In 1955, McGill University in Montreal, Canada, gave one of its professors a small laboratory in which to conduct his research of coprolite.
Dr Eric Ottleban Callen was experimenting in methods to return fossilised excrement to its original, somewhat smelly, form.
Eric Callen received his doctorate in botany while in Scotland at Edinburgh University. After this, he travelled to Canada and spent much of his short life studying plant pathology at McGill University. Dr Callen had a strong interest in researching South American botany and was curious to analyse human coprolites located from an archaeological excavation of a rural agricultural site in coastal Peru. Callen was searching for fungal spores that might point to infections in ancient Peruvian maize crops.
Callen’s investigation of these coprolites yielded a wide variety of biological specimens from his initial analysis. From evaluating the macro evidence, Callen was able to reconstruct the diet of the subject.
Victim of Jokes and Ridicule
Up until this time, archaeologists had thought that coprolites were generally useless at providing any form of relevant information and were thus usually discarded on a digging site. His contemporaries mocked Dr Callen’s infant research. Perhaps because of the nature of the subject he was accused of wasting research funds and was the butt of many jokes. However, he persevered and now holds the dubious honour of being the founding father of human coprolite analysis.
Unmoved by the storm of controversy over his experiments he soon abandoned his botanical research to focus exclusively on studying coprolites found on archaeological sites. Today, coprolite research is a valuable aid in anthropology and is now regarded as a respectable occupation.
The Poo Process
Dr Callen’s pioneering poo process involved taking the fossilised piece of human excrement and returning it to its original texture by soaking it in a weak solution of tri-sodium phosphate for two days. At the end of the saturation procedure the faeces had not only regained its former shape, size, and colour but also its unmistakable odour. Callen became an expert in reconstituting faeces to their former freshness.
Standards of Analysis
Dr Callen spent much of his working-life alone, trying to convince fellow botanists and archaeologists of the importance of faecal research. It is not surprising to learn that as a professor he had only one student who was interested in the post graduate study of faecal investigation. During his remaining life he committed himself to the development of standards of analysis. These standards form the basis of all coprolite processing, investigation and evaluation today.
In 1970, at the age of only 58, he suffered a heart attack while on a field trip in Peru. As he had done for much of his professional life, so too in death, he was alone in his laboratory. He was buried at Ayacucho, Peru.
Dr Eric Ottleban Callen would be delighted to know that since his untimely death, coprolite research has been extended well beyond the bounds of his initial investigations. Although Callen never taught professionally on the subject, his efforts have created niche in zooarchaeology and added another valid process in archaeological data gathering.