10 Discoveries About Plumbing in the Ancient World

Updated on December 22, 2018
Jana Louise Smit profile image

Jana is an amateur archaeologist who examined her first rock at the age of 2. She likes to group ancient discoveries together in fun lists.


10. The Engraved Reservoir

A massive water reservoir was found when archaeologists directed students during a 2017 dig in Israel. The 2,700-year-old structure was in excellent condition when unearthed near Rosh Ha'ayin. Located underground, the decorated chamber spanned nearly 65 feet (20m) and had a depth of over 13 feet (4m).

The engravings of people and animals added to the rarity of the discovery but what made it valuable was the historical context. Above it rested the ruins of a homestead. The region was scattered with ancient farm houses but the one sitting on top of the reservoir was different. Imposing walls enclosed a large and well-designed building that may have played a jurisdictional role over the other farmsteads.

Scholars now believe the settlement was an attempt by the Assyrians to colonize the land after they decimated the Kingdom of Israel. This particular area held an international trade route and was also near the Assyrian border, making it an attractive option. The desolate land, however, came with long rainless months. This made the reservoir a literal life vein for the inhabitants and gave ultimate power to the farmstead that controlled it.

9. Oasis Highway

In 2017, efforts to expand a highway in Israel led to the discovery of a well that came with its own reservoir. The latter was a unique feature that had never been seen before in Judean country. The vaulted chamber occupied a small space underground near the well. The well itself owned a diameter of about 10.5 feet (3.2m) and was sunk down to groundwater level.

Dating a couple of centuries back to the Ottoman period, the combination may be unusual but not where it was found. The highway, Route 38, runs along an ancient path which saw many travelers and people also settled down to next to it. Clusters of oases mark several old wells along the way. This complex water system was meticulously cared for during the ages, since it was the only water source for the villages, monasteries, road stations and farms in the area.

The new find enriched the lengthy system which was so well-engineered that the wells never ran dry.

Maya City Of Tikal

In Guatemala stands a magnificent ancient city called Tikal.
In Guatemala stands a magnificent ancient city called Tikal. | Source

8. The Secret Behind Tikal's Success

The Maya city of Tikal existed for almost 1,500 years. Every year it suffered a four-month long drought and yet the vast population of 80,000 thrived.Researchers found that the Maya's technological prowess grew along with their numbers. In particular, their water system kept the metropolis bustling.

Around 500 B.C., the first residents settled Tikal in modern-day Guatemala. At first, the local springs were sufficient to support the small groups of people. As they multiplied, the Maya had to adapt to keep the city and its crops flourishing. The answer was rainwater. They cleared entire ravines and plastered them to prevent the water from draining into the earth. The quarries that provided stone for the city buildings were paved and turned into gigantic reservoirs. Added canals and sluices delivered the water downhill for citizens to use, no matter the time of year.

The concept was remarkably simple and yet effective enough to allow Tikal to exist for so long. However, it did not survive beyond 900 A.D. There is growing evidence that the entire Maya civilization fell due to a mega-drought that lasted a full century. Not even Tikal's ingenious plumbing was enough to save the city against such a disaster.

7. Space Maya's True Destination

A Maya leader named Pakal became famous when Erich von Daniken's Chariots Of The Gods? showed an image from his sarcophagus. The book suggested that it showed Pikal steering a space ship.

In 2016, excavations provided clues to his real destination. While working at Palenque, the city where Pakal was buried, archaeologists found a simple piece of plumbing. The leader's tomb was housed inside of a pyramid called the Temple of Inscriptions. Scans showed an anomaly near the front steps and investigations uncovered three layers of stone. Underneath, ran a water tunnel. The stone-hewn line had a height and width of about 2 feet (60cm) and linked to another pipe. Everything was constructed over a natural spring during 683 - 702 A.D.

The location was likely no accident. Pakal needed a path to the underworld and the tunnels provided the desired exit. They ferried water underneath the grave to an open plaza in front of the building. Earrings found in the tomb support the idea that the stream was the way to the underground. Etchings on the jewelry spoke of a god that guided the dead into the afterlife by pulling them underwater.


The ancient name for the city was Lakam Ha, or "Big Water", due to its plentiful rivers, springs and plumbing.
The ancient name for the city was Lakam Ha, or "Big Water", due to its plentiful rivers, springs and plumbing. | Source

6. The Big Water

In life, the leader Pakal likely enjoyed a special status symbol - pressurized water. The vast city of Palenque was such a water wonderland, the Maya called it "Big Water." Inhabitants had access to 56 springs, many cascades, waterways and underground aqueducts. The latter delt with streams at the main plaza, forming the most unique and complex plumbing in the Maya lowlands.

Then archaeologists found one aqueduct that was different. Instead of being at the center of the city, it crept down a hill. Reaching 216 (66m), the end tapered sharply where other conduits maintained an even width. Assuming it was entirely plastered like the rest, the hill-aqueduct's narrowed end would have produced enough water pressure to push a fountain 20 feet (6m) high.

For decades, experts wondered if Palenque's palace had running water for toilets. Without pressure, it would have been impossible. The new discovery now makes royal latrines very plausible. Since water was freely available, toilets and fountains were probably a display of wealth and engineering knowledge rather than a necessity. It could also bust the myth that the technology arrived at a later date with the Spanish. Everything points to the Maya's independent invention of pressurized water by 750 A.D.

5. The Toftegard Shaft

A controversial find occurred when archaeologists looked for pit houses in Denmark. While combing the Viking settlement of Toftegard in 2017, one hole appeared to be among the sought-after, semi-subterranean workshops.

Instead, closer observation revealed what could be Denmark's oldest loo. The thousand year old shaft reached 6.56 feet (2m) deep and contained ancient human waste. Tests dated the organic matter to the Viking Age, proof that the hole was used during Toftegard's existence. What made the structure unusual was that it was found in the countryside. Viking latrines existed in their cities but never before had one been found in a farming community. Previously, the lack of any toilet ruins suggested that people in the country used midden or fertilizer heaps instead.

This discovery could change what historians accepted about the Vikings and their bathroom habits. There is no doubt that the feces came from people but not everyone agrees that the hole was used directly as a latrine. Some scholars argue that while it could very well be the toilet that changes history, it can also just as easily be a shaft where waste was discarded through other means.

4. Ancient Sediment Traps

There is no doubt that soil erosion is seen as a negative environmental event. In Tanzania, 700-year-old ruins could change that. Engaruka became a tourist magnet when it was discovered in 1935 and called a "lost city."

Spread over an area of 7.72 square miles (20 square km), Engaruka is the biggest irrigated farming site in sub-Saharan Africa. Ancient engineers built a sophisticated system of terraces and irrigation to raise crops for over five centuries before the site was abandoned for some reason.

At first, the system was thought to prevent soil erosion. But the massive irrigation network could clearly handle more water than is available today. This lead to the discovery that the area used to flood and with it, the true purpose of the terraces emerged. Engaruka used to manipulate floods and capture the earth eroded by them. Both water and sediment were used to better the arid landscape and provide food for around 40,000 residents.

Remarkably, once the sediment traps were recognized, similar devices started appearing at sites in Ethiopia, South America, the Middle East and India. This indicates the ingenious farming technique was once well-known in the ancient world.

3. An Ancient System Still Active

For thousands of years, people survived Iran's desert environment because of their aquatic engineering acumen. About three millennia ago, an Iron Age society searched for elevated sources of water. When one was found, subterranean aqueducts were installed to guide the precious liquid to farms and villages. These aqueducts, or qanats, became the sole water source for these settlements. Numbering in the thousands, their total length could reach the moon.

To build qanats far underground was not easy. The angle had to be precise; tipped just enough to prevent the water from stagnating but not so much that rushing water eroded the tunnels. Workers also needed oxygen and the shafts dug for this purpose still pit the landscape today. The air holes also released dust while the builders laid the tunnels, in some places as long as forty miles (64km). Qanats re-emerged at ground level and fed lush oases. The technology was so successful, that it was adopted as far away as Spain and Morocco.

Incredibly, some farmers still use the ancient system to water their crops. Iran's qanats are now a UNESCO heritage site but modern irrigation systems and the necessary annual maintenance qanats require, leave an increasing number to disrepair.

2. Pompeii Had Toilets Upstairs

Past archaeological studies done in Pompeii noted that nearly every home had a latrine. But a more detailed ground survey showed the real number was closer to 43 percent of the buildings.This didn't necessarily mean that bathroom plumbing was geared towards the select few. When the nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., it sheared the second level off most structures. Many of the ruins had terracotta pipes leading to the missing top floors. For a long time the vertical tubes were ignored but during the same survey, around 286 were found in a location where some buildings were still entirely intact. The location held businesses and workshops and allowed the perfect chance to see where the tubes went. On the second stories, 23 toilets (connected to the pipes) were discovered. Tests on the tubes' interior revealed telltale signs of use - feces and intestinal parasites.

Upstairs toilets could mean that people lived above the shops, possibly the owners. The pipes also appeared during the same time Pompeii developed a pumped-water system, from the first century B.C. to the first century A.D. To flush their loos, residents scooped water from public fountains.

1. Toxic Plumbing

Romans were masterful plumbers but unfortunately used lead pipes, a hazardous heavy metal. Indeed, popular speculation suggests that part of the Empire's ruin was poisoning themselves with lead-filled water.

Recently, researchers found something surprising and it was worse than lead. The discovery was made when a small pipe was collected from Pompeii and analyzed. What it revealed could prove that the citizens were doomed even before the volcano erupted. Mixed into the lead was antimony, an acutely poisonous chemical. Unlike lead, which accumulates and shows damage later, antimony quickly produces symptoms. The high levels in Pompeii's drinking water was enough to induce vomiting and diarrhea. Liver and kidney problems were the next to follow but more alarmingly, antimony can trigger cardiac arrest.

This sort of water pollution is more viable as an element of Rome's downfall. Lead pipes' contamination also lasted briefly, ending when freshly installed lines eventually calcified. More research is needed to determine how much the deadly chemical affected Romans as a nation but one thing is certain - Pompeii received a double dose of antimony. The city was near Mount Vesuvius and used the local groundwater. Antimony exists naturally in water close to volcanoes.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Jana Louise Smit


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      • profile image

        Mr win 

        2 years ago

        Wonderful article. Great places for Plumbing in the Ancient World.

      • Jana Louise Smit profile imageAUTHOR

        Jana Louise Smit 

        2 years ago from South Africa

        Hi Catherine. I'm addicted to archaeology, there are so many ancient riddles and wonders. I always wonder (sadly) how many connections in this great puzzle are not made because the ancients do not receive enough credit for how advanced some nations were.

      • CatherineGiordano profile image

        Catherine Giordano 

        2 years ago from Orlando Florida

        I think archaeology is fascinating. It always seems to show that ancient civilizations were a lot more advanced they they usually get credit for. You've done a great job giving credit where credit is due.


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