Water and Cultures in the Ancient World

Ancient Egyptian Temple, Island of Philae, Nile River, Egypt
Ancient Egyptian Temple, Island of Philae, Nile River, Egypt

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 Egyptian, 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.

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.

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!

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.