Water and Cultures in the Ancient World

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Water and Cultures in the Ancient World

Water was the center of life in many ancient cultures. In Greek mythology, one of the most ancient and powerful gods was Neptune, the god of the sea. Ancient Greek literature, such as The Odyssey by Homer (about 800 b.c.e.), mentions sea monsters, whirlpools, and harrowing voyages upon the sea. In India, the Ganges River was considered sacred from historical accounts over 3000 years old. To the ancient Egyptians, the Nile River was the political, economic, and life-sustaining center of their kingdom. Without the Nile, Egypt would be as barren as its nearby deserts. Ancient civilizations' respect for water grew from their absolute need for water. Like today, water sustained life in many ways.

Seafaring in the ancient world

Ancient cities constructed beside the sea based their economies on the nearby water. Fishing, exploration, trade, and warfare necessitated shipbuilding. Shipbuilding was one of the most important crafts of the ancient world. Most ships were wooden, but smaller boats used for fishing were sometimes made of bark or cured (dried and treated) animal skins. Making wooden ships required a good supply of timber and a means of transporting that timber to seaside shipyards. A shipyard is a place where ships are built and repaired.

Trade was a key development of the great ancient civilizations. The cultures of the Mediterranean Sea traded actively with each other. Most trade ran along the coastline, with ships sailing close to land to aid navigation. However, some open water trade routes successfully connected various parts of the Mediterranean and Asia. When the Roman Empire overtook most of the Mediterranean region in the first century b.c.e., trade continued to flourish. For example, Rome exported (sold to other countries) wine, olive oil, gold, and silver. The Romans imported (brought into the country) cotton, slaves, silk, ivory, and spices from other parts of the empire and from exotic locations such as India, the Middle East, and Africa. Many of the trade routes used by the Romans in the eastern Mediterranean region had been established by the region's first great seafaring and trading culture, the Phoenicians, beginning in 1200 b.c.e.

Sailors, soldiers, and explorers in ancient Greece and Rome returned to their homes with stories of other cultures and far away places. This sparked interest in travel. In Rome, for example, ancient tourists boarded boats to sail to Greece and Egypt. One of the most popular tourist attractions for wealthy Romans was a cruise on the Nile.

Ancient civilizations utilized different styles of boats for shipping than they did for transportation. Cargo ships, ships that carried goods, tended to be large and more broad, for example. However, most ancient boats have some similarities. Most European and Middle Eastern boats relied on harnessing the wind with sails. When there were no winds, or when the currents were too strong for their sails, men rowed the large boats. Some ships employed over 100 rowers to propel a ship through the water. The Chinese junk, a small, flat-bottomed ship made from about the ninth century, however, was completely sail-powered. Its movable sails permitted it to adapt to changing winds. However, the junk was usually limited to coastal trade.

Ancient Egypt and the Nile River

Life in ancient Egypt depended on the Nile River. The banks of the Nile were lush with vegetation. Silt deposited on farm fields by yearly floods provided crops with fertile soil. Although its waters were heavy with silt, the Nile was the largest source of drinking water in the desert region. Most of Egypt's cities grew along the banks of the Nile.

The Nile was Egypt's main highway. Goods, people, and crops all moved along the Nile on boats or barges. The Nile flows from south to north, and ships heading north would simply float along with the river's current. For the journey south, barges used sails to catch the prevailing winds. Water from the Nile permitted the Egyptians to build cities, statues, and the Great Pyramids. The Northern part of Egypt did not have adequate building materials. Stone was quarried (carved out of the earth) in the south and floated on the Nile to where it was need for construction projects.

Many ancient ports, harbors, and coastal towns faced serious problems with deposition and erosion. Deposition is the process by which dirt, silt, and sand is moved from its original place by wind or water and deposited elsewhere. Alexandria, Egypt was located near Nile River delta, the place where the Nile flowed into the Mediterranean Sea. The slow-moving waters of the delta carried large amounts of silt (fine rock, plant, or soil sediment particles) and sand. These silt and sand deposits constantly reshaped the coastline, altering the pathways into the Nile River. Erosion is the wearing away of soil or rock by wind and water. In Greece, widespread inland deforestation (clearing of forests) caused soil loss, leaving both inland and coastal areas vulnerable to erosion. By 500 b.c.e., many Greek costal towns were creeping further inland as mud, dirt, and silt washed from the bare land into the mouths of bays and rivers. The ruins of many ancient cities that were once ports now lie several miles inland.

Ancient Polynesians

The ancient people who became the Polynesians when they settled in the South Pacific Ocean began their journey in 500 c.e. off the coast of New Guinea. As food, lumber, and other resources diminished the islands they inhabited, the people migrated to another chain of islands. The Polynesian ship was an open, double canoe-raft with of two hulls connected by ropes and timber beams. A platform laid over the beams provided the needed working, storage, and passenger space. The immigrants took their supplies, tools, animals, and crop plants with them. At first, these journeys were limited to islands already visible from the coastline. However, as the immigrants moved further, they began to send expedition parties to scout for new islands. The trips crossed tens and then hundreds of miles of open ocean, out of sight of land.

The Polynesians developed a navigation system based on observation of the stars to help them find their way. They also carefully observed birds and the currents and tide of the ocean. Watching the environment gave told them when they were close to land. By 1000 c.e., the people who became the Polynesians had settled the Islands of Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Easter, and parts of Hawaii and New Zealand.

In 1947, Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl (1914–2002) recreated an ancient Polynesian canoe raft. He sailed the craft across the open water of the Pacific from Peru to Polynesia. He named the legendary raft Kon-Tiki. Heyerdahl devoted much of his career to the study of ancient Polynesian exploration and culture.

Water and science: inventions and discoveries in the ancient world

Ancients civilizations developed the art and science of seafaring. Their journeys were aided by the development of sail powered craft and navigational tools. Although no one knows for sure when the sail was invented, the earliest record of ships with sails is on a piece of 5,000-year-old Egyptian pottery that features a drawing of boats. While researching a Greek shipwreck, marine archaeologists (scientists who study objects found in water from the past) discovered an early toolfor calculating the movement of certain stars and planets known as the Antikythera Mechanism, which involved a complex series of moving gears. Ancient sailors in the Mediterranean Sea probably used the movement of the Sun and stars to determine which direction they were sailing and to aid navigation .

The Greek mathematician Archimedes (circa 287 b.c.e.–211 b.c.e.) discovered the principle of water buoyancy, which explains why objects float in water. The principle of buoyancy states that an object put in water (or any fluid) will displace the same volume of water as the volume of the object. Archimedes also invented the water screw, a spiral shaft within a cylinder used for drawing water out of ships, cisterns (tank used to collect water), or pools. He also invented a clock powered by a flow of water. Similar water clocks were also invented and used in ancient China.

Although most large cities and town in the ancient world were built near the sea, humans cannot drink salt water. Thus, sources of freshwater still had to be found to provide people with water suitable for drinking. Water from underground sources was the cleanest water, but it was sometimes difficult to locate. Ancient civilizations discovered several methods for finding underground water sources. Several cultures observed plant life, noticing that certain types of plants grew only where there was abundant underground water. Others observed changes in soil and rock types. The presence of porous limestone, through which water could seep, indicated that an area could contain underground water sources. A common practice among Roman water engineers was to observe patterns of fog, steam, and mist in the early morning. They noted that mist appeared low to the ground near natural springs or underground water sources.

Ancient water supply systems

In the ancient world, most people relied on wells, rivers, lakes, and streams as a source of water. As ancient cities grew, they required large amounts of clean water for their citizens. However, rivers and lakes were also sometimes used as places to dispose of wastewater, sewage, and trash. Waste disposal from one town affected the cleanliness of water downstream. Water taken from rivers that flowed though several towns sometimes carried diseases. Often, towns and cities were abandoned when a water source dried up or became too polluted to use.

The most successful ancient cities discovered ways to provide their citizens with ample clean water. Even cities built next to sources of water required a means to move the water to locations within walking distance of people's homes. Canals, ditches, and channels (passages for water) were employed to move water for irrigation (watering crops) and drinking. Over several centuries, this water supply system improved. In the 3rd century b.c.e. the Romans began constructing a completely enclosed water supply system that mostly ran underground. The system involved aqueducts, which are channels constructed above the ground to carry water by gravity (force of attraction between all masses) from one place to another. Aqueducts brought ample fresh, clean spring water from the hills outside of Rome into the city for public use. The Romans built thousands of miles of aqueducts throughout the Roman Empire. Remains of these aqueducts are still visible today. Some are still used today to deliver water to public fountains in the modern city of Rome!

Southwestern Native Americans

The ancient Native American cultures in the desert western United States thrived in places where water was scarce. Since rain was infrequent, and small streams often dried out, they devised ways to store and conserve water.

The Anasazi (100 b.c.e.–1600 c.e.) and the Hohokam (200 b.c.e. –1450 c.e.) cultures occupied lands in similar hot and dry climates, however their approach to water use and conservation was very different. The Anasazi built their towns in to the side of mesa cliffs. They used a network of ladder to reach the top of the flat mesa where they grew crops.

The Anasazi depended on seasonal rains for their crops and supply of drinking water. They would collect rainwater for drinking and store it in cool, stone cisterns constructed in their towns. They also collected rainwater that spilled out of the rocks in the cliff walls. Water was a public resource. It was conserved, and was shared among the community.

The Hohokam lived closer to larger sources of water. They diverted seasonal streams and creeks to flow into their farmland and irrigate their crops. Around 300 b.c.e., they had become skillful irrigation farmers. The Hohokam conserved water for personal use, but often took such water from their irrigation canals.

The importance of water to the ancient desert cultures is also seen in the names later people gave to the ancient inhabitants of the area. One group of ancient Native Americans thrived for nearly a thousand years before the eruption of a major volcano devastated their farmlands. The civilization became known as the Sinagua, or "those without water.'

Aqueducts were used in ancient India, Persia, Assyria, and Egypt as early as 700 b.c.e. As drinking water for people had to remain clean, covered channels or pipes were necessary to protect the water as it flowed several miles (kilometers) from its source. The first such stone structure was built by the Assyrians around 690 b.c.e. Ancient Rome's aqueducts used tunnels, pipes, and covered channels to protect the water.

In ancient aqueducts, water flowed through the channels by the force of gravity alone. Aqueduct channels were constructed along a gradual slope, allowing water from the source to flow downhill to its destination. Constructing aqueducts through hilly terrain required advanced knowledge of mathematics, architecture, and geology. Although there were no modern machines or pumps that could move water up a hill or slope, resourceful ancient engineers designed tunnels, inverted siphons, and aqueduct spans (bridges) to move water. Tunnels were constructed through hills by carving through rock. An inverted siphon is a U-shaped pipe that relies on the force of water flowing down to push the water on the other side of the U-shaped pipe. Pipes made of stone or a type of baked clay called terra cotta carried water through carved out tunnels. Inverted siphons moved water uphill for short distances. Finally, the Romans constructed aqueduct bridges (or elevated spans) from stone. To withstand the heavy weight of water, aqueduct bridges employed several stories (or tiers) of strong arches.

Cleaning water of mud, dirt, silt, and some minerals such as lead was common in the ancient world. It improved the taste and clarity of drinking water. Water from rivers, lakes, and aqueducts was often placed in large cisterns. The lack of movement in the cistern permitted sedimentation, a process in which heavier dirt, silt, and mineral particles sink to the bottom of the cistern. Water was then drawn from the upper levels of the cistern as from a well. In many parts of the Roman Empire, pipes carried water from cisterns to public fountains or into private homes. In Greece, water was sometimes strained through cloth to remove solids before being used.

Another innovation of ancient waterworks was the sewer. Sewers carried wastewater away from the city and prevented people from dumping waste into the streets. Sewer systems also helped drain city areas and prevent flooding. Ancient sewer systems used a network of underground channels and a flow of water to remove wastes. Sewers helped cities stay clean and aided disease prevention. However, even Rome's most advanced ancient sewer system eventually discharged wastewater into rivers or the sea.

Water supply systems also carried water to popular places such as public baths and pools. Both the ancient Romans and the ancient Chinese civilizations built spas and pools using water from naturally hot springs. The Greeks built swimming pools near their public baths. The first known swimming races were held in Japan in 36 B.C.E.

Ancient civilizations shaped how humans think about water today. Water is still used for the same tasks today that it was in the ancient world: drinking, cooking, cleaning, irrigation, shipping, and powering machines. Ships continue to move most of the world's goods. Even though trains, trucks, and canals permit goods and crops to be moved further inland today, many of the world great cities are still built near harbors and along the coast. Some modern cities, such as Alexandria, Egypt; Rome, Italy; and Athens, Greece are built upon their ancient foundations.

Adrienne Wilmoth Lerner

For More Information


Casson, Lionel. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Culver, Henry B., and Gordon Grant. The Book of Old Ships: From Egyptian Galleys to Clipper Ships. New York: Dover, 1992.

Heyerdahl, Thor. Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft. New York: Pocket, 1990.

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagels. New York: Penguin, 1999.


"Aqueducts Move Water. (Water Science for Schools)." United States Geological Survey.http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/aqueduct1.html (accessed on August 27, 2004).

"A Brief History of Drinking Water." American Water Works Association.http://www.awwa.org/Advocacy/learn/info/HistoryofDrinkingWater.cfm (accessed on August 27, 2004).