In an era where contemporary water utilities grapple with maintaining pristine water supplies, a groundbreaking study led by Oxford geoarchaeologist Dr. Gül Sürmelihindi and an international team unveils a remarkable facet of ancient civilization. The research exposes the meticulous water management practices of Roman engineers who, some two millennia ago, adeptly sustained and preserved their intricate water systems through Roman Aqueducts.
Published in Science Advances, the study uncovers a trove of historical insight within the limescale deposits found in the ancient Roman aqueduct of Divona (Cahors, France). These deposits, built up over time, tell a tale of consistent maintenance and management efforts.
The evidence divulges a practice of regular and partial removal of limescale deposits from the aqueduct’s walls and floor. This meticulous upkeep was crucial, as these deposits could accumulate to several centimetres, obstructing the aqueduct’s channel. The research indicates that such maintenance occurred every one to five years, as advised by the Roman author Sextus Julius Frontinus (AD 40–103), the sole writer of an extant treatise on aqueduct maintenance. His counsel, informed by his role as supervisor (curator) of Rome’s waterworks, guided the approach to aqueduct preservation. The process of cleaning was rapid and specifically avoided the summer months.
Dr. Sürmelihindi elucidated, “Initially, we were uncertain about the exact nature of our findings. Such is the nature of discoveries—filled with both pleasant and unexpected surprises. However, we believe that the carbonate research from each ancient city’s aqueduct contributes a micro-story to the broader narrative of Roman civilization, waiting to be unveiled.”
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Divona aqueduct functioned from the early 1st century AD until the early 5th century AD, with regular maintenance persisting, albeit less frequently, until its later years.
Roman Aqueducts; OXYGEN ISOTOPES
By analyzing stable oxygen isotopes, the researchers deciphered the cyclical temperature fluctuations in the aqueduct’s water, allowing them to count the layers within the deposits. This count revealed 88 years of aqueduct activity. The positioning of these layers indicated cleaning intervals of 1 to 5 years, with an average of 2.8 years—a testament to the systematic maintenance regimen.
The oxygen isotope profile further unveiled that each cleaning operation was swift, potentially lasting less than a month, and consistently carried out during spring, autumn, or winter, intentionally avoiding summer.
Beyond its implications for water management, the study postulates that insights gleaned from the aqueduct’s state can shed light on the local economy and political stability. The authors note that regular maintenance is indicative of a well-organized urban structure, while irregular upkeep might suggest socio-economic pressures.
The ongoing investigation into Divona’s aqueduct and its neighbouring counterparts holds promise not just in unravelling the mosaic of late antique Roman life but also in comprehending the eventual societal upheaval in southern France attributed to political and environmental catalysts.