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Digging into the History of Sewer Systems: Part I

Updated: Feb 14

Today, we have tools and technology like ground penetrating radar to aid in the construction of sewer systems and the placement of underground sewer lines and septic tanks. In the ancient past, the tools and technology were much simpler, but that didn’t stop people from recognizing the importance of drainage systems and implementing some surprisingly sophisticated solutions.

Early Archaeological Evidence

“Although there is evidence of surface-based storm drainage systems in early Babylonian and Mesopotamian Empires in Iraq (ca. 4000–2500 BC), it is not until after ca. 3000 BC that we find evidence of the well organized and operated sewer and drainage systems of the Minoans and Harappans in Crete and the Indus valley, respectively,” the authors of The Historical Development of Sewers Worldwide.

The Minoan civilization (the people were the Harappans) was based on the Greek island of Crete and it prospered from approximately 3000 BCE to 1100 BCE. The Indus River Valley Civilization, on the other hand, was based in Southeast Asia in what is today Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwest India. Their Bronze Age civilization flourished on a similar timeline: from 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE.

A few interesting bits of information about the people of the Indus River Valley, according to Khan Academy:

They established standardized weights and measures

  • They developed metallurgy skills and worked with copper, bronze, lead and tin.

  • And as the historians at Khan Academy tell us, “The civilization likely ended due to climate change and migration.”

From there, as the authors of The Historical Development of Sewers Worldwide tell us, the ancient Greeks and Romans took the lead. “The Hellenes and Romans thereafter, are considered pioneers in developing basic sewerage and drainage technologies, with emphasis on sanitation in the urban environment,” the paper says. “The Hellenes and Romans further developed these techniques and greatly increased the scale of these systems.”

If you took any world history classes in high school or college, you may remember hearing about the Roman aqueducts, which truly were marvels of engineering.

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