Ancient Plumbing

Ancient Plumbing

The Roman Empire: plumbing, pipes and plumbers (history of plumbing part II)

Roman Aqueduct remains, Pont du Gard. From Michael Gwyther-Jones, via Flickr Creative Commons

Life without modern plumbing systems in our homes &ndash no running water, pipes and flushing toilets, would shatter our modern life. Water is the most essential nutrient for life on earth, and in turn plumbing is one of the fundamental structures that has helped build our modern society. As civilization has developed over the millennia, humans have built communities, farmed and developed the land by advancing water management skills.

Roman Aqueducts: The Dawn of Plumbing

How did the ancient Romans deal with plumbing? They built huge and extensive
aqueducts, which is Latin for waterway. These under- and aboveground channels, typically made of stone, brick, and volcanic cement, brought fresh water for drinking and bathing as much as 50 to 60 miles from springs or rivers. Aqueducts helped keep Romans healthy by carrying away used water and waste, and they also took water to farms for irrigation.

So how did aqueducts work? The engineers who designed them used gravity to keep the water moving. If the channel was too steep, water would run too quickly and wear out the surface. Too shallow, and water would stagnate and become undrinkable. The Romans built tunnels to get water through ridges, and bridges to cross valleys.

Once it reached a city, the water flowed into a main tank called a castellum. Smaller pipes took the water to the secondary castella, and from those the water flowed through lead pipes to public fountains and baths, and even to some private homes. It took 500 years to build Rome’s massive system, which was fed by 11 separate aqueducts. To this day, Rome’s public fountains run constantly, as do smaller faucets that provide fresh water to anyone who stops for a drink.

The empire stretched across an immense part of the world, and wherever the Romans went they built aqueducts — in as many as 200 cities around the empire. Their arched bridges are among the best preserved relics of that empire, in part because many aqueducts kept working for centuries, long after the Romans had retreated. You can still see their arches in Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Spain, Tunisia, and other former Roman colonies.

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History of Plumbing Timeline

Plumbing has played an important role in maintaining public health health and safety for nearly 4,000 years. The public health community acknowledges that clean, drinkable water has likely protected more lives and extended life expectancy more than any medical advancement.

Plumbing Manufacturing International’s history of plumbing timeline highlights key events in plumbing dating back to 1700 BC, as well as the important role that PMI and its member companies have played during more recent times. Check it out!

Safe, responsible plumbing. Always.

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Egyptian Pharaoh Had Copper Plumbing

The ancient Egyptians were advanced in many fields including astronomy, construction and irrigation. They were also some of the earliest coppersmiths and made copper vessels, tools and the pipes used for their irrigation systems. It should come as no surprise that they were advanced in matters of indoor plumbing, as well.

In 1994, archeologists excavating the remains of a 4,500-year-old Egyptian funerary pyramid complex unearthed a sophisticated copper drainage system.

Located in Abusir in Northern Egypt, the pyramid is believed to be the oldest of many pyramids found in this region, which is just south of the Nile River. It served as the final resting place of King Sahure, the second King of Egypt's 5th Dynasty, who ruled from 2517 to 2505 B.C.

Ancient Egyptians believed the dead enjoyed the same earthly delights as the living, so they built elaborate temples alongside the pyramids where royalty were entombed after they died.

Copper pipe was found inside the temple closest to the pyramid - which is called the "mortuary" temple. Here priests assembled daily to present food and other objects as offerings to the dead king's spirit.

Only the finest materials were used to build the temple, which consisted of an elaborate entrance hall, courtyard and sanctuary made with white limestone ceilings, alabaster floors and red granite columns. Magnificent relief paintings of the king hunting, fishing and trampling his enemies covered the inside walls, while multiple statues of the king were displayed inside the sanctuary.

Experts speculate that the copper pipes, which extended some 330-yards along a causeway leading to another temple, were used to drain well water that was hand-carried into the temple to bathe the king's statues. These statues were anointed with oil as part of daily purification rituals.

Although the overall condition of the pyramid and temples today is poor, the copper piping has survived, attesting to the longevity of copper plumbing. Cu

Other Theories

Jiandong said iron-rich magma may have risen from deep in the Earth, bringing the iron into fissures where it would solidify into tubes. Though he admitted, “There is indeed something mysterious about these pipes.” He cited the radioactivity as an example of the strange qualities of the pipes.

Others have said iron sediments may have washed into the fissures, carried with water during floods.

Though Xinhua and other publications in China have referred to a pyramid or even a mysterious pyramid in which the pipes were found, some have said it was a pyramid-shaped natural formation.

Another theory is that the pipes are fossilized tree roots. Xinmin Weekly reported in 2003 that scientists found plant matter in an analysis of the pipes, and they also found what looked like tree rings. The article related the finding to a geological theory that in certain temperatures and under certain chemical conditions, tree roots can undergo diagenesis (transformation of soil into rock) and other processes that can produce iron formations.

Reports on the tree-root explanation for the so-called Baigong pipes often lead back to this Xinmin Weekly article or lack citation. It’s unclear exactly how well-supported this theory is in relation to the Baigong pipes.

An article published in the Journal of Sedimentary Research in 1993 describes fossilized tree roots in South Louisiana in the United States.

Featured image: Baigong Cave, with photo of pipe in the bottom left. Source.


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Who is That Woman and Why is She Handling My Toilet Paper?

Finally, some toilets at archaeological sites such as Knossos and major public facilities, including bus stations, may have a washroom attendant. This person sits or stands near the entrance of the toilet and hands out a ration of toilet paper. A plate nearby indicates that a tip is expected, and any coin will do. They will still give you toilet paper even if you have no money, but they may not look happy about it. Their presence at least usually assures that the facility is reasonably clean. The attendant may also be willing to briefly watch your bag while you use the bathroom, which is worth the 50 euro cents to me when the alternative is dragging everything into the stall with me.

Ancient History of Plumbing

Easter, we here at the office thought we should too. So if you’re up for it, buckle in we’re about to take you on a stroll through history to the ancient worlds plumbing and the creation of the first known sewer systems….

Let’s start at the beginning, because it tends to be a good place to start.


Right back to 4000BC Babylonia. Babylonia (or Babylon as we know it now) is of course one of the most iconic places in the world! Thought to be one of the holiest places on earth Wars have been won and lost at its gates for thousands and thousands of years!

But did you know it was also the birth place of the first known storm water drain system. Archaeologists discovered pipe-work complete with ‘Tee’ and angle joints. They are thought to be the first civilisation that were able to mould clay into pipes, with their drains constructed from sun-baked bricks and cut stone. This simple system made them one of the most innovative ancient civilisations.

Orkney Islands

Moving on a few thousand years, I would like to bring you slightly closer to home and over to the Orkney Islands in 3200BC. Home to the first lavatory, like plumbing system. Recesses have been found in the walls, which it is assumed, is where the waste would have begun travelling through the ‘drainage system’. The system enabled certain liquid wastes to end up in designated areas, either under buildings or outside them, similar to our directional sewer systems now.

The community that created this design was only small with about 6 stone huts in total, the town eventually got abandoned though the reason for that is not known. Though if you don’t get on with your neighbours the reasons for abandonment may become clear.


Travelling across the ocean now, to one of the three largest civilizations in ancient history the Indus River Valley, India 3000BC. These people developed systems well beyond their time. Creating the first sanitation system, which nearly all citizens were connected to. Drainage systems ran through the city and were covered, with access via stone manhole covers. Water came from the river, flowing into the wells and then used as needed through the sewer system which pushed the waste to either the cesspits or back into river. Vertical drains were also found, it is presumed that these were part of their toilet facilities. This severely advance community, are also thought to be the first creators of the public bath with evidence of a communal bath being found in one of the main cities Mohenjo-daro.

Crete (The Minoans)

Veering over to the Grecian Island of Crete, in the Minoan era around 3000BC to 1000BC. The Minoans (most recently famous for their prediction of the 2012 apocalypse). They are the proud winners of the best systems of the ancient world until the Romans came about.

Throughout the original city, terra-cotta pipe work has been found to be part of a drainage system that included bell and spigot joints which were sealed with cement. The actual pipe work design enabled siphoning to be possible which drew odour away from the latrines and through the pipe, this type of innovation was thousands of years before it’s time. They developed an open top channelized system which directed the storm water into the sewers.

They realised quickly that water was necessary for more than just drinking and bathing and began to collect it in cisterns. This is how the first ‘flushing’ toilet is said to have been created. The waste was flushed by the cisterns that had been filled with the rain water, two conduits were also built into the wall to aid this process, allowing it to ‘flush’ the waste through the sewers.

This would be a good point, to also mention the availability of first floor toilets (not the flushing kind). Created using a clay pipe the waste would fall down the pipe into a subterranean sewer system where the main drainage system would flush it into a cesspit. Some of their facilities still work today when put into practice. These people were way beyond their time and just seem to have completely disappeared, no –one really knows where they went, or how they were destroyed.


Across the water now to Ancient Egypt 2500BC. Now Ancient Egypt has a lot of speculation around it and their abilities. The pyramids being a main one, with a lot of ‘people in the know’ stating that they wouldn’t have been possible to build in the small time frame they had to build them and with the lack of equipment at their disposal, apparently we would struggle now, even with all of our fancy machines, However seeing as they are quite evidently there, evidently it was aliens… or maybe we have just grown into a world of bone idleness… who knows.

Getting back on point, the pyramids themselves are truly an impressive (possibly impossible) feet of engineering but did you know that they were also installed with working copper pipe work? The ancient Egyptians were clearly far superior then other civilisations and did not wish to dabble in such basic materials as clay, so discovered metal. Not only this but this pipe work was first discovered in a second chamber of the final resting place of one of the first leaders of Egypt. The Egyptian pyramids generally had a ‘bathroom’ of sorts as they believed the dead needed access to these luxuries in the underworld.

It was not just the deceased that had access to their own private bathroom, so did the nobility. Many of the other citizens had access to public bathhouses, which supposedly had access to running hot and cold water (though this is disputed) The Egyptians main source of water came from the Nile, irrigation systems have been found transporting this water from the Nile to the crops.


Over to mainland Greece now in 500-300BC where the first shower is invented! Aqueducts and sewer systems pumped water into communal bathing areas both inside and outside, with the water falling down from the walls.

These showers would have been bitterly cold with the hot water designated for baths. The Spartans used these cold showers as part of their battle preparation, believing that it was the best way to get their bodies ready for battle.

Plato, in one of his last chronicles, is also having said to have made the rule that hot baths should be reserved only for the elderly… How convenient for him.

Moving on to the big one now the Roman Empire, stretching across 800BC to 300AD the Romans began utilising lead for their pipe work (Slightly encouraging the eventual lead poisoning of alot of citizens… But these people fought lions with nets and poisoned each other regularly so i guess not too big of an issue.) These pipes transported water 25-30 miles at a minimum, the longest sewer system so far! Aqueducts and underground sewer systems were mainly covered and due to the vastness

and innovation of them they did not need sewage pipes to run through every street.

Public latrines and bathhouses became common place and some homes, of the elite, were directly connected to the line allowing for running water and private bathrooms. However their sewerage ‘rules’ were arguably less strict than previous civilisations. Possibly due to the quantity of people, waste had a habit of piling up in cesspits with nowhere to go or ending up coming back through system and being re-used. (nice accompaniment to your morning coffee).

The Roman empire eventually fell in 410 when Germanic ‘barbarian tribes’ began invading and Visigothe King Alaric successfully sacked the city of Rome. Though the eastern half the Byzantine Empire did continue for another Thousand Years.

Now unfortunately the Western World now crosses over to what is commonly known as the Dark ages. With Romans chased off by the Barbarians Western civilisation became pretty uncivilised! The Eastern world thrived, this era of time was called their golden age, an amazing time of science and innovation, Invasions and battles, such as the crusades were the source of this age’s demise. And we all know about the Cleopatra and Mark Anthony drama in ancient Egypt.


Fast forwarding to Germany 1455, who are still known for their impressive engineering skills. This is the birth place of the first known iron pipe! The Germans worked out that they were able to heat metal and mould it into a hollow pipe. So we’re making significant progress from the dark ages of digging holes in the ground.


Over to good old Britain and to the Elizabethan era. Where John Harrington, the godson of Queen Liz herself, invented the first flushing toilet, which had a ‘modern’ feel. He made a 2ft deep oval seat which was made waterproof with the use of resin and wax. Which was installed with cistern, requiring 7.5 gallons of water. A working model was installed in the Queens chamber in 1596, but it would take until the industrial revolution for a flushing toilet to really take off as something that could possibly be useful.

The 1600 brought about internal sewer systems, with castles having private lavatories, however most of these fed back into the main water source, generally the moat surrounding the castle. Luckily crazy Saturdays with impromptu swimming wasn’t really a thing back then , well that we know of anyway.


In 1728 New York found it’s voice and after several complaints about open sewers the first underground sewer was made. A short few years after this in 1830 New York fires began to become quite frequent and the need for installing aqueducts to enable public access to water, was thought a bit more than necessary. This would soon produce what we know as a ‘fire hydrant’

Western World Moving On

In 1848 over in the UK pipe work had been installed into buildings which conveyed sewage to the correct terminal for disposal and notional health act was passed, this Health act was adopted by most countries as the groundwork for plumbing systems.

From that moment on sewage engineering took off and slowly brought us to where we are today. With heaters being installed to warm water and laws coming into action to ensure sanitation and correct installation of all plumbing and drainage equipment, as well as training courses and regulations for engineers.

Modern-day plumbing

Plumbing as we know it today started to become big following the passing of the National Public Health Act in 1848. Since then, the majority of the globe has adopted this plumbing code.

Plumbing boomed over the next century or so, with drainage piping systems being fitted into buildings in order to move sewage to an appropriate disposal area. In the 1870s, water heaters started to be installed in private homes, and circulation pipes were used to ensure that pressurised hot water was made available in large amounts.

After the proving of venting theory in 1874, vent pipes started to be used at trap outlets to prevent foul odours and gases from leaking at the outlets. Laws started to be passed across large areas of the U.S. requiring systems to be installed using a minimum amount of fixtures. Next, people started to create hundreds of different flushing toilet designs, some of which would become U.S. standard. The formation of The Building Officials and Code Administrators in 1915 allowed for the coordination of plumbing codes on a national scale. A shortage of copper led to the use of plastic piping in modern plumbing in 1966.

By 1961, all facilities were required to be easily accessible to people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed by President George Bush in 1990. Since then, the U.S. has adopted the Energy Policy Act which restricts rates of water flow in fixtures, and plumbing is now overseen by the International Code Council (ICC) rather than three separate agencies as it used to be.

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First Pressurized Plumbing of the New World Discovered

A water feature found in the ancient Mayan city of Palenque, Mexico, is the earliest known example of plumbing with pressurized water in the New World, researchers suggest.

Found in the Piedras Bolas Aqueduct is a water spring-fed conduit located on steep terrain — a 20-foot (6-meter) drop from the entrance of the tunnel to the outlet about 200 feet (60 feet) downhill. The cross-section of the feature decreases from about 10 square feet (1 square meter) near the spring to about a half square foot where water emerges from a small opening. At the outlet, the pressure exerted could have moved the water upwards of 20 feet.

"The experience the Maya at Palenque had in constructing aqueducts for diversion of water and preservation of urban space may have led to the creation of useful water pressure," said team member Kirk French of Penn State University.

The researchers aren't exactly sure what the water-pressure feature was used for, but speculation includes a public fountain or a wastewater disposal system.

Previously, researchers thought that water-pressure systems entered the New World with the arrival of the Spanish, but this finding shows that closed channel water pressure systems were already present.

Underground water features such as aqueducts are not unusual at Palenque. Because the Maya built the city in a constricted area inhabitants were unable to spread out. To make as much land available for living as possible, the Maya at Palenque routed streams beneath plazas via aqueducts.

The feature was first identified in 1999 in the Maya city in Chiapas, Mexico. The area was first occupied sometime near the year 100, grew to its largest size during the Classic Maya period 250 to 600, and was then abandoned around 800.

The Piedras Bolas Aqueduct is partially collapsed so very little water currently flows from the outlet. French and his team member Christopher Duffy, also of Penn State, used simple hydraulic models to determine the potential water pressure achievable from the Aqueduct. They also found that Aqueduct would hold about 18,000 gallons (68,000 liters) of water if the outlet were controlled to store the water.

The results of the study are detailed in the May issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies.

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