Pipes and Aqueducts: All About Roman Water in Nyon

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“ÇA COULE DE SOURCE!”: Aqueduc et histoires d’eau dans la Nyon romaine” at the Roman Museum of Nyon, Musée romain de Nyon, Nyon, Switzerland

Running until June 2019, the Roman Museum in Nyon has an interesting, thoughtful exhibition on the use of water in the Roman world. Anyone who likes the Roman world will, in part, be basing their positive feelings on their civilized usage of water – their baths, toilets, public fountains, sewers… in short, they weren’t gross.

What is really remarkable is that the Romans managed to take their sophisticated knowledge (and high standards) throughout their empire. This exhibition looks at Nyon’s water-y remains in particular, but there are examples from other areas of Switzerland too. It all adds up to the fact that the Romans were awesome. And here’s why.

The Romans took water very seriously. It was the basis of their culture – it was necessary for the maintenance of all those aspects of life which the Romans held dear and chose to introduce around the Empire. You couldn’t very well have a forum and a flamboyant basilica, if you didn’t also have baths and fountains. If a town was to be built, it naturally needed to have a reliable water source, which in turn meant that it had to have an aqueduct bringing the water in.

Interestingly it was the Greek and Etruscans who had developed hydraulic engineering techniques, including siphons, tunnels, lifting mechanisms, aqueducts and drainage canals – but as with so much of their culture, the Roman took things further. They got the process of transporting water and maintaining hygiene to a more universally achievable level.

The process started with actually finding a water source. The Romans were keen on using spring water – as opposed to streams or lakes – but finding the water could be problematic.  One of the techniques to identify a potential spot was to place an unbaked clay pot in the earth – when it was extracted, if it was damp or broken, then it was likely that water was to be found thereabouts.

After this potential water-source was discovered, it was important to check that it was situated higher than the designated destination – gravity playing an essential role in getting the water to travel.  The water was also monitored for a year to make sure that the quality of it was good, that it was colourless and odourless, and that it maintained its flow.

This established, it was now time to build aqueducts to transport the water to a town.  While the Romans did build grand aqueducts, like the Pont du Gare in France, the majority of their aqueducts were actually underground.  They were built on a regular gradient so that the water didn’t flow so slowly that it could stagnate, or so fast that it could damage the channel.

The Nyon aqueduct was constructed in the 1st century AD to bring water from Divonne-les-Bains.  It ran for about 10km, with an average 0.8% gradient, about half a metre below ground.  There is a model which shows how the construction process worked.  It involved many specialist workers, like topographers and surveyors, but there were also labourers who did much of the work.  The channel which carried the water was vaulted over, with terracotta slabs forming a smooth base.  The entire structure was insulated from the ground with stonework.

At the end of the aqueduct was a water-tower or reservoir, from which the water was distributed to the town.  There would have been a settling pond, where impurities were deposited, and grates filtered the water further.  From here, water was distributed to public fountains, public baths and to those private individuals who paid for water to be piped into their home.

The pipes which were used to distribute the water would be made of wood, terracotta or lead.  Both wood and terracotta pipes could handle large quantities of water, but expensive lead was used for high-pressure pipes, formed around regulation sized cores.  The modern world sees the use of lead pipes as being somewhat dangerous, but actually the calcium deposits that encrusted in the pipes would have defended the water from any poisonous seepage.

Further Information

The success of the Roman Empire depended a great deal on the high quality of living that it was able to provide.  Water management was perhaps their greatest civic achievement and it is great to see an exhibition that highlights the ingenuity and the energy that went into making a good quality water source available to all.

While they will apparently be publishing a book for the exhibition, none was available when I visited. They did have a leaflet in English which translated the main bodies of informative text that were around the museum, in French. This was a fabulous, pretty comprehensive study of the use of water in the Roman world, and forms the basis for this blog post.

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