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Restrooms Found in 2nd-Century BC Theater in Smyrna

Theater restroom
A latrine for the use of actors was found in a theater from 200 AD in the ancient Greek city of Smyrna (modern-day Izmir, Turkey) last week. There was running water for the users and separate toilet facilities for theater patrons, archaeologists say. Credit: Izmir Metropolitan Municipality

Archaeology isn’t just beautiful ancient sculptures and temples — at times it’s the everyday things that allow us to glimpse what life was like in said of old — as we saw recently in the discovery of a restroom used by actors in a 2,200-year-old theater in Smyrna.

Constructed originally in the second century BC, the latrine itself, for use by actors of the theater only, was constructed in the second century AD. Archaeologist believe this makes the facilities the first of their kind anywhere in the Mediterranean.

Archaeologists believe that the restroom was used by about a dozen people at any time; separate facilities were available for the patrons of the theater.

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Impressively, running fresh water served the restroom for cleanliness; a trough with 3-4 inch deep water was nearby.

second century BC theater
The excavation of a 2nd-century BC theater in Smyrna has revealed the presence of a communal toilet for actors. Credit: Izmir Metropolitan Municipality

Restroom in theater in Smyrna had fresh running water

The theater was apparently renovated in the second century AD and the facilities were used for approximately 300 years, according to a report from Hurriyet.

Akin Ersoy, an archaeologist at İzmir Kâtip Çelebi Üniversity who is the head of excavations, stated to the press “It is a toilet with a U-plan seating arrangement, as we see more often in Anatolia, that 12 to 13 people can use together.

“The use of this toilet space by a large number of people also brought socialization,” he added, stating that the actors used the facilities before and during the plays in which they would act.

Located in the ancient Greek city of Smyrna, the theater could seat approximately 20,000 spectators. The archaeologists uncovering the theater state that the newly-discovered restroom was in a building near the stage that was closed to the public.

“Since it is located in a closed area, it is possible to consider it an ‘artist toilet,’” Ersoy explains, noting that this is particularly significant because “This is a first among theaters in the Mediterranean region.”

The latrine had a bench seat that was about 16 inches high, with a smaller trough for clean water located nearby, according to a report from the Anadolu Agency. Those using the facilities would have been able to clean themselves with the fresh water that flowed through the trough.

Located on  a hillside with a spectacular view of the ancient Greek city which is one of the oldest urban centers in the Mediterranean, the theater had seats which were arranged amphitheatrically.

Greek pottery dating back to as early as 1000 B.C. has been found in the ancient city.

While originally inhabited by the Aeolians, Ionians and Lydians, Alexander the Great’s armies reestablished the city in the fourth century B.C. and it flourished for many centuries as a center of Greek culture, until the Greek quarter of the city was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1922 and all the Greek inhabitants were expelled by the Turks.

Surprisingly, communal restroom facilities were fairly common in Roman times, says Brandeis University archaeologist Ann O. Koloski-Ostrow, who wrote a paper on the subject published in The Conversation in 2015.

And they were fairly clean, since they were part of the public sewer system of municipalities — while private facilities did exist, they had to be emptied separately.

However, buildups of methane and hydrogen sulfide could occur in such public facilities, making explosions a risk of doing business there, she states.

Archaeologists have been unearthing the remains of the theater in Smyrna for almost a decade, starting their dig in 2012. Once the site of a complex that staged plays, religious rituals and other activities, Ersoy told the AA that it was gradually abandoned in the 300s AD as Christianity led to a decrease in interest in all forms of “pagan” entertainment.

It has been another banner year in the archaeology of ancient and Roman-era sites in what is now Turkey, with the discovery earlier in 2021 at the site of Pergamon of dedicated VIP seating at a grandiose amphitheater there which was built to resemble Rome’s Colosseum.

Seating as many as 50,000 audience members, it was built to rival similar stadia in Ephesus and Smyrna, according to researchers.

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