and practices in the Dutch city of Leiden in the 16th century. Their finds are changing the way historians view the Middle Ages.
Van Oosten is digging not just in the dirt and biosolids, but in the red tape that proliferated in relation to sewage back then, just as it does now. Her work brings her to excavations of both private latrines – so far, she has excavated 104 in Leiden – and early wastewater processing infrastructure.
If you consider today’s regulations as onerous as the raw material of the industry, you’re probably not the first to feel that way. Van Oosten’s visits to the city’s archives have found not just extensive regulatory stipulations – with titles such as “Rules and Orders on Privy-Cleaners and Nightworkers” and “Inspection of the Ordinances on the Subject of Privvies” – but actual permits and inspection results.
For one particular almshouse, Hunt notes, “she discovered 34 written permits, each of which describes the cleaning out of a private cesspit by a team of nightmen. The 400-year-old paper trail reveals a fastidious process,” every step recorded in great detail. On September 20, 1603, for example, a nightman named Baernt Roberechtsz removed 95 tubs of waste from the cesspit of a widow named Sara de Haen. The tubs were then carried to a barge by “tub men,” legally bound not to spill a drop into the city canal.
Why “nightmen”? Because by law, septic workers had to work after 10 p.m. “so as not to offend the sensibilities of the citizenry.” They were also required to do so quietly, and could be prosecuted if they were loud, drunk, or sloppy. Their pay was contingent upon certification that the job had been done properly and with due decorum.
By the mid-1600s, Leiden began transitioning to public systems that collected waste via pipes, as nowadays, and processed in bulk. This was not an easy task – technology was primitive– and the process upset citizens, who claimed it turned the city into a “stink-hole.” Some blamed a wave of illness and deaths in the mid-17th century on the odors from the new systems, but most likely the cause was cholera.
In some ways, modern wastewater operators are a lot better off. In some ways – well, the more things change, the more they stay the same.