Plumbing through Egyptian pyramids and Mayan reservoirs:

A history lesson from the ancient world

Few modern industries have as long and colorful a history as plumbing. The reasons for this are obvious, since, where there are people, there is waste. Ultimately, that waste must go somewhere. It’s a fact of life that has been an intricate part of society for thousands of years.

Prehistoric plumbing in Southern Asia

Even ancient civilizations recognized that tainted water caused sickness, leading humans during the Neolithic age (as early as 6500 BC) to dig wells that provided a permanent source of freshwater. One of the earliest civilizations to employ hydraulic engineering and develop devices for water supply and sanitation was the Indus Valley in South Asia.

Lothal, a city in the Indus Valley, had private toilets in every home. Each connected to a sophisticated sewage system that included drainage channels, rainwater collection, and street ducts. Waste was disposed of through underground drains built with tightly laid bricks.

Other civilizations were also advanced, with the Neolithic Chinese discovery and extensive use of deep drilling down to groundwater for clean drinking water. Ancient India and Pakistani civilizations were among others with sophisticated plumbing and wastewater disposal systems.

Ancient Egypt’s Copper Commodes

Technologically advanced in many fields from astronomy to irrigation, it’s not surprising that the Egyptians had indoor plumbing. Over 4000 years ago, copper pipes were first used in Egypt during the construction of a pyramid built as the final resting place of King Sahure. These copper pipes were used to drain water that was carried into the temple to bathe the king’s statues.

Although the pyramid itself and the surrounding temples are crumbling away, the copper piping has survived, demonstrating the longevity of copper as a plumbing material. It is still one of the most commonly used types of pipe.

Flushing around Ancient Europe

The Island of Crete where the Minoan civilization lived may have been the first to employ underground clay pipes for sanitation purposes as well as water supply. Knossos, the capital city had a well-organized system for transporting water, both clean and waste. This city also sported the first known flush toilet, dating as far back as the 18th century BC.

Other Greek civilizations in Athens and Asia Minor used indoor plumbing systems that included pressurized showers. Heron (or Hero), a Greek inventor in Alexandria around 70 AD developed the first know piston pump which was used for firefighting purposes.
The Roman Empire is recognized for the extensive aqueducts system that plumbed Ancient Rome. Considered a marvel of engineering, the Cloaca Maxima (literally, the Greatest Sewer), was constructed around 600 BC and lasted for hundreds of years. Eleven aqueducts entered the city where they were covered over and channeled into smaller ducts that supplied the famed Roman baths, public fountains, palaces, and private homes.

Our modern-day term “plumber” originated in Ancient Rome. Derived from the Latin word “plumbum,” which means lead, the term reflects back to the Roman practice of using pipes made from lead.

Filtering water across Central and South America

Plumbing wasn’t confined to Europe and Asia. In fact, the ancient Mayans were the third earliest civilization to have pressurized, indoor plumbing. Established circa 226 BC, Lakamha was a Mayan city in what is now southern Mexico. Lakamha had underground aqueducts and flushing toilets that functioned all the way through the 7th Century AD. The Mayans also used household water filters made of limestone that worked much the same as modern ceramic water filters.

Tikal, another Mayan city, thrived for nearly 1500 years in spite of a four-month-long drought every single year. With a population of 80,000 people, this is an incredible example of ingenious engineering by the Mayans. As the city grew, the inhabitants recognized that the local springs were unable to keep up with the population, so they developed a way to collect massive amounts of rainwater.

The people of Tikal cleared entire ravines and plastered their sides to prevent the water collected within from absorbing back into the earth. Quarries were paved and turned into vast reservoirs, and extra canals and sluices were built to deliver the water first collected in the ravines down to the city for use year-round. Evidence shows that a century-long mega-drought finally defeated Tikal’s masterful plumbing around 900 AD.

Plumbing through the ages with technology

Over the millennia, ancient civilizations have traditionally settled where there is easy access to water. Ensuring that a fresh water supply and sanitation is available has been the focus of technological advances in every major civilization from Egypt to Ecuador.

Most ancient scientists were well aware that when water resources were limited and sanitation systems were insufficient, diseases spread. Having convenient access to clean water and an easy way to eliminate waste isn’t something we think much about today, but it was a driving concern throughout ancient times.

It’s fascinating that similar discoveries were made in all parts of the early world, leading to plumbing systems that were far from primitive. For a fun visual showing the history of plumbing for thousands of years, check out this infographic from Roto-Rooter!