The History of Plumbing - CRETE

First published in July 1989, P & M magazine

Crete's history of plumbing is brought to you courtesy of P & M Magazine

We have received written permission to reprint

"When you consider the contributions that plumbing and sanitation makes to the quality of our lives, then much of the other things that we do just seems so much less significant." - 1995, our founder

Across the Mediterranean Sea from Mesopotamia, the ancient people of Crete and their Minoan sea-kings were leaving their mark on the early annals of history. Between 3000-1500 B.C., their early plumbers had laid elaborate systems of sewage disposal and drainage that resemble one of today. In fact, archaeologists have discovered underground channels that remained virtually unchanged for several centuries, except for extensions to include structures built over the original ones. Some vestiges of the pipes still carry off the heavy rains.

Unlike hot and dry Mesopotamia, Crete suffered from extremes of variable climate and geography. Some say those forces provided the catalyst to design systems for the inhabitants' comfort. Likewise, the sharp and jagged slopes of the country provided an early understanding into the principles of hydraulics.

The Palace: It was originally surmised that the Minoan civilization had been an offshoot of the ancient civilization of Greece. When the fabled palace of King Minos at Knossos came to light, however, it proved there was a separate and earlier civilization, and King Minos was no ordinary monarch.

Knossos was the Minoan capital and home to a population of about 100,000, crowded into an area of about 22 acres. The multi-storied houses of sun-dried brick or dressed stone encircled on different levels the king's intricate, four-story palace. There was a public inn too, located near the palace. It featured a convivial foot-bath with grandiose dimensions of 65' x 4'6" x 18" deep. Surrounding slabs which formed seats for the foot-bathers jutted over the bath.

The palace of the king had been built up over the centuries, and already experienced one earthquake and ruin in its history. But by 1500 B.C., it had become four stories high, with endless winding passages, innumerable halls and corridors and rooms of state and storerooms. The entire floor space comprising 1,500 rooms spanned five acres. Its huge rectangular central court faced north and south.

The palace exemplifies a labyrinth construction; indeed, the word labyrs is derived from the Greek meaning "double ax". To the Greeks, the Place of Minos was truly a labyrinth, the house of the double ax, and the double ax design appears on its decoration.

The early plumbing engineers took advantage of the steep grade of the land to devise a drainage system with lavatories, sinks and manholes. Archaeologists have found pipe laid in depths from just below the surface in one area, to almost 11 feet deep in others.

They constructed a main sewer of masonry, which linked four large stone shafts emanating from the upper stories of the palace. Evidently the shafts acted as ventilators and chutes for household refuse. The shafts and conduit were formed by cement-lined limestone flags, but earthenware or burnt clay pipes were used in the remainder of the system. These were laid out under passages, not under the living rooms.

The drainage system consisted of terra cotta pipes, from 4"-6" in diameter. The rain water from the roofs and the courts and the overflows from the cisterns carried the water down into buried drains of pottery pipe. The pipes had perfect socket joints, so tapered that the narrow end of one pipe fixed tightly into the broad end of the next one. The tapering sections allowed a jetting action to prevent accumulation of sediment.

The queen's bathroom featured decorated walls covered with monochrome frescoes and decorated friezes, and plaster stands which held ewers and washing basins. At the heart was a five-foot long, tapered bathtub. The tub was painted terra cotta, and decorated in a bas relief of a watery motif of reeds. Evidently filled and emptied by hand, the tub had no outlet. The used water was discarded into a cavity in the floor and connected directly with the main drain. The drain discharged into the river Kairatos.

Not too far away was the world's earliest "flushing" water closet, screened off by gypsum partitions on either side. It was flushed by rain water or by water held in cisterns. Two conduits were built into the wall. There were several other closets found in the palace too.

The Minoan religion is elaborately bound up with the image of the bull. Periodic "roarings" far underground in the earthquake-prone region were attributed to the bellowing of the huge mythical bull, the Minotaur, as he thrashed about in the labyrinth caves below. Undoubtedly he portended the future. In 1400 B.C. the Minoan kingdom at Knossos was leveled, devastated and lost for centuries by a cataclysmic earthquake.

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