High Tech Roman Water System Frozen In Time Near Pompeii
Archaeologists in Italy were “impressed” with their discovery of a hydraulic system beneath a luxury Roman villa that was covered in the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius. However, they were “shocked” when they realized that it hadn’t moved in almost 2,000 years.
Scientists recently discovered an ancient Roman water system , or Hypocaust, that provided heated water and air to a luxury Roman villa in the German town of Kempten. Another team of archaeologists working in Italy have now announced the discovery of a Roman hydraulic system at Stabiae, an ancient city about 4.5 kilometers (2.79 miles) southwest of Pompeii.
Alessandro Sanquirico's set design depicting the eruption of Vesuvius, the climactic scene of Giovanni Pacini's opera. The Vesuvius explosion has allowed archaeologists to rediscover how the Romans lived almost 2,000 years ago, including their ancient water systems as this most recent discovery has permitted. ( Public domain )
Roman Water System Unmoved After Almost 2,000 Years
Roman chronicler Pliny the Elder noted that several miles of enormous luxury coastal villas lined the headland at Stabiae. Heritage Daily points out that elite Roman figures such as Julius Caesar , the emperors Augustus and Tiberius, and the statesman-philosopher Cicero “all owned properties at Stabiae.” But along with Herculaneum and Pompeii, so too was Stabiae buried by the October 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius .
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Considering the upper-class nature of Stabiae it is perhaps no surprise that archaeologists unearthed a luxury water distribution system . But what the researchers didn’t expect was to find the device unmoved since it was last used on that fateful day in 79 AD. When Vesuvius blew, she spewed superheated gases and tephra 33 kilometers (21 miles) into the sky before it rained molten rock, pumice and hot ash over the residences of Stabiae.
Along with 16,000 others, the aforementioned Pliny the Elder died in Stabiae while trying to rescue a friend and his family by ship during the eruption. And when one considers the upheaval caused by this volcanic event, and the seismic activity thereafter, it is perhaps clearer to see why it is so unusual that this water system is undisturbed, in situ, after all this time.
Exterior of an excavated portion of Villa Arianna in Stabiae. Villa Arianna was named after a large mythological fresco on the wall of the triclinium. (Mentnafunangann / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
An “Extraordinary” Discovery: Water System Discovered in Stabiae
The team of researchers were excavating a small colonnaded garden (peristyle) at the Villa Arianna when they uncovered the water reservoir and a decorated lead tank. According to Pompeiisites, the Villa Arianna complex was built during the 2nd century BC and occupies approximately 2,500 square meters (26,9097.76 sq ft).
The villa was first excavated by Swiss engineer Karl Weber between 1757 and 1762, at which time most of the artifacts, furnishings and frescoes were transported to the Bourbon Museum at the Royal Palace of Portici .
Pompeiisites explained that this villa displays “the extremely refined taste” of its high-ranking and demanding owners. The villa is famous for its mythological arts, for example, the small living rooms display “flying figures, cupids, mythological characters, miniature landscapes, masks, and medallions containing busts.”
While the discovery of the water reservoir in its original position is perhaps not as splendid as the features listed above, the new director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii says it represents “an extraordinary discovery for the Vesuvius area.”
The impluvium at Villa Arianna in Stabiae was part of the complex Roman water system. The impluvium was a water-catchment pool system for catching rain-water from the roof. (Roberto.imposti / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Charting Ancient Roman Water Courses at a Stabiae Villa
In 2021, Deutsche Welle reported that Dario Franceschini, Italy's former Minister of Culture, had appointed Gabriel Zuchtriegel as the new director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii. Zuchtriegel has explained that a water tank like this one, with two stop keys, “seems almost modern… and that they have always aroused amazement since the first discoveries in Stabiae, Pompeii and Oplontis.”
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With the water system having been found in situ, the archaeologists were able to see exactly how it distributed water to the various rooms of the villa. Two pipes were identified: one that fed the villa’s thermal plant and the other most probably supplied the impluvium (main water tank) in the atrium.
Furthermore, two stop keys allowed users to control the flow of water, and to stop it completely when maintenance was required. This water system also features a “raised astragalus” which is representative of the particular workshop that produced it. In conclusion, Zuchtriegel said the water system is an example of “how accessibility, knowledge and protection are integrated” in the Roman world.
Top image: Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a Roman water system at Stabiae near Pompeii. Source: Pompeii Sites
By Ashley Cowie