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Ancient London's Water Mystery Solved
February 2nd, 2002

By Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News

LONDON. The recent discovery of two giant Roman water-lifting machines near St. Paul's Cathedral in London explains how the more than 10,000 residents of ancient Londinium were able to gulp down plenty of fresh water and to splash around in two public bathhouses.
The machines were the first of their kind to ever be discovered in Britain. 
According to a report in the current issue of British Archaeology, both devices were found in two oak-lined wells, the widest and deepest of any attributed to the Roman era in London. 

A Sketch of the Contraption
(click on the image to enlarge)

The first contraption dates to 63 A.D. and was built after a royal member of the native Britains, Queen Boudica, led an ultimately unsuccessful revolt that resulted in the burning of London. The Roman device, high-tech for its time, consisted of a series of 12 wooden containers, linked by iron struts, that formed a circle. A circular series of steps attached to this "bucket-chain" likely was powered by humans.

"The treadmill was probably worked by one man either walking internally within the tread wheel or stepping onto the outside of the treads from a high platform, similar to continuously walking upstairs," said Jenny Hall, Roman Curator in the Department of Early London History & Collections at the Museum of London, whose team analyzed the find.  The second water-lifting machine was built in 108/9 A.D. in a manner similar to the first device. While fire led to the construction of the first well, it destroyed the second one in the Hadrianic Fire of 120-130 A.D. 

Despite the burning, Hall said, "The ironwork is in amazing condition and it is rare to get wood surviving to this degree. Both types of material have survived due to being waterlogged at the bottom of the wells, thus preventing oxygen from starting the corrosion process." 

Hall and her colleagues believe pipes, made of lead, ceramic and mostly wood, transported water throughout Londinium. Water lifted from the wells was at first either placed in a large wooden tank for storage, or immediately taken away in wooden channels raised above the ground. The tanks and/or channels have since rotted away. 

The water would have been directed toward residential areas and to the large public baths at Upper Thames Street and Cheapside. 

John Oleson, professor of Greek and Roman Studies at the University of Victoria in Canada, said, "The discovery is very important because it represents only the second well-preserved Roman bucket chain known." 

Oleson excavated the first 30 years ago at Cosa in Italy. 

While residents of both Italy and London during the Roman era enjoyed plentiful water supplies, the quality of the water could not have been more different. 

"The water in Rome was brought in from mountain springs and streams, so was very good," explained Oleson. "The London water was seep water from the gravel deposits below London. It would have been susceptible to pollution once the population of London became significant."


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