Ancient lessons

It sometimes seems as if progress is inevitable in the world within which we live. Technology and science advance, sometimes incrementally and at other times with great bounds.

This is not the case, however. Great advances can be followed by significant recession, not just economically, but in terms of engineering and science also, with the history of water management in the Mediterranean a great example of this.

Four thousand years ago, before the Greek and Roman civilisations developed, the Mycenaen and Minoan civilisations inhabited the Mediterranean. Clean water was piped into the cities of these civilisations and was provided freely to citizens in fountains. Or, if citizens were wealthy, they could pay to have water piped into their homes in terracotta pipes not dissimilar to those still used in Canberra today.

Water storage tanks, flush toilets, and sewerage systems were all used in this ancient water management system, just as they are in modern cities of today. Sewage was even reused on agricultural land in an effort to utilise water efficiently and effectively.

Ancient Mycenaen cistern

The hydrological environment in the Mediterranean was somewhat similar to Australia, where periods of drought caused water shortages and groundwater levels dropped deeper as increasing numbers of people extracted water (both surface and groundwater) from catchments.

In other parallels to modern water management in Australia, the Minoans and Mycenaens used a complex bureaucratic process to build and maintain their advanced water infrastructure. The general population had a say in this process, with the big expensive water infrastructure projects also supported by a strong political framework.

There were difficult decisions as to who was going to fund the construction and maintenance of water infrastructure, who got the water, and whether research into new technologies was worth it.

But fund water they did. Vast infrastructure projects transported water from remote rivers to cities where the water was distributed freely to the public in fountains. Wells were also dug within the cities to supplement the water supplied by the state. In ancient Athens wells were up to 37 metres deep.

The city of Pergamon, today located on top of a hill in Turkey, even engineered a water supply with 180 metres of pressure head by creating a siphon from a mountain three kilometres away.

Long after the Minoan and Mycenaen civilisations disappeared, the Romans also became famous water engineers. The ancient aqueducts of Rome sourced water from springs in the surrounding countryside and delivered at least 1,010,258 m3 d-1 to the city in the 1st century AD. Rome was a city of 500,000 people at the time. Compare this to the Rome of today, which in 1996 had a population of 3,500,000 people and received 1,987,200 cubic metres per day.

The siege of Rome by the King of the Goths in 537 AD brought the end of an era in water management. The economic and political decay which followed saw aqueducts and and much of the infrastructure previously mentioned crumble. A period of scientific, economic, and political regression ensued.

Cities continued to exist in the Mediterranean, although for nearly two thousand years their inhabitants became more ill as they relied increasingly on the same rivers for drinking, defaecation, cooking, cleaning, and dying in, or on groundwater wells contaminated with sewage.

The suffering caused by illness was indeed spread throughout Europe, and it continued despite the previously knowledge held by the Minoans, Mycenaens, Greeks, and Romans, of how to construct safe water supplies. Europe’s suffering even spread across the world as Europeans colonised new continents and brought waterbourne diseases with them.

Three and a half thousand people died in one New York cholera epidemic in 1832. London was faring not much better, with repeated cholera outbreaks and the “Great Stink” of 1858 – an event where the overwhelming smell from the cesspool that was the River Thames forced parliament to close.

It took until 1842 for New York to generate the political will, find the money, and engineer the structures necessary to pipe water to the city from outside its boundaries. At a similar time in London, John Snow’s famous study on the cholera outbreak associated with the Broad Street pump helped bring the realisation that disease was carried in water, and that clean water must be sourced from one place, with dirty water disposed of in another.

The cholera and typhoid outbreaks which killed so many in the 1800s occurred 5000 years after the Minoan and Mycenaean civilisations invented and started using the technologies to deliver safe water to cities. With retrospect, it can be seen that the decrease in funding for infrastructure development, maintenance, and research which followed the Siege of Rome cost untold millions of lives.

It would have been easy, in the first century AD, to look back at the 2000 years of scientific progress and to assume scientific developments would continue to occur and would build on those that had come before. It would have been a short line to where the world of science and engineering is today, but for the King of Goths, and a decision to no longer invest.

Instead, hundreds of millions of people today suffer terribly and are forced to live impoverished lives due to limited access to sanitation and clean drinking water. Even in developed countries with significant investment in infrastructure, the lifetime of many engineering projects is only forty to fifty years. In comparison, the sewage system of the Villa Hagia Triadha of Minoan Crete still functions perfectly four thousand years after its construction.

There is a misunderstanding that evolution causes species to “improve” over time – to get stronger, more intelligent, or more attractive. So too is there a notion that modern society cannot collapse, that it evolves to be brighter, stronger, and more resilient over time. That progress will happen because it just does.

Ancient European history unfortunately proves that this is not true. Not only can societies regress to less affluence, health, intelligence, and capability, but the previous knowledge on how to get these things can be lost.

History holds the achievements of the Romans and other Mediterranean civilisations high. Investment in science and technology is imperative if we are to have any hope at navigating our way through the Anthropocene rather than following these civilisations down the path of destruction, suffering, and possible oblivion.

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Page last updated 10 December 2020

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