Coprolite Detective


This activity requires a few hours preparation to make home-made play dough fake poop ! Then excavate the fake poop to learn more about how these techniques are used in real archaeology for dietary evidence, for example to discover the last meal of Otzi the Ice Man and also to learn about Roman food in the sewers of Pompeii.

This a great fun (messy) activity that kids really love. It can be used as part of a school science assignment, a young person history society event (YACs), a historically themed party or just a wet afternoon !! This can lead onto further analysis, questions and follow-up work, depending on your requirements.

The fake poop contains real pips, seeds and grain and the idea is to dissect each poop, gather all the organic remains and try to identify which of five civilisations it could have come from. You can select any combination of the five civilisations to fit your requirements and use only those poop content ingredients that you have at hand.

Materials & Tools:

  • 2 cups / 300g plain flour
  • 1 cup / 8 fl oz hot water
  • 1 cup / 300g salt
  • 2 tablespoons of bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Colouring agent - brown food colouring / 10 Gravy (OXO) cubes / brown poster paint
  • Mixing bowel
  • Dissection tool (plastic spoon / lolly stick / coffee stirrers / cocktail stick)
  • Paper and pen/pencil
  • Plastic gloves (optional)
  • Plastic sheeting / Newspaper (optional)
  • Stone Age Poop contents (approximately 1 teaspoon of each ingredient):
    • Hazelnuts
    • Fish bones **
    • Shredded nettles leaves *** (blanch nettles to remove the sting)
    • Grain (wheat or barley)
  • Aztec Poop contents (approximately 1 teaspoon of each ingredient):
    • Pepper Seeds
    • Fish bones **
    • Corn / maize kernals
    • Pinto beans
    • Pumpkin seeds
    • Squash seeds
  • Roman Poop contents (approximately 1 teaspoon of each ingredient):
    • Olive stones
    • Melon seeds
    • Date Stones
    • Fish bones **
    • Orange/Lemon pips
    • Grain (wheat or barley)
  • Viking Poop contents (approximately 1 teaspoon of each ingredient):
    • Peas
    • Fish bones **
    • Apple pips
    • Cherry Stones
    • Grain (wheat or barley)
  • Tudor Poop contents (approximately 1 teaspoon of each ingredient):
    • Lentils
    • Fish bones **
    • Apple pips
    • Peas
    • Grain (wheat or barley)

** Bones should be boiled and cleaned to remove flesh

*** How to blanch nettles - bring a large pot of water to a boil and add at least a tablespoon of salt (this will help the nettles retain their deep green color) add the nettles to the pot and stir down. After about 30 seconds, remove nettles from the water, drain them, rinse them in cold water and squeeze them dry

Preparation:

  1. Mix 1 cup / 8fl oz of hot water with the colouring (brown food colouring / 10 Gravy (OXO) cubes / brown poster paint) to make a good poop colour
  2. Place the salt, flour, bicarbonate of soda and vegetable oil in a large mixing bowel
  3. Add the coloured water slowly into the bowel and mix the ingredients together until you have a firm and flexible dough (if you need to darken the poop, add more of the colouring agent directly, but be careful not to make the mixture to runny).
  4. Divide the mixture into five equal dough parts (one for every civilisation you are making)
  5. Add the poop contents for one civilisation into one of divided dough's - repeat for the other civilisations
  6. Divide the dough & poop content mixture into small golf-ball size balls
  7. Mould the golf-ball size balls into poop shapes - you may need to coat the poops with a little more vegetable oil to retain the shape

Create a simple Organic Remains check sheet (example below) on paper for every child, so that as each seed/stone/bone is found and identified, it can be ticked off. In this example, the highlighted green box means that the food was part of this civilisations diet.

Stone Age Diet
Aztec Diet
Roman Diet
Viking Diet
Tudor Diet
Apple Pips
Black turtle beans
Cherry Stones
Corn / Maize kernals
         
Date Stones
         
Fish Bones
         
Grain (barley / wheat)
         
Hazelnuts
         
Lentils
Melon seeds
         
Nettles
         
Olive Stones
         
Orange / Lemon pips
         
Peas
         
Pumpkin seeds
         
Pinto Seeds
         
Squash seeds
         

Tip:

To help with identification of poop contents, you may wish to have 2-3 of each seed/stone/bone individually stored (in a small container) and labeled, so that as the dissection commences the child will have something to compare against.

Objective:

Perhaps start by discussing with the children the types of archaeology evidence they know about (e.g. pots, swords, jewels) and ask if they can think about what each artefact could tells us about the owner (e.g. rich, cook, soldier).

Encourage further discussion by asking about what these people might have eaten and how we would know. This could lead to conversations about excavations, bones, remains in cooking pottery, midden pits, rubbish pits, pictures, farming tools, written material and evidence from cesspits/sewers.

Introduce the idea of obtaining evidence from dissecting poop, by looking for seeds, grain and pips - using examples like Roman food in the sewers of Pompeii.

Provide each child with a dissection tool and (optionally) pair of plastic gloves; place a sheet of plastic/newspaper in front of them. Also distribute the Organic Remains Check sheets and pens/pencils. Now give each child (or small group) one of the poops to dissect - depending on you activity and aims, this could be from the same civilisation or at random.

Ask the children to carefully dissect each poop using the tools provided and to make separate piles of each different seeds, grain and pips they excavate. Once they have completed this task and made several piles, ask them to identify each seed, grain or pip (possibly using the labeled one's as a guide) and tick on the Organic Remains Check sheets.

Finally ask the children to decide which civilisation the fake poop came from based on their evidence.

Further Activity Examples:

  • Discussion on the activity:
    • How this evidence would survive
    • What evidence is missing from the poops
    • Other ways to identify civilisations
    • How this would (or would not) work for modern day poops
  • Investigate farming techniques through the ages
  • Wider discussions on:
    • Food production
    • Food for rich and poor people
    • Healthy & unhealthy diets
    • Trade routes for food
CAREFULLY DISPOSE OF ALL POOP MATERIALS - UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES CONSUME

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