The example of irrigation
Almost as significant is the fact that artists and craftsmen who were unable to ‘find a place on the royal gang’ (Reader-Herodotus, p27) could earn a comfortable living working for the nobles, thereby improving their own standard of living through their private work and helping to build an industry in tomb equipment which further augmented the income of the villagers engaged in the work. The Egyptians also developed what could arguably be amongst the most important technology of all when they began keeping detailed written records of their society-the birth of today’s civil service almost?
However, if society was taking the time and trouble to engage in irrigation surely it must have been for the purpose of creating an agricultural surplus which could then be used for trade? If this is the case, which many eminent figures would have us believe, then surely the two most important technologies which grew out of irrigation must surely be improved agriculture and transport? In Egypt sailing ships were developed to take advantage of the fact that the prevailing winds ran opposite to the Nile’s prevailing current, rather than employing oars as had previously been the case.
3) It would be very simple to suggest that the supply of water in ancient Greece was anything other than socially shaped, since the Greeks chose their sites of occupation in a way which relied upon geology rather than geography, seeking out areas in which the natural rock formation created a source of water for them to tap into. This fails to take account, however, of Burns’ assertion that since ‘Greeks believed that epidemics were spread by wind and water it was natural for them to avoid exposing it to the open air’ (Reader-Ancient Greek Water Supply, p.
36). The argument also fails to take account of the fact that the Greeks sought to protect the Acropolis and ‘in their turn the Agora and its buildings’ (Chant, p78) The fact that the Greeks chose to channel most ‘of the surplus resources….. in ways that benefited more of the urban residents’ (Chant, p78) is particularly note-worthy since this was in direct contrasts to the examples of many other contemporary civilisations which focussed on the ‘power structures of divine monarchs’
I believe it is important to note that the Greeks ‘were prepared to pipe water from any distance’ only in exceptional circumstances and that ‘Classical Greeks were among the first to be concerned about the effects on public health of urban conditions’ (Chant, p73) Indeed, Aristotle is noted as observing that ‘in a state which has welfare at heart water for consumption’ had to be kept separate from that which was not to be drunk unless all ‘water is alike and there are plenty of springs that are drinkable’ (Chant, p79)
That ‘an adequate source of water was one of the paramount considerations’ in choosing a settlement site and the ‘fountain house was one of the paramount considerations in determining the layout’ (Burns-Chant p37) serve to highlight the importance of water to the Greeks, especially since water was being obtained from a common source, although some private wells may have been available to the wealthier members of society.
Indeed, Burns argues that ‘there was no popular pressure for water distribution’ since ‘the women [enjoyed] the walk to the fountain [to] meet friends and gossip, later being able to employ slaves to undertake the task for them as their own conditions improved and society once more moved forward.
In broad terms Greek society was far more shaped by water technology than might have been thought initially by those of us who are not inclined to look beyond the obvious-society worked together to dig aqueducts through mountains, plan cities in a manner which made the most of the resources available and actually looked to the source of water as being the most important of all considerations when seeking to establish a new city.
These considerations were also brought to the fore in the later Greek colonies and were to have an impact on society long after Greece had been supplanted from its position of pre-eminence. The Greeks were to give us what later became the ethics of public health-the idea of keeping sewage and drinking water separate from each other, reservoirs and much else.
Gary Archer, M26323231 AT272-bibliography Pre-Industrial Cities & Technology Chant & Goodman OU Press 2003 The Pre-Industrial Cities & Technology Reader ed. Chant OU Press 1999.