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Archaeologists find rare 2,700-year-old toilet in Israel: ‘It was pretty comfortable’

A rare 2,700-year-old toilet, most likely used by one of the dignitaries of Jerusalem, was discovered during an excavation of a royal estate overlooking the City of David. (Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Overlooking a sea of Jerusalem stone buildings and King Solomon’s First Temple, a wealthy man from the 7th century B.C. built himself a palace where he could appreciate what is still recognized as one of the best views of the ancient city. Perhaps a man of royal blood or political power, he probably broadcast his affluence by hosting dignitaries and displaying intricate pottery and stone architecture, experts said.

He also appreciated a rare luxury — a toilet.

The rectangular-shaped limestone commode is about 2,700 years old, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Tuesday. Archaeologists discovered it as part of an excavation of the palace at Armon Hanatziv in southern Jerusalem.

“It’s very rare,” Yaakov Billig, the archaeologist from the Israel Antiquities Authority who oversaw the excavation, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “So this guy was well off.”

Archaeologists are frequently excavating areas of Israel, and particularly in Jerusalem. The findings are a tourist draw, and many of the antiques are sent to museums or studied by experts.

Eli Eskosido, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said the discoveries, particularly the toilet, are “fascinating.”

“Jerusalem never ceases to amaze,” Eskosido said in a statement to The Post. “I am convinced that the glorious past of the city will continue to be revealed to us in the future and will allow us to experience and learn about our past.”

The excavation was in Armon Hanatziv — once the location of the high commissioner’s home during the British Palestine Mandate, a period following World War I when Britain had control over modern-day Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. It ended in 1948, when Israel declared its independence.

The project, which started two years ago, was financed by the City of David Foundation, a nonprofit focused on preserving the ancient area.

During the dig, Billig and his colleagues found artist-designed stone capitals — the flourishes at the top of a column — in various sizes in a style typically seen during the First Temple period. They also found small architectural columns and oil lamps.

“That was our first time thinking we were dealing with some mansion — probably of a royal estate or a governor’s house … some of the big shots in society,” Billig said.

Billig, who has worked as an archaeologist for the Israel Antiquity Authority for about 34 years, and his team found the toilet toward the end of their dig in March. The block is over 1½ feet wide and nearly 14 inches high, he said, and there is a hole in the center.

“It was pretty comfortable,” Billig said.

Below it was a septic tank — an even rarer feature during that time. The archaeologist said that among the handful of ancient toilets found in Jerusalem, only one other had that feature.

They also found pottery and animal bones in the cesspit — the latter possibly because the homeowner threw his garbage in the pit. The clay vessels probably held aromatic oil to “freshen up the atmosphere or some soaps or other liquid that would make the odor more bearable,” Billig said.

With no running water or pipe systems during that period, the pit would have been cleaned out by servants, enslaved people or prisoners, Billig said.

The archaeologist noted that during the time the palace was built, rabbis debated in religious texts about what constituted a rich person. One said a person who is content with his life, while another said a man with a full bank account.

But one rabbi “suggested a rich person is someone who has a toilet near his dining room or table,” Billig said. “So he doesn’t have to go to any trouble, bother or improvise. And sometimes when people are in urgent need — it’s an uncomfortable situation.”

“He had a comfortable location for his outhouse,” Billig said of the palace’s owner.