Archaeology comes clean

Roman strigil & oil pot
A bronze Roman strigil and and oil pot

Those of us who have read about the bathhouses of the mighty Roman Empire will know that they didn’t use soap – but rather rubbed oil into their skins and scraped it off with a strigil to keep clean. And to keep their clothes clean they used to bleach them with urine. What is somewhat less known is that not only was soap already in existence – but it had already been in use for at least 2,800 years!

Archaeologically, the first evidence for soap dates from 2800 BCE from ancient Babylon where a container was discovered containing a soap-like residue. A cuneiform tablet, again from Babylon, from much later at 2200BCE, has a recipe for soap on it. Not to be outdone, evidence from Egypt’s 1600BCE Ebers papyrus shows that the Egyptians bathed regularly and used a soap-like substance. In fact, there is evidence that soap was made and used all over the ancient world – though mainly for washing clothes and as part of the process of cleaning wool.

The Ebers Papyrus
The Ebers Papyrus, brough in Luxor (ancient Thebes) in the winter of 1873–74 by Georg Ebers.

Possibly the smell of early soap was not very pleasant – but the physician Galen (130-200CE) suggested using it for personal hygiene and Priscanus (circa 300CE) talked about it being used as a shampoo.

But where does the word soap come from, did it come from the UK? and how early was it in use? Well, there are two main suggestions: the first is that the Romans learnt their soap making skills from us Celts who called it “saipo” – though we seemed to have used it mainly as an early-period “Punk-like” hair gel (there is nothing new in fashion – even hair-gel was a recycled idea!). A more colourful derivation is that it comes from the fictional Mount Sapo, near Rome. Roman ladies washing clothes in the River Tiber found, to their surprise, that in one particular spot their clothes cleaned more easily. The suggestion is that ashes from the extinct volcano mixed with the grease residues from the temple sacrifices (Mount Sapo was a sacred site as the source of the Tiber). This mixed with the water in the river to form a very simple soap which was thus, almost literally, a “Godsend” for the hard working ladies of Rome. Sadly, there is no evidence that the story is true.

The Herodieum - Herod’s Bathouse
The Herodieum - Herod’s Bathouse!

Attitudes towards cleanliness changed with the early Christians, possibly because they associated the Roman baths with hedonism. Even Jesus set the example of not washing before meals and, by touching a corpse and a leper in the course of his ministry, he upset the orthodox priestly Pharisees by not following their laws on cleanliness and purity. Some early Christian saints embraced dirt with enthusiasm. According to legend Saint Agnes never washed (no wonder she remained a virgin!), and Saint Godric walked from England to Jerusalem without ever washing or changing his clothes. Many of the Holy Hermits never washed either, some going as far as to sit in their own mess!

It was the crusaders that brought the habit of bathing back to England. Bathing had never really died out in the Roman Empire and of course, the crusaders (as any tourist would) sampled the delights of the Roman baths (which we now call Turkish baths) and bathhouses gradually opened up all over Europe. By the 14th century London had at least 18 public bathhouses.

Gradually attitudes to bathing changed again due to concern about the spread of disease. Very early on in the rampages of the Black Death, bathhouses were closed because of the danger that they might be spreading the Plague. There was also a belief that God disapproved of such luxury and had brought the Black Death upon Europe as a punishment!

The earliest references to soap making in England come from the turn of the first millennium when, in 1192, the monk Richard of Devizes, complained about the smells emitting from the soap making area of Bristol. As soap is a mixture of animal or vegetable fats with plant ash and water, the rendering of the fat would have been, to say the least, smelly! Soap production gradually increased and Charles 1st recognised its potential as a source of income by issuing letters patent to the society of Soapmakers of Westminster, granting them a monopoly for 14 years – as long as they paid the exchequer £4 per ton of soap produced!

Bodies of the “Unmarried” ladies of the Stews in London
Bodies of the “Unmarried” ladies of the Stews - forced to be burried in unconsecrated ground

Bathhouses eventually became known as stewhouses because you “stewed” in the water – a word that was finally shortened to stews and became a name for a brothel as it was known that prostitutes frequented them. Shakespeare’s first theatre was in the infamous “Stews of Southwark,” an area crammed full of brothels that, somewhat surprisingly, were mainly owned by the Bishop of Winchester. And yes, he did get his cut from the girls!

At the same time, the Inquisition saw people using the bathhouses as sign of being Muslim and finally there was a medical theory that washing opened the pores and allowed unknown matter to get into the body and upset the balance of the four humours.

In today’s world, a life without soap is unimaginable but for many years it was a precious luxury commodity. In fact it was considered so valuable that the government taxed fine soap right up to the mid-19th century and it was estimated that they lost £1,126,000 in tax revenue annually when they ceased the tax on it! Gladstone, who at that time was Chancellor of the Exchequer, abolished the tax because of the increased Victorian concern for cleanliness.

However, cleanliness was not always considered a good idea – there are records of people only washing their hands, face and hair. Louis XIII of France, for example, did not have his first bath until he was almost seven years old and it is said that James I only ever washed his fingers. Fashions change, the ancient Egyptians used a perfume to exaggerate the natural aroma of their genitals and people often thought our natural bodily smells rather attractive. But, Napoleon once wrote to Josephine from a campaign, “I will return to Paris tomorrow evening. Don’t wash.” I assume it added something to the earthiness of his lovemaking!

By Rose Palmer

3 thoughts on “Archaeology comes clean”

  1. Ok looked it up. What a load of wash!

    …funny that the time is still based on Christ’s life, just labeled on the surface as if it isn’t??

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