Passages from Aristophanes and Pliny the Elder, Seven Pounds of Fleece… and Several Jars of Pee

You might think, after Friday’s post, that I have outdone myself when it comes to typos.

But nope, you read it right, and it is what I meant to type: several jars of pee. In fact, I’ll deepen the mystery – not just any old pee – the author’s spouse’s pee.

I doubt I’ll write a weirder sentence on this blog.

Dr. Molly Ayn Jones-Lewis is a senior lecturer in Ancient Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. And she decided, in the midst of teaching a course on the Roman World, that it might be a good idea to giver her students a spinning demonstration. What kind of spinning demonstration? One in which her students would learn how to spin thread. Partly because of it being very directly related to the course, but partly for other reasons – lovely ones:

Fiber art has been a source of sanity and peace to me over the years, a medium that fulfills a deep need for soothing sensory input and offers a productive use for my fidgety hands that never know where to put themselves.

But the intersection set was a bit of a problem. What intersection set? As she puts it, most fiber artists are not professional historians, and few historians have processed fiber. And so she went and read instruction manuals, as it were, about how the Romans went about making wool.

That should clear up the several passages from Aristophanes and Pliny the Elder. And also the seven pounds of fleece. But pee?

If you want to comb the wool, you either need to heat your metal combs or remove the lanolin first. Hot water will float the wax to the top of the pan, but hot water plus motion causes the wool fibers to felt into a mass, so you must take care to keep the locks as still as possible. Soap lifts grease at a lower temperature, neatly solving the heat problem. Today, we use harsh detergents. Dawn dish soap is a classic choice for spinner on a budget. Romans used soapwort for sure, and likely urine too. Urine is much easier to get than soapwort and was also the cleaner of choice for finished wool cloth. I think it’s reasonable to include it in my range of options.

We’ve all heard of the maxim “When in Rome”. I challenge you to find me a better exposition of this rule!

The rest of this utterly delightful essay explains how the pee was used, how the experiment turned out, and what happened next. I encourage you to read the whole thing.

I can’t resist, and you’ll forgive me just this one: you’re in for a treat!

But apart from the delightfully random nature of the post, there are other reasons for me to speak about this essay today:

  1. Talk about skin in the game
  2. Demonstrations in class work well, even when they don’t work well.
  3. If you want your students to learn well, love your classes, and remember them for years afterwards – and which professor doesn’t – have fun with your students in class.
  4. I’m always on the lookout for lovely stories about how to make classes more interesting. This makes it into the all time top three on my list, for sure.
  5. Did you know there is a word for sheep sweat? Well, now you do. It is suint.
  6. I’m a sucker for memorable sentences, and they don’t get much more memorable than this one: “…and my spouse said, “No. Not in my kitchen, you don’t. I draw the line at pee on my stove.” (Bill Bryson acolytes might recall toity jars at this point).
  7. One learns so many important lessons not related to wool, pee and spinning thread. Don’t, for example, put dung on to wounds. Never rub used olive oil scraped off an athlete on anal fissures. I wouldn’t have done either of these things anyway, and I am sure you wouldn’t have either, but it is always nice to know for sure.