Renaissance-era doctors used to taste their patients’ pee

Archaeologists in Rome have unearthed a treasure trove of Renaissance-era medical supplies inside the Forum of Caesar. Among the “golden” finds are 500 year-old medicine bottles and urine flasks. In a study published April 11 in the journal Antiquity, the authors believe that the containers were used to collect pee for medical analysis and diagnosis. 

According to the researchers, the pathogens that could have been present in these bottles helps uncover how urban waste was managed.

[Related: Pee makes for great fertilizer. But is it safe?]

The current excavation initially began in 2021 and is part of an international collaboration called the Caesar’s Forum Excavation Project. The 16th century medical dump was found inside Caesar’s Forum, which was built centuries prior in 46 BCE. About 1,500 years later, a guild of bakers used this space to build the Ospedale dei Fornari or Bakers’ Hospital. According to the authors, the waste dump was then created by the hospital’s workers. 

The archaeologists also found rosary beads, broken glass jars, coins, a ceramic camel, and a Renaissance-era cistern full of ceramic vessels. The team of researchers from institutions in Italy and Denmark believes that the objects were likely related to patient care in the hospital. Each patient at the hospital may have been given a basket with a bowl, drinking glass, jug, and a plate for hygiene purposes. 

Renaissance-era doctors used to taste their patients’ pee
Glass urine flasks excavated from the cistern. CREDIT: Sovrintendenza Capitolina, The Caesar’s Forum Project.

The glass urine flasks are called “matula” in medieval Latin medical texts and were likely used for the practice of uroscopy. This was a diagnostic tool for physicians during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Urine was also once believed to be a cure for motion sickness

The authors believe that doctors would use the flasks to observe urine’s sedimentation, smell, color, and even taste. This would help the physicians diagnose ailments like kidney disease, jaundice, and diabetes. The excess glucose in diabetic urine gives it a saccharine quality. English physician Thomas Willis was credited with discovering this during the 17th Century and described the pee as “wonderfully sweet as if it were imbued with honey or sugar.”

[Related from PopSci+: What’s in a packrat’s petrified pee? Just a few thousand years of secrets.]

Also included in the cistern were lead clamps that were associated with wood treated with fire. According to the study, this may be evidence of burning objects brought into the hospital from houses with known plague cases. Italian physician Quinto Tiberio Angelerio wrote this in a series of rules for preventing the spread of the contagious disease in 1588, which included burning objects touched by plague patients. Plague killed roughly 25 million people throughout the 14th century alone as it spread across Eurasia, North Africa, and eventually the Americas for 500 years.

Once the cistern was full, it was likely capped with clay While landfills existed at this time outside the city walls of Rome, “the deposition of waste in cellars, courtyards, and cisterns, although prohibited, was a common practice,” study lead author Cristina Boschetti told Live Science

The unique find sheds more light on how hygiene practices and controls in European medical settings progressed during the early modern era. 

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