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Roman Aqueduct Pont del Diable in Tarragona

Ancient Plumbing: How Plumbing Worked Thousands of Years Ago

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We tend to think of plumbing as a modern convenience, but people have needed water and had to deal with sewage for as long as there have been people. In fact, the first step for most civilizations was setting up some sort of plumbing system.

Earliest Beginnings

Since so little of the earliest civilizations survive, it can be tough to piece their exact systems together. That being said, evidence of baths, sewers, toilets, and even copper pipes were found at ruins of the Indus River Valley Civilization that date back to between 3,000 and 4,000 BC.

Not too much later (relatively speaking), in 2,300 BC, the Egyptians were using copper pipe in bathrooms for their pharaohs. The Minoan Civilization on Crete developed sewer systems and rain water runoff systems somewhere around 1,800 BC, including a flush toilet for their royalty.

Aqueducts

Probably the biggest water management advancement of the ancient world was aqueducts. That same Minoan Civilization had aqueducts that brought from a spring into the capital of Knossos, and smaller aqueducts or diverted rivers were seen in scattered civilizations.

Persians developed their own versions of aqueducts that quickly spread around the Middle East. Instead of building the aqueducts on the surface, they built long tunnels call qanats. These tunnels were cut into hills and connected cities on the plains to the hill wells. And they weren’t small tunnels. The city of Zarch in Iran has a qanat that stretches 71 km and dates back to 1,000 BC that’s still in use today.

Of course, when it comes to above-ground aqueducts, the Romans are probably the most famous, partially because some of them, like the famous Pont du Gard in France, are still around. These grand structures would pull water in from rivers to run through cities, and were common across the empire. The city of Pompeii even built their aqueducts to run water and runoff down the main street to keep it clean.

Indoor plumbing

When you consider the lack of indoor plumbing in the Middle Ages, it can be surprising to find out that many ancient civilizations had indoor plumbing, but it’s true. The Greeks of Athens and Asia Minor developed indoor systems that could even make a pressurized shower. Evidence has also been found that the Han and Qin dynasties (200 BC to 200 AD) had plumbing that used bamboo pipes.

But once again, the most well-known example is the ancient Romans. Their aqueducts connected to rerouting junctions that would send the water right inside the Roman homes, to the many Roman fountains, and to their bathhouses. To take all of the wastewater away, they built the Cloaca Maxima, a large sewer system that was open at first, then covered later.

Unfortunately, much of this technology was lost when the civilizations behind them disappeared. While qanats were still used in Persia, much of this technology disappeared from North Africa, Europe, and Central Asia for centuries.

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