Liquid Assets

These rather athletic lovelies have tied their clothes to a bar and are paddling in a pool while showering under water, jetting from boars’ mouths. It is a sophisticated bathing experience that would not be out of place in a twenty-first century Spitalfields Rough Luxe interior. These showers are on a fourth-century BC Italian pot, but the practice and even the styling derive from early Minoan times. Evidence of elaborate domestic plumbing, public bathing facilities, and fountains have been found on Crete as early as 3500-2156 BC. Water in public fountains often spurted from animals, usually lions’ heads which may have had an apotropaic function originally, but by the time this vase was painted the significance was probably more to do with creating an elite imitation of a Greek aesthetic. 

Cretans developed a sophisticated supply system using springs, wells, cisterns, and dams. They had terracotta, or limestone, underground pipes, buried at times three metres deep, for the transport of freshwater and sewage. At Knossos, a flushing loo has been found with partitions around it for privacy, and cisterns and conduits in the wall. The Mycenaeans (1600-1100 BC) built massive dams and reservoirs to store water and prevent flooding and had a system of drainage pipes to carry wastewater and sewage – perhaps even using it in the fields for its nutritive value. 

 Cool Aqueducts     

We are used to seeing Roman aqueducts striding over the landscape, but the Greeks often built theirs underground, sometimes 60 feet deep, to protect the water supply from enemy attack, and keep it cool. Two of those which supplied ancient Athens are in use today. The one built by the tyrant Pisistratos in around 510 BC, carried water from the Hymettus mountain to the city centre – a distance of about 7.5 km.

One of the most ambitious of these structures was built on the island of Samos in around 530 BCE. Samos is just off the coast of Turkey, not far from Miletus, the home of Thales and Anaximander, both also accomplished engineers. It is a tunnel which was built through a mountain and like modern tunnels, from both ends. It was built by the tyrant Polycrates to ensure that the Samians would have a supply of freshwater even if they were being besieged. Herodotus (3.60) describes it: 

 The tunnel is seven stades* long and eight feet in both height and width. Along the whole of its length another channel has been dug, which is twenty cubits deep and three feet wide, and which carries water from a great spring through pipes to the town. The master builder of this tunnel was a Magellan called Eupalinus the son of Naustrophus.

Eupalinus (which means ‘good at solving problems’ and sounds well deserved) both designed and constructed the tunnel. It took ten years to build and is 1036 metres long. Where the two ends meet, one tunnel was made wider and dips lower to compensate for any margin of error and ensure the two would join up. There is no ancient explanation of how this was planned with such accuracy. A tower placed on top of the mountain would have given a view of both starting points, but how did he calculate the direction, depth, and inclination of the channel? Quite how the design could be enforced day by day in the dark, stifling depths of the mine, I would love to know.

In comparison with this, the construction of a shower is a mere pear-drop of a problem.

Written by Simone Witney


For a history of constructions and methods of water supply across various cultures I suggest:

Angelakis, Andreas & Mays, Larry, 2014. Evolution of Water Supply Through the Millennia, London: IWA Publishing.

For details of construction: Crouch, Dora P.. Water Management in Ancient Greek Cities, Oxford University Press, 1993.

For a fascinating and detailed discussion of ways in which Eupalinus might have designed the tunnel read a paper by the mathematician Tom Apostol, The Tunnel of Samos which you can find online here:

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