TRACKING DOWN THE ROOTS OF OUR SANITARY SEWERS
THE EARLY "ROOTS"

3200 BCE Scotland
  • The Orkney Islands are the location of excavations that show early drainage systems.
  • First lavatory-like plumbing systems were fitted into recesses in the walls of homes -- with drained outlets.
  • Certain liquid wastes drained to area(s) either under or outside of buildings/homes.

4000 - 2500 BCE Eshnunna/Babylonia - Mesopotamian Empire (Iraq)
  • Had stormwater drain systems in the streets; drains were constructed of sun-baked bricks or cut stone. Some homes were connected. [The need for proper disposal of human wastes was not fully understood -- but there was a recognition of some of the benefits (less odor, etc.) of taking these wastes away from homes.]
  • In Babylon, in some of the larger homes, people squatted over an opening in the floor of a small interior room. The wastes fell through the opening into a perforated cesspool located under the house. Those cesspools were often made of baked perforated clay rings -- ranging in size from 18" to 36" in diameter -- stacked atop each other. Smaller homes often had smaller cesspools (18" diameter); larger homes ... more people ... had larger diameter cesspools. The annular space (1') outside of the cesspools' walls were often filled with pieces of broken pottery to better the percolation rates.
  • Origin of the earliest known pipe: Babylonia was documented by many as one of the first places to mold clay into pipe (via potter's wheel). Tees and angle joints were produced and then baked to make drainage pipe ... all as early as 4000 BCE.

Babylonian clay pipes

Knee and T joints, Babylonia
Source: Cast Iron Pipe, by United States Cast Iron Pipe & Foundry Company, 1914.

3000 - 2000 BCE Indus Civilization - City of Mohenjo-daro (Pakistan)
  • Mohenjo-daro: "The Mound of the Dead."
  • Well-evolved society: commerce, wheeled vehicles, domesticated animals, cotton cloth.
  • Wealthy lived well; peasants lived in hovels (but many had sanitation facilities).
  • Drainage systems were located in the streets (masonry; rectangular x-sections).
  • At the ends of the drains were wooden "bar screens." Liquids entered brick-lined cesspools (soak-pits) or were conveyed to the local river for discharge.
  • Homes had bathrooms -- on the street sides -- connected to sewers in streets.
  • Bathrooms and latrines were often located next to each other (wells were often nearby, in an adjacent room) inside each home on the street side of the home. The bathroom being located next to the latrine indicates that people understood the importance of cleanliness. Water was used for flushing.
  • Second-floor bathrooms existed, with terra-cotta piping and vents. Some homes had garbage chutes.
  • Solids traps were located along plumbing lines and also along street drains (sewers).
  • Some homes connected to underground soakage (perforated) jars.
  • Manholes (with stone covers) were positioned along the street drains.

3000 - 100 BCE Aegean Civilization - Isle of Crete (Minoans)
  • Crete was an island of variable climate and geography; it also had steep slopes.
  • Knowledge of "hydraulics" was quite evolved.
  • Until Roman times, Minoan plumbing and drainage were the most developed in what was then the Western World.
  • Drainage systems of terra-cotta pipe (clay pipe with bell & spigot joints, sealed with cement) and open-topped channelized drainage systems built of stone conveyed storm water primarily, but also human wastes. Some of the sewers were large enough for people to walk through.
  • Bathtubs with no drains were used. Latrines were flushed with water from large jars.
  • Many of the drains from 2000 BCE are still in beneficial service today on Crete.
  • The Royal Palace at Knossos had a latrine on the ground floor with a rooftop "overhead" water reservoir (which collected rainwater): the first flush toilet!? The toilet consisted of a wooden seat, earthenware "pan," and the rooftop reservoir as a source of water.

2000 - 500 BCE Egypt/Palestine
  • Certain homes of aristocrats had copper pipes that carried hot and cold water.
  • Many religious ceremonies included bathing.
  • Complex public waterworks were constructed in Palestine.
  • Later, religious aspects of bathing were strengthened by Jews under Mosaic Laws. Bodily cleanliness equated with moral purity under the rule of King David and King Solomon.
  • In Egypt, certain more well-to-do homes had "toilets" -- the toilets used beds of sand to catch/contain the wastes. Servants cleaned the sand regularly.
  • 726 years before the birth of Christ (in the reign of King Hezekiah), the City of Jerusalem built a "pool" and a conduit to bring water to the city [II Kings, Chapter 20, 20th verse].

300 BCE - 500 CE Greece
  • Pipes of lead (of lengths of 10 feet or more) and bronze were used by the Greeks to distribute water.
  • The sizes of lead pipe in the early years took their names, not from the resulting internal diameters, but from the width of the sheet of lead before it was bent into a pipe. The linear joint was soldered with an alloy of lead and tin.
  • Greece had a system of aqueducts, but for the most part, few above-ground structural arches were incorporated; a lot of tunnels through hills, siphons under valley/rivers, etc.
  • Sewers in Athens delivered storm water and human wastes to a collection basin outside of town.
  • From the basin, the storm water and wastes were conveyed through brick-lined conduits to fields to irrigate (and fertilize) fruit orchards and field crops.

200 BCE - Early CE China
  • The contents of a tomb of a King of the Western Han Dynasty shows the presence of an antique latrine, complete with facilities for running water, a stone seat, and a comfortable armrest.

800 BCE - 300 CE Rome
  • Complex drain systems evolved (initially, and primarily, for storm water and for draining marshes).
  • Public latrines were used by many people, but for the most part, human wastes were thrown into the street.
  • First sewer constructed between 800 and 735 BCE.
  • Rome had extensive street washing programs (water supplied by aqueducts, the first being built in 312 BCE). Only a few homes had water piped directly from the aqueducts. The vast majority of the people came to fountains to gather their water. Even though not many homes were directly plumbed into the sewers, when the wastes were thrown into the street, the street washing resulted in most of the human wastes ending up in the sewers anyway!
  • Direct connection of homes to the sewers was not mandated until nearly 100 CE. (Cost was a factor; also mandating such a connection was then considered an invasion of privacy.)
  • Sewage resulting from the public baths and the included latrines was discharged into sewers. It is worth noting that the Romans recognized the value of their water (which had been transported to the city via aqueducts, often over a distance of 20-30 miles); as such, any wastewater from the public bath facilities was often re-used, frequently as the flushing water that flowed continuously through the public latrine facilities. From the latrines, it flowed to a point of discharge into the sewer system.
  • The Romans were proud of their "rooms of easement" (i.e., latrines). Public baths included such rooms -- adjacent to gardens. There Roman officials would sometimes continue discussions with visiting dignitaries while sitting on the latrines. Elongated rectangular platforms with several adjacent seats were utilized (some with privacy partitions, but most without). These latrine rooms were often co-ed, as were the baths. As noted earlier, water from the public baths, or brush water from the aqueduct system, flowed continuously in troughs beneath the latrine seats; the sewage (along with waste bath water) was delivered to the sewers beneath the city, and eventually to the Tiber River.

Roman era public latrine

Ruins of a public latrine from Roman era (1st Century CE)
Source: Courtesy of Steve Harding, 1998, Ephessos, Turkey.
  • In Rome, water was distributed with lead pipes. To make pipe, sheets of lead were cut in ten-foot-wide strips and bent around a wood mandrel and joined by solder.
  • The 11' x 12' Cloaca Maxima ("Main Drain" -- finished in 510 BCE, and made of hewn stone, no cement) drained to the Tiber River. Its original purpose was to drain a marsh ... upon which a large portion of Rome was eventually built. The sewer has remained in service for over 2400 years.
  • Thievery of water was a significant problem:
    A quote from Frontinus, the Water Commissioner of Rome:
    "I desire that nobody shall conduct away any excess water without having received my permission or that of my representatives, for it is necessary that a part of the supply flowing from the water-castles shall be utilized not only for cleaning our city but also for Flushing the sewers."
  • Sewer infrastructure throughout the city was essentially completed by 100 CE; some direct connections of individual homes began to appear. Terra-cotta pipe was utilized. If a pipe had to withstand pressure, it was often fully embedded (i.e., sealed) in concrete -- a practice the Romans started.
  • Sewer odors were a problem, since there were very few vents from the sewers. Any connections to public baths, or to the few houses that were connected, served as vents in the early years -- making life interesting (odor-wise) in those facilities.
  • The initial purpose of the early sewers was to accommodate storm water runoff (and in at least one case, to drain a marsh); later, sanitary sewage began to be slowly added to the flow.
  • Dejecti: Effusive Act: Damages to be paid by the throwers of wastes into the street -- if the person hit was injured (no damages paid for clothing), and only if the incident happened in daytime hours.
  • Roman courtesy also extended to visitors, and to people with emergencies:
    • Huge vases were provided for use at the edges of towns at entrance roads and at exit roads (i.e., early port-a-potties.)
    • Vendors worked the streets of Rome and other cities providing access to pottery jars (and "modesty capes") -- for a price.
    The result was fewer wastes on the streets of Roman cities; still, the majority of human wastes (of the masses) ended up in the streets.
  • Little known fact: lead poisoning was common among upper-class Romans -- they used lead to sweeten wine and grape pulp (as a condiment). The Romans did not have sugar and learned that lead would sweeten wines and other acidic foods. Lead acetates (a.k.a. "Sugar of Lead") were the reason that many Romans became insane, sterile, or gravely ill in their later years.
  • Some cities/areas such as Mohenjo-daro, Babylon, Crete, Eshnunna, and Palestine had strict rules about sanitation. Others, such as Rome and the Greek cities, had fewer rules; the streets were, in large part, open collector sewers!

   


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