In 2000, WPI began research on ancient Roman water engineering. WPI’s studies have included sites in France and Italy and have focused on the civil engineering advances put forth by the Roman culture. The mighty Roman Empire was made possible by civil engineers: the invention and use of hydraulic cement, the mastering of surveying techniques to bring water to cities in aqueducts, the design of water distribution systems that made urban living possible by providing potable water to homes and public facilities, the use of rainfall capture systems in groundwater wells and the engineered use of water power to mass produce grain as a food source.
WPI’s first field visit to a Roman water system was performed in 2002. Research Associate Wayne Lorenz led the field study of the Barbegal mill site near present-day Arles, France. Barbegal was a flour mill where ancient Romans used water power to drive millstones. The mill was one of the earliest “industrial factories” with 16 waterwheels, each of which powered a heavy millstone. This Roman mill dates from the First Century, A.D., and relied on springs and two long aqueducts.
The Barbegal mill was adjacent to vast agricultural wheat fields that were still vibrant in 1888 when they were so marvelously recorded for posterity by Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh resided in Arles and frequented the wheat fields during his final years.
WPI has studied the Barbegal mill water supply, hydraulics of the aqueducts (north and south aqueducts), water quality and hydraulics of the channel as depositions occurred on channel walls and the water functions of the mill. A unique aspect of the Barbegal studies concerns the use of aqueduct bridges to span small valleys and avoid stormwater flows.
WPI studied floods and sedimentation at Olympia, Greece, in 2002. We at WPI had long been intrigued by the marvelous ancient Greek artifacts that had been found at Olympia, buried in sediment. Our theory was that a monumental flood had occurred at Olympia at the end of the Fourth Century, burying the artwork for posterity. When Ken Wright visited Olympia in the 1990s he concluded that the abundant treasures dug from the deep sediment had to have been buried prior to Olympia’s demise. So far, two of our colleagues, retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers scientists, took on the study to collect data and examine ancient flood walls and their types of failure. In the future WPI plans to further probe this theory and explore Olympia’s early water supply.
- An early Roman aqueduct that served the city before construction of the famous Serino Aqueduct
- The location and flow of water supply springs
- The route and gradients of the major supply aqueduct, the Serino Aqueduct (constructed between 33 and 0, B.C.)
- Water distribution system within the city
- Piping and water features in a specific Pompeii house, the House of the Hanging Balcony
What’s in WPI’s future? Our next goal is to have an opportunity to study the Alhambra, the grand 14th Century Moorish palace and fortress in Granada, Spain. To study Alhambra’s fountains, channels and reflecting pools would tell us much about the Arabs’ advanced hydraulic and hydrologic engineering skills and their keen attention to beauty and aesthetics.