Amazing Ancient Inventions – Part 1

4.2 Water Supplies, Sewage and Plumbing

Plumbing is the system of pipes and drains installed in a building for the distribution of water for drinking, heating and washing, and the removal of waterborne wastes, and the skilled trade of working with pipes, tubing and plumbing fixtures in such systems. Plumbing is usually distinguished from water supply and sewage systems, in that a plumbing system serves one building, while water and sewage systems serve a group of buildings or a city.

Plumbing originated during ancient civilizations such as the Greek, Roman, Persian, Indian, and Chinese cities as they developed public baths and needed to provide potable water and drainage of wastes, for larger numbers of people. Standardized earthen plumbing pipes with broad flanges making use of asphalt for preventing leakages appeared in the urban settlements of the Indus Valley Civilization by 2700 B.C. The Romans used lead pipe inscriptions to prevent water theft.

A new study indicates that the Maya were building pressurized pipes between about 450 and 750 AD, in Palenque, a major Mayan city in modern-day Mexico.

 Roman Aqueducts

The famous Roman aqueducts supplied water to the town, the pipe used in siphons set in sections of 10 feet. The sections fit into a one-foot square block of stone servicing as an elbow, with connecting holes cut into the adjoining walls.

Water flowed continuously into a private home through a nozzle, the homeowner paying water rates according to the nozzle size. At the reservoir where the service pipe was attached, engineers installed a kind of ball float, resembling the modern type, to assure a reasonable steady flow of water. Each length of service pipe carried the subscriber’s name to prevent any un-paying freeloaders from tapping into his neighbor’s pipe.

The plumbers of Pompeii had a flourishing trade that included fashioning gutters of lead for the private homes. A Pompeiian house featured an atrium and open-roof design. Underneath a tank collected the rainwater which ran down from the roof tiles.

In Pompeii, this is how the plumber formed pipe: He poured molten lead into various sheets of thickness and dimension, and allowed them to cool. Then he shaped the sheets around a core of wood, leaving a V-shaped opening where the ends met. He fashioned a sand or clay mold around the channel, and poured hot lead into the opening. Typically the pipe was elliptical, or egg-shaped. According to present-day experts, the plumberium’s efforts were crude, but workable.

The plumber made connecting joints in a like manner. He flared one end of the pipe into a cone – like shape, and fit the adjoining piece of lead into it. He soldered the two pieces together with pure hot lead.

Even Old Roman galleys were outfitted with regular plumbing, especially the ones used by emperors. It’s reported that one old relic may have been used by Emperor Caligula for pleasure cruises. Expense unspared, it was outfitted with bronze pipe and ornaments, with running water provided in the lavish cabins.

Roman aqueducts brought water to Roman cities. Aqueducts were a combination of stone bridges, supported by arches, grade-level water beds and tunnels. The water flowed from a source often miles from a city to be stored in large cisterns underground, where it was accessible by the city’s inhabitants. The different sections of the aqueducts where all designed with one goal: to keep the same slight grade all the way from the water’s source to the city so the water would flow at an even pace and stay pure.

Roman Water Supply Bridge (Aqueduct). The Romans constructed aqueducts to bring a constant flow of water from distant sources into cities and towns, supplying public baths, latrines (public toilets), fountains and private households.

Ancient toilets

Ancient Baths

Inca Aqueducts

The Incan aqueducts refer to any of a series of aqueducts built by the Inca people. The Inca built such structures to increase arable land and provide drinking water and baths to the population. Due to water scarcity in the Andean region, advanced water management allowed the Inca to thrive and expand along much of the Pacific coast of South America. Such structures, some of which survive today, show the advanced hydraulic and civil engineering capabilities of the Inca.

The water came mostly from nearby rivers, but was also brought down from fresh water springs on mountiantops. The ancients have discovered that if they divert certain amounts of water from rivers, then they don’t have to worry about scarce rain and drought and they could also stimulate plants to grow faster by getting enough water in time.Workers dug tunnels through mountains and cut channels into cliffs to complete the project.

In seasons when too much mountain snow melted, the flood waters were carried to huge masonry reservoirs for storage, channeling water to their cities and religious centers

 In pre-Columbian America, both the Incas and Aztecs channeled water to their cities and religious centers. The Incas built an elaborate system of aqueducts, some of cut stone, which wound through hills and valleys to bring water from the mountains. One of the Inca aqueducts leading from the highlands down to the sea was 360 miles (579 kilometers) long and 13 feet (4 meters) deep.


Tiwanaku is recognized by Andean scholars as one of the most important precursors to the Inca Empire, flourishing as the ritual and administrative capital of a major state power for approximately five hundred years. The ruins of the ancient city state are near the south-eastern shore of Lake Titicaca in the La Paz Department, Ingavi Province, Tiwanaku Municipality, about 72 km (44 miles) west of La Paz.   Tiwanaku appears to have been a port city. However, Lake Titicaca, the only body of water, is almost 20 kilometers distant. There are piers and wharfs in Tiwanaku with long, straight calcium deposits that indicate prehistoric water lines, although they no longer lie in a horizontal plane, they are slanted.

Detail of ancient water pipe, at Tiwanaku
Image Source: Tim Hilliard Copyright 2001


Improvement in plumbing systems was very slow, with virtually no progress made from the time of the Roman system of aqueducts and lead pipes. Plumbing was extremely rare until the growth of modern densely-populated cities in the 1800s. During this period, public health authorities began pressing for better waste disposal systems to be installed, to prevent or control epidemics of disease. Earlier, the waste disposal system had merely consisted of collecting waste and dumping it on the ground or into a river. Eventually the development of separate, underground water and sewage systems eliminated open sewage ditches and cesspools.

Most large cities today pipe solid wastes to sewage treatment plants in order to separate and partly purify the water before emptying into streams or other bodies of water. For potable water use, galvanized iron piping was commonplace in the United States from the late 1800s until around 1960. After that period, copper piping took over, first soft copper with flared fittings, then with rigid copper tubing utilizing soldered fittings.

The use of lead for potable water declined sharply after World War II because of increased awareness of the dangers of lead poisoning. At this time, copper piping was introduced as a better and safer alternative to lead pipes.


– – – – –

Part 2 >>

– – – – –

Subject Related Resources


Ancient Inventions

Historian Peter James and archaeologist Nick Thorpe define the ancient period as the time before A.D. 1492, analyzing the evolution of inventions from brain surgery to playing cards, and putting into perspective the accomplishments of many diverse cultures while laying to rest some “distorted Western views of history.” — Denise Perry Donavin

Editorial Reviews

You leave your seventh-floor apartment, curse the congested traffic that delays you, and stop at a fast-food restaurant on your way to have cataract surgery. You live in Rome in A.D. 25. Ancient Inventions entertainingly demonstrates that there is indeed little new under the sun. The book is divided by the authors (Centuries of Darkness, LJ 3/15/93) into convenient, browsable sections such as “Sex Life,” “Military Technology,” and “Communications,” each one presenting fascinating evidence of the extent to which human knowledge can be extinguished. Cute rather than hilarious in its humor, Ancient Inventions is thoroughly researched and profusely illustrated; it is doubtful that anyone could examine it without coming away enlightened in one of its broadly ranging areas. This work will be used as much for its historical information and accounts of ancient daily life as it will be for recreational reading. Historical First Patents is an overview of over 80 granted U.S. patent applications, with emphasis on the familiar: Howe, Whitney, Bell, and others whose names are closely associated with a specific device. Each entry consists of the historical developments leading to the invention, a biographical description of the inventor, and the story of the creation of the invention itself. A patent drawing accompanies most entries, although some contain a reproduction of the first page of the published patent in print so small as to be useless. The writing is rather stilted (Lincoln’s entry mentions three times in the first three paragraphs that he was the only president to receive a patent), and some obvious errors have not been caught. Some of the patents included here are for items discussed in Ancient Inventions and known thousands of years earlier, such as artificial limbs, cylinder locks, and anesthesia. Of the two books, Ancient Inventions contains information more difficult to locate elsewhere and will serve the broadest audience. Both books are appropriate for school, academic, and public libraries.  — James Moffet, Baldwin P.L., Birmingham, Mich.  Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Book Description

We in the twentieth century tend to assume that our era has a monopoly on the inventions of clever machines, labor-saving devices, feats of engineering, and advanced technology. But as the authors of this fascinating and eye-opening book reveal, some of humankind’s most important and most amazing inventions actually date back thousands of years.  Historian Peter James and archaeologist Nick Thorpe have pooled their expertise in amassing this compendium of human ingenuity through the ages. Together they conclusively prove that our ancestors, however long ago they lived and whatever part of the globe they occupied, were brilliant problem-solvers. Written with the pure joy of discovery, Ancient Inventions reveals that:

  • Medieval Baghdad had an efficient postal service, banks, and a paper mill.
  • Rudimentary calendars were being used in France as early as 13,000 B.C.
  • Apartment condominiums rose in deserts of the American Southwest a thousand years ago.
  • The ancient Greeks used an early form of computer.
  • Plastic surgery was being performed in India by the first century B.C.
  • The Egyptians knew about effective contraceptives.
  • Flamethrowers were used in battles waged in tenth-century China.
Brimming with odd facts and entertaining curiosities, written with zest and humor, comprehensive and fun to read, Ancient Inventions is a wonderful celebration of the endless inventiveness of the human mind.
“This presentation of the discoveries and innovations of the ancients will fascinate.”   –Booklist
“Thoroughly researched…It is doubtful that anyone could examine [this book] without coming away enlightened in one of its broadly ranging areas.”  –Library Journal


  1. Gary Schoenung says

    Many of the “mysterious” accomplishments from our early recorded history were left over from an earlier age and simply taken advantage of and reused, sometimes for the original purpose and other times for something entirely different. The reason for that is because they didn’t have the slightest idea what to make of them either. This link is to a video I put together of a massive ancient irrigation system in South Africa covering hundreds of miles that was not reused, and there are presently no theories that I am aware of.

    I am looking forward to reading about any explanations for it.

  2. Elijah says

    I find the article shallow perpertrating and continuing fals concepts of 100 years ago. Breasted’s 4236bc is based on the date July 18 for Memphis when Thoth was on July 20 for 4245-4242bc and then July 19 for 4241-4238bc and July 18 for 4237-4234bc. However, shifting azimuth and shifting altitude from the sun was not accounted for and thats why Chicago’s Richard Parker in later encylclopedia made it quite clear that a Thoth 20 of 2782bc is to be revised to a Thoth 17 of 2770bc. If youre a Christian Hebrew adopted by Jesus you will then see how and why 2030bc July 17 is the true new year date which after Exodus became Persian Pamenot 1 after a 70-day absence of Sothis (May 8-July 17) that was 72-day at Ur (May 7-July 18) following Peleg’s death on May 6 which is why 365 days later Nahor Mes-Kalumdug and his (grand) son Haran (A-Kalumdug) poisoned themselves and four guards killing there 68 wives (exception Lot’s mother back in the city Harran preganant or nursing) to go to heaven to join Peleg as Christ the first leader into heaven. I shouldnt use the term Christ because christos comes from Xisuthros who is the spirit of Noah, and in true Genesis, Noah died on Christmas Eve almost 9 years after this suicide, and they claimed he was the Christ in heaven. The 365-day calendar did not exist before the Flood when years were 360 days. ALSO the word for 30-day “same-sized” months is civil month. A civil month is an artificial 30-day month.

  3. Chris Allan says

    If find it hard to reconcile the statement that the Egyptians could not build dams, but had no trouble building pyramids. Is it possible that a more advanced people lived on earth long ago, and were wiped out by some catastrophic event. All the old legends of flying machines etc. are just to detailed for them not to be based on actual events. Visitations by aliens is not necessarily the only explanation, an advanced people may have existed (Atlantis???) on earth in antiquity.

  4. Brenda Brown says

    Couldn’t it be that it was a little of both? I agree, nothings to say that early man didn’t know a lot more than we do today, and because of a major cataclysm, lost a large portion of their knowledge. I wonder if such an event took out a majority of our populace today, how many would know how to work with metals, make computers, build defence weapons, etc.? But at the same time, whose to say that some space race didn’t visit us in the ancient past and help us along? Why would that be so improbable? I think it’s highly likely.

  5. bill heaney says

    It is racism, no question about it, but is it wrong to think so? Using Occum’s Razor, the pyramids at Giza were built by people just like the one’s who live there now. If that is so, how did they lose their extraordinary building knowledge? There’s no modern building or monument in all of Egypt that can compare. It’s like they regressed. The inhabitants of the New World, in all of the Americas, didn’t have the wheel. Yet we are told they built the awesome pyramids attributed to them.
    The marvel regarding the cave art has nothing to do with the work itself, it is how they were able to do it in darkness. They find no carbon deposits on the ceilings in those caves with the extraordinary art. How is that possible?

    The recent archaeology find in Turkey, Gobekli Tepe[spelling?] is 12,000 years old, making the so-called Egyptian pyramids modern in comparison. Researchers have reported on finding petrified wood in and around the Giza monuments, hinting they are very much older, and modern dating has the Spinx much older.

    Ancient man was smart, but not all ancient men were as smart as we who read your books. That stone in Baalbek is proof that ancient man, the ones like those who live there now, could not have achieved that awesome skill. Look at that stone and explain it. Look at Nazca and explain how people without metal leveled those mountain tops. Come on, man, give me a break!

  6. says

    Interesting article. I look forward to more. . . . The prevalent and pernicious idea that our lowly caveman ancestors needed the godlike help of aliens to become “civilized” needs to be set aside. It isn’t provable. I believe civilization before the Cataclysm was, in some ways, more advanced than ours. By the way, I prefer “chronocentrism”–but either will work. Thank you.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *