The Innovative Art of Plumbing from the Past

Our five year old son, Owen, has become a novice scholar of late. Various topics have peeked his interest over the course of the last year. For instance, on one of our recent geothermal excavations, he was grossly preoccupied scouring the ground for fossils and arrowheads. This prompted the immediate follow-up query and study of prehistoric life, as well as American Indian inhabitants, of our area in Northern Illinois.

His studious infatuations have struck again. All thanks to a picture book about the Roman ruins of Pompeii. Of course, he was most amazed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius and its destruction thereafter. However, I found myself equally intrigued by the plumbing innovations that were discovered, analyzed, and presented in this book. I left Owen to scour over the pictures and “re-read” the text as I proceeded to investigate the plumbing innovations that inspired much of our craftsmanship and trade today.

Pompeii

At livescience.com, I was pleased to see a collection of pictures suggesting there was a complex plumbing/piping network throughout the city, including by not limited to, second floor lavatories. A doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Missouri, named A. Kate Trusler, has spent much of her doctoral research on this specific topic. She found that 43% of all Pompeii residences had private latrines on the ground floor, where the other “half” of the toilets can be linked to the second floor thanks to the terracotta downpipes that have been left behind. Believe it or not, scrapings from the interior of these pipes still show traces of fecal matter and intestinal parasites!

Sure, the principles of gravity don’t seem that innovative when it comes to using the facilities within a second story residence. However, when you team their erection with the pumped-water system (also installed between the first century B.C. and the first century A.D.), you can really appreciated the complexities of their urban development, in this part of the world, thousands of years ago. Would you also believe that public baths had heated toilets? Thanks to the central heating system (also engineered by the Romans in the first century), homes and household features were kept pleasantly warm. Roman engineers were amazing!

Being that most of these upper story latrines were found above shops, in a marketplace of vendors, researchers now believe these ancient Romans were able to accommodate more city-dwelling residents than what once was imagined. Like today, it is evident that the plumbing and sanitation features of this era were a significant priority to the thriving advancements of this (and other) Roman metropolises.

Thank you Owen for your recent passion for the past; our human record truly never fails to astonish me. I guess you’re not the only one in the family with a hunger for history.

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