Omnia Mechanical Group

571 Timpson Place Bronx, NY 10455

Phone: 212-534-2500

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Plumbing in Ancient Civilizations: Modern Technology Ahead of Its Time

In New York City today, we take it for granted that when we turn on the tap, we’ll have clean running water, and when we use the bathroom, waste is easily flushed into the sewer system. People spent centuries without these modern conveniences, and modern plumbing was only introduced on a wide scale in the last few hundred years. However, plumbing in ancient civilizations was actually quite advanced. That technology was lost through conquests and collapses and had to be essentially reinvented after the Dark Ages. Here are some plumbing innovations that were ahead of their time and were unfortunately forgotten until fairly recently on the human history timeline.

Neolithic Scotland

Originators of the indoor toilet

It makes sense when you think about it that the first indoor toilet would come from chilly northern Scotland. Called “the Scottish Pompeii,” Skara Brae was a seaside Neolithic settlement that existed from around 3180 BC to 2500 BC. The village had a drainage system made of clay and tree bark, and every house had a primitive indoor toilet attached to it.

The Indus Valley

First known plumbing systems

The Indus Valley, in what is now Pakistan and northern India, has long been known to have some of the earliest human cities, and it’s believed that this area was the first to have complete plumbing systems of a more sophisticated nature. Some of the plumbing components unearthed in cities like Lothal, built in 2350 BC, and Mohenjo-daro and Harappa from 4,000 BC include:

  • Covered sewer networks
  • Private toilets
  • Public and private baths
  • Drainage channels
  • Rain harvesting techniques
  • Water pump precursors called shadoofs

Ancient Egypt

First users of copper piping

The Ancient Egyptians also used shadoofs, which are poles with counterweights to move water, still in use today in some parts of the Middle East and Africa. The Egyptians were renowned for their ultra deep wells and for being the first to employ copper in the manufacture of pipes to carry water to and from various structures and urban areas. Bathrooms and plumbing elements were even incorporated into the pyramids constructed to house dead royalty.

Ancient China

Making use of botanical resources

Humans thousands of years ago were adept at utilizing stones, metal, and, in the case of Ancient China, plant material to construct plumbing elements. Bamboo is strong, light, and abundant in many parts of China. People there used it for centuries to create pipe networks as early as 2000 BC. Evidence of bamboo pipes has even been found in ancient Chinese mines.

Greece and Rome

Flush toilets, aqueducts, and hot and cold water

Greco-Roman civilizations and their Aegean neighbors produced many amazing advances in plumbing too. Before the Classical Greek period that most people are familiar with, the Minoans on the island of Crete had prototype flush toilets around 1500 BC. The Greeks themselves were heavily invested in sports and treatments for athletes (not surprising, since the Olympic Games originated there). They developed hot and cold running water as well as shower technology for post-exercise well-being.

Everyone knows the word “plumbing,” but you may not be aware it comes from the Latin word “plumbum,” meaning lead, which was used in Roman pipes. The Romans elevated plumbing to new levels with numerous inventions that can still be seen today in ruins around their former empire, as far away as France, Spain, and Great Britain.

One of the greatest Roman accomplishments was the system of aqueducts they built to transport water long distances. Some of the aqueducts are still being used today. Other famous Roman plumbing developments include:

  • Public baths and pools with steam heat
  • Complex drains for the baths and pools
  • Public latrines
  • Enormous covered sewer systems
  • Agricultural drainage mechanisms to clear space for planting

Mayan and Incan Civilizations

Early water filtration and irrigation

Great plumbing innovations weren’t limited to Europe, Asia, and North Africa. We just know more about those areas because the study of archaeology was concentrated there. But Central and South America were also centers of advanced plumbing technology before the “discovery” of the New World.

Roughly 2,000 years ago in what is now the Guatemala rainforest, the Mayan city of Tikal contained a reservoir that used quartz and zeolite as filters for drinking water. The minerals are not found in that particular area, so they must have been extracted elsewhere and transported or traded to the people there. Both zeolite and quartz are exceptional at removing heavy metals and microbes from water and are actually used in filtration systems now.

Further south in the region around Peru, the Incas built vast pipe networks for irrigation, fountains, and bathing. Their irrigation techniques helped them overcome steep terrain by letting them grow food on terraces similar to some parts of East Asia. They also watered ornamental plants in public spaces. The infrastructure behind these irrigation webs can be observed at landmarks like Machu Picchu, located nearly 8,000 feet above sea level.

Is Your Plumbing Less Advanced Than It Could Be?

Sanitary Plumbing can bring it up to date

You might be shocked at how many properties in New York City are woefully out of date, considering all the plumbing technology we have at our disposal today. Luckily, you don’t have to wait for someone to invent something to enjoy plumbing components that offer greater safety, convenience, and luxury. To bring your building’s plumbing system into the 21st century, call Sanitary Plumbing at 212-734-5000.


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