Another thing” is a series of occasional posts, each presenting a particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual object on display at one of the museums or sites on our tours.

An ancient water distributor at Priene in Turkey: a round stone basin with several circular cuttings in its side, set below street level

Our mystery object, at Priene: a round stone basin with several circular cuttings in its side, set below street level…

A circular stone bowl, quite roughly made, about half a metre (20″) across and pierced by a series of circular holes. Hardly a work of art, but an object serving some practical purpose. Looking more closely, you will note a broken clay pipe connecting with one of those openings in the foreground.

Something to do with water?

Indeed – our object is one that all visitors to the ancient Greek city of Priene in Ionia (Western Turkey) walk by, or even over, as it sits in the main access path to the site, close to the city’s agora. It’s even been shown on this blogbefore…

Its function? It is a 4th century BC distributing basin, part of the water supply system of Priene, and a highly typical and informative – if modest – example of ancient civil engineering.

I was reminded of it a few days ago, while visiting a much more impressive structure on my holidays, very far away from Ionia.

The Roman Castellum Divisorum at Nimes in France, a larger example of an ancient water distrubtor

Same thing, but bigger: the 1st century BC/AD Castellum Divisorum at Nimes.

Passing through the beautiful city of Nîmes, ancient Nemausus, in Provence (Southern France), I had a look at some of the impressive Roman remains it is famous for. Temples and amphitheatres aside, they include the monument shown here, known as the Castellum Divisorum. It may be Roman rather than Greek, two or three centuries younger, located 2,000 km (1,250 mi) away from Priene, and more than ten times as big, but it is nearly exactly the same thing as our object!

the Pont du Gard the multi-tiered section of the Roman Nemausus aqueduct

One of the main challenges in building long-distance aqueducts is how to bridge valleys. For the Nemausus aqueduct, this was famously solved by constructing the multi-tiered Pont du Gard.

Priene’s water came from the nearby uplands, where copious springs still exist. Although we don’t understand the course of the city’s water supply in detail yet, there was probably a central distributor above the city, similar to the one at Nîmes – it was a necessary structure for all aqueduct-supplied cities. Clay pipes then continued the system under Priene’s streets and lanes. Here and there, special features occur, such as our object, which is one of several localised sub-distributors, permitting water to be channelled off into side-lanes and to individual fountains or other public buildings, and perhaps some private ones.The Nîmes Castellum was the main distributor for the city’s famous aqueduct, which brought water from the Uzès springs, some 25km (15mi) to the north – but twice as long for the aqueduct, which had to preserve a shallow gradient to keep water flow manageable. Water entered the circular basin, (6m/20ft in diameter) through the large rectangular opening at the back. Ten openings, probably once controllable with bronze valves, then distributed it into pipelines serving the various parts of town, where the water would feed public fountains, bathhouses, latrines and perhaps also private homes.

The travelling public tends to be much more aware of Roman aqueduct systems than of their predecessors in the Greek World and elsewhere. The reason is – evidently – that Roman aqueducts often reached very large dimensions, thus leaving behind immensely impressive monuments. Additionally, Roman ingenuity had further developed the idea, and achieved quite astonishing feats of engineering, permitting the construction of very ambitious long-distance aqueduct systems. Especially interesting are the Roman solutions for crossing valleys or depressions, either by constructing tall aqueduct bridges or by building inverted syphons (we’ll write about those sometime soon).

The Delikemer inverted syphon section of the ancient aqueduct to Patara in Turkey

but some valleys are too wide. A Roman alternative for negotiating a dip is the use of the inverted syphon principle, creating a “water tower”, crossing the depression at lower level through pressurised pipes to another tower, and then continuing as normal – we’ll explain this properly in another post. Patara in Lycia is a famous example.

The similarity between the two monuments, one of them enormous, the other more modest, is nonetheless striking. At the same time, it is hardly surprising: both installations served the exact same function, albeit at different scales, and the later, Roman, one simply represents a later phase in the same technological tradition. The necessity is the same: a city, in other words a collective of many people living permanently in the same place, requires fresh water, so ways need to be found to provide it – to this day.

For nearly every Roman city we visit on our tours and cruises, it can be taken for granted that an aqueduct system existed, and we have opportunity to point those out or even to explore them at sites like Patara (on Walking and Cruising the Lycian Shore), not to mention Istanbul/Constantinople itself, or at Syracuse on Sicily and – of course – in Rome!

Interlocking clay pipes in a roadside cutting part of the ancient aqueduct connecting springs at Flerio on Naxos with the main town

Interlocking clay pipes, set in a roadside cutting, are what’s left of the 6th century BC (restored in Roman years) aqueduct connecting springs at Flerio on Naxos with the main town of that island.

But the effort to supply piped fresh water goes back much further: we come across aqueduct systems on many earlier sites on our tours, e.g. from the 4th century BC at Priene (e.g, on Cruising to Ephesus), from the 5th and 6th centuries BC in Athens, on Naxos  (on Cruising to the Cyclades) or on Samos (on Cruising the Dodecanese), where the 1km Tunnel of Eupalinos was cut through sheer rock around 550 BC, connecting Samos city with an inland spring. The origins of such systems are even earlier: on our tours, we come across evidence for piped water supplies from nearby springs feeding the prehistoric (Bronze Age) citadel of Mycenae in the Peloponnese (Greece, about 1,500 BC), the Hittite capital in Hattusha (also around 1,500 BC, on Walking and Exploring Cappadocia and the Land of the Hittites) and the Minoan palace of Knossos on Crete (perhaps as early as 1,900 BC)!

Thus, the humble distributor basin at Priene, so easily overlooked, is really just one example of an extremely important aspect of ancient engineering, and an omnipresent factor of ancient – and modern – urban life. Food for thought: water supply is one thing, water removal, better known as drainage, is another – and equally as important to make a city liveable. Let’s come back to that! We explore both aspects of water management on our tours – hands-on – to help our guests understand the very practicalities of ancient city life!

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