Wells, Cisterns, and their Importance in Early Cultures

Patrick Christmas, pchrist@swarthmore.edu

Water has, is, and always will be one of the vital resources necessary for human survival. Thousands of years ago, ancient civilizations burgeoned in regions possessing rivers that served as the main supply of water. The Indus and Hwang-Ho valleys, Egypt, and Mesopotamia each hosted early human civilizations in part because of the rivers that run through them. Although perennial water levels could be rather erratic, especially in Mesopotamia and the two valley regions, human settlements that remained close enough to the rivers had a reliable source of fresh water. However, when they ventured away from their fertile homeland, maintaining access to a supply of water could become an issue. Particularly in the Near East civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, arid territory bordered on many sides. As a result, well and cistern building technology developed to tap underground stores of water. This technology often served military and trading purposes between settlements while also having domestic uses within a settlement. The importance of a water supply created a close association between the technology and human cultures of ancient times.

The existence of wells and cisterns can be traced back as early as Sumerian times. Pictographs on ancient tablets clearly represent some sort well or cistern like device; they are also mentioned later in the inscriptions of other peoples. Their use was critical in allowing humans to reach across desert regions to recover other needed resources. Wells or cisterns were dug adjacent to roads leading to mines and quarries located in distant, remote places. “It is probable that the Old and Middle Kingdom workmen who quarried diorite in Nubia, 55 miles from the Nile, had their needs supplied from wells, for rectangular pits about 27 yd square have been found not far from the quarries.”

In some cases, the water table was too low to reach with current technology. The gold-workings in Nubia were too distant to be traveled to with only the water carried in water-skins. Despite the efforts of many kings, wells could not be dug deep enough to tap any underground water supply. “Seti I (1313-1292 B.C.), had ‘caused to be dug a well of a depth of 120 cubits (200 ft) in his time. Yet it lies abandoned in the road, for no water came out of it.’” It is recorded that as many as half the workers sent to the gold-workings up Wadi Alaki in Nubia died of thirst along the journey.

When the scarcity of water became severe enough and technology could not remedy the situation, cultures sometimes turned to religion for aid. There were numerous gods of water; for example, “Ea, the patron god of Eridu near the Persian Gulf, was ‘lord of the sweet waters that flow under the earth’” (Drower, M.S. 526). These gods were believed to help in the finding of water where wells were dry. The successor of Seti I, Rameses II (1292-1225 B.C.), called on the aid of Hapi, the Nile God, and found water at a depth only 20 feet along the same road that his predecessor had struggled with. Seti I had actually found this particular spot earlier; nevertheless, the close connection between the society’s culture and water supply technology is apparent.

The importance of wells and cistern to commercial and military routes through deserts was enough so that the technology affected the culture. Caravan-routes became military roads for Egyptian and Assyrian armies in the arid regions of the Near East. The digging and fortification of wells became well integrated into military tactics of the time; seizing control of wells or other water sources became a strategy to cripple an enemy force or settlement. The evolution of these kinds of tactics also resulted in new techniques to maintain access to water throughout a siege. Not surprisingly, many new settlements would be founded on a hill for protection; the problem this creates, with respect to water supply, is that a spring or well would have to be outside the fortifications built around the settlement. The ancient Canaanites often solved this problem by cutting “a stepped passage down through the solid rock from the citadel to the spring outside the walls. The source was enclosed, so that it supplied only the dwellers within” (Drower, M.S. 530). The denizens of Mycenaean Greece constructed similar underground passages. (Drower, M.S. 531).

Domestic uses for wells were also commonplace; they were necessary to recover water for a wide variety of uses besides drinking. Some were sunk “in the courtyards of temples for cult purposes. The deep rectangular well in the courtyard of a temple in the city Ashur…supplied water for a piscine of basalt decorated with figures of Ea the water-god and his fish-clad priests” (Drower, M.S. 527). This type of use suited wells and cisterns. As long as the underground water table was not too low, wells could be placed wherever they were needed; locations decided on for building would maximize their effectiveness. Although sometimes used in agriculture, their primary use was not irrigation related. Such use often required the considerably deeper digging through rock.

The earliest methods in well digging technology can be guessed at by observing nomadic Bedouin in Arabia. After a promising spot is chosen, a hole is dug while piling up the loosened dirt around the outside. This parapet not only prevents sand from being blown into the hole but prevents animals from falling in. More permanent water holes would warrant the building of a well lining from “rough stones, ashlar masonry, burnt brick, or wood” (Drower M.S. 525). Cutting early wells through rock was an extremely laborious task. It required “heating the rock and then pouring cold water on it to split it…but it demands an adequate supply of both fuel and water” (Drower, M.S. 525).

The well building method described is an example of how these early cultures may have gained access to underground water. Textual evidence recovered with respect to these technologies is not extensive; however, we can perceive the great importance of water supply technology, wells and cisterns in particular, to early cultures. Most records from those times have to do with regulations dictating the water distribution rights. “Certain laws which survive deal with water-claims and obligations of ‘rivals’. That very word in Roman law denoted those who shared the water of a rivus, or irrigation channel; it thus implies jealously guarded rights and frequent quarrels” (Drower, M.S. 521). Water supply in general was of critical importance in early society. The ability to construct wells when and where they needed to was of great consequence with respect to military, commercial, and domestic aspects of culture.

A General View on Water Technology: Advances with Culture

Water is a vital resource for all living things and, as a result, every organism has adapted means to find and consume it. Plants, being unable to move, are forced to grow vastly extensive root systems to draw and collect moisture from the soil. Animals, on the other hand, are able to move around their environment until they find a sufficient water source. Our ancestors spent hundreds of thousands of years living as hunters and gatherers, supplying themselves with nourishment in a manner resembling other animals. Although knowledge of their mode of living is limited, it seems reasonable to assume that their temporary settlements were close to a water source; their mobility negated the need for any means to transport large volumes of water or collect it from artificially constructed sources like wells and dammed reservoirs. However, homo sapiens quickly moved away from the mode of living that had sustained them for so long with the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution. This development in the lifestyle of humans had monumental effects, one being the concentration of population densities that had previously been spread out and constantly moving. Access to a water source was a necessity for these permanent settlements and an important factor when considering a potential settlement site. This water was critical for both agriculture and human consumption. As a result, technology to create artificial access to a water source began to advance. Furthermore, advances in water conduction technology accelerated in response to the growing demand of water exacerbated by cultural revolution. As societies became more complex, a large variety of everyday tasks and occupations developed that also required considerable amounts of water. The demand for water as a vital resource drove the advancement of technology to recover and transport it from a source (whether natural or artificial) to the settlement or fields.

The emergence of agriculture is believed to have taken place around 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, an arc of land made arable by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and bounded on all sides by natural barriers. There are a number of theories explaining the development of agriculture; most of which have to do with “increasing population, declining game supplies, and increased plant gathering” (Dominance of Culture, 232). It is difficult to tell exactly how the revolution began; nevertheless, it is certain that “deliberate watering of the ground and preservation of seed from season to season must soon have gone hand-in-hand” (Drower, M.S., 520). The Agricultural Revolution was the first significant driving force in the development of water-supply technology.

The earliest attempts at irrigation can be guessed at by observing modern homo sapiens still practicing a hunter gatherer lifestyle. “They have been seen to erect a rough dam of stones to retain the water, and to scratch runnels to lead the water towards the valley’s edge.” A hunter gatherer’s knowledge of wild food-plants may have also led to the watering of soil bordering a stream or spring by means as simple as splashing to encourage growth (Drower, M.S. 520). It is likely that various methods were used by early homo sapiens to supply water to wild food-plants in the initial stages of domestication; all of them can be considered the first in a long line of technological advances to move water for irrigation purposes.

As the Agricultural Revolution progressed and greater amounts of water were needed, improvements in the drawing of water from natural sources must have come first. The use of leather bags, wooden scoops, or clay vessels to retrieve water from a river or stream would have been the least efficient means. Manually dipping such a container into a stream and then carrying it to wherever it was needed would have been back breaking work. A considerable improvement on this would be, the construction of a platform over the water source, “enabl[ing] the drawer to obtain a vertical pull,” and increasing the efficiency with which water could be drawn. The load could be lightened even further “by passing [a] rope over a horizontal pole supported on two uprights,” enabling a downward haul rather than drawing upwards” (Drower, M.S. 523). The use of animal power to draw water may have also occurred in some societies, although no evidence of this has been found. In the early stages of the Agricultural Revolution, human settlements were still relatively small and such methods, although providing a very intermittent flow, were sufficient.

Once the Agricultural Revolution was well under way, growing human populations and the formation of the earliest civilizations demanded a more constant flow of water from the source to the demand. In the Near East, the home of agriculture’s beginnings, the invention of the swipe or shaduf greatly increased water drawing efficiency. It consists of “two pillars about 5 ft high…set up less than a yard apart. A horizontal beam is fixed across, over which pivots a long slender pole. To one end of the pole a bucket is suspended, while at the other a large lump of clay acts as a counterpoise” (Drower, M.S. 524). The tremendous advantage of the device lies with the counterbalance which allows the drawing of water from a river with a fraction of the effort involved in filling a bucket by hand. Shadufs could be placed at river’s edge to lift water up into an irrigation trough that transports the water under the force of gravity. The first shadufs were used in Babylonia in the third millennium B.C. and the technology spread throughout the Near East, becoming particularly prevalent in the Egyptian civilization.

The initial drive in the advancement in water conduction technology would have been for the irrigation of fields; however, closely associated with the development of agriculture was the growing complexity of human society. By the time shadufs were in use, the cultural evolution of humans that spawned as a result of the agriculture placed even further importance on water-supply technology. This evolution accelerated at an unprecedented pace as people were not only living in dense communities but were also left with time to specialize on various tasks besides food production. Everything from pottery production to religious practices increased the demand for water.

This demand, although universally characteristic of the human societies undergoing rapid cultural evolution around the world, was dealt with differently depending on where a settlement was, regionally. “Each region had its own typical methods, determined by geological formation and hydrography, by the nature of its soil, climate, and flora, and no least, by social conditions—though the latter arose from the need for organized irrigation as much as they determined its form” (Drower, M.S., 522). Early civilizations were all located in regions with one of the most dependable natural sources of water, rivers. Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and the Indus River Valley all possess rivers that provided the foundations for these early civilizations and each had methods of collecting, transporting, and storing water.

The Egyptian civilization, built on the Nile River, enjoyed a particularly advantageous feature of its river. The Nile “rises and falls with almost calendrical precision” (Drower, M.S., 535) that allowed the Egyptians to time the flooding of their fields most effectively. They constructed dykes to protect their villages to control where the flood waters flowed so that when water levels lower again, the fertile silt left behind covers the intended fields. This basin-irrigation was also practiced in Mesopotamia with the Tigris and Euphrates; however, the water levels of those rivers rose and fell with on a much more erratic schedule, sometimes causing destructive flooding.

When rivers were not available or sufficient to satisfy the demand for water, other options included the building of wells or the transport of water from a distant source. Although wells and various means of water conduction over a distance were very viable options for water supply, settlements that relied on them were particularly vulnerable. For this reason, water availability was an important factor deciding where to found a settlement.

In this instance, it is the water supply technology influencing culture rather than the other way around. Control of water sources played a role in military strategy, particularly in desert warfare. “Digging wells by armies on the march was a necessary feature of campaigns in desert or arid territory” (Drower, M.S. 527). In addition to it’s military importance, the technology also affected society in terms of laws regulating use and distribution. “Certain laws which survive deal with water-claims and obligations of ‘rivals’. That very word in Roman law denoted those who shared the water of a rivus, or irrigation channel; it thus implies jealousy guarded rights and frequent quarrels” (Drower, M.S. 521).

Water supply technology’s influence on culture can also be seen in the most sophisticated ancient civilizations and their elite classes. Some communities (or individuals within them) built and maintained lavish gardens that needed constant watering. “[In Egypt], Pharaohs were horticulture connoisseurs. From their foreign campaigns they brought back exotic trees and plants to grow in their palace gardens or in the temples” (Drower M.S. 543). Such creations were an indicator of power as it is costly to devote such resources to a garden serves only aesthetic purposes and provides no food.

Ever since humans made the transition from hunting and gathering to the domestication of food-plants, water supply technology has advanced in association with the increase in demand for water. The cultural evolution of humans that resulted from agriculture only further increased this demand. Denser, more complex communities needed more water and, not surprisingly, these communities developed technology to satisfy that need. At the same time, the technology became of such importance that it had a profound effect on the culture that developed it. Water supply technology became particularly involved in military strategy, local laws, and shows of power for the elite. Similar to most general technologies, it was created and developed as a result of a cultural need and eventually became vital enough so that it made its own impact on the culture.

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last updated 1/25/06