Clean running water and sanitation are the most important assets to modern society. There are many places around the world to this day where access to these fundamentals is limited, leading to dire hardship and a struggle to survive for anyone unfortunate to be in the situation. Often the clean water we have access to is taken for granted, and the thought of drinking water being a threat to health is far from mass consciousness. The fight against water-born contaminants has been a running theme through history, consequently, water purification is a far older field than people may think.
Water purification as the field we know today started with Sir Francis Bacon’s 1627 experiments. He believed that seawater could be filtered through sand to reduce the salinity. Unfortunately, his process didn’t work, and the water left was salty and undrinkable. What Bacon did with his experiments, however, was reignite the research and interest in the field of water filtration. After the invention of the advanced microscope in the 1800s, scientists were able to detect microscopic particles floating in the water, meaning taste, odor and look weren’t the only control variables to go on. After the London Cholera outbreak of 1854, when John Snow discovered the spread was coming from contaminated water, disinfection through chlorination became widespread. As more municipal water treatment centres appeared during the industrial revolution, efficiency and effectiveness continued to grow into the market we have today.
Although microscopic analysis of water particles is a relatively new field, treating water for safer human consumption is far older. Ancient techniques of water filtration date back as far back as dynastic Egypt or even further. In this article, we’ll be exploring different water treatment examples from history, and exploring whether these techniques are still in practice in modern water filtration.
Ancient water filtration techniques can be traced back as far as 4,000 B.C. (6,000 years ago!). Evidence suggests that bronze age civilisations in Asia, India, the Middle East, Europe and Africa had primitive techniques to purify water from heavy metals and large contaminants. More advanced techniques using natural minerals to aid remove bad tastes and visible Impurities. There is evidence to suggest the process of water distillation goes back this far too.
Sand, copper, and high vitamin C herbs were all used by ancient cultures to purify water, as well as boiling to remove impurities. These techniques and materials were used by a variety of civilisations in the classical and pre-classical eras:
Ancient Egyptians are famous for their advanced technology. Egyptology has revealed startling discoveries about the civilization that have led people to question their understanding of how advanced people in the past were, including steam power and batteries.
Water treatment was one field in which they had a big part in developing. Iron sulfate and aliminium sulfate were both used to extract solids, often in tandem with each other. Evidence of the use of rudimentary machinery using these principles has been discovered on the hieroglyphics carved into the tomb of Pharoah Amenophis II at Thebes.
Additionally, Egyptian women used Moringa seeds to clarify water by crushing it up and lining the side of amphorae. The sediment inside the water would then gather on the bottom, leaving the purified water ready for consumption.
Well known as the father of medicine, Hippocrates was so influential that modern-day doctors still swear the Hippocratic oath as part of their training. As part of his Four humors theory, Hippocrates realised the importance of water and often prescribed a cool water bath. Recognising the poor water quality of the water in Greek aqueducts, he developed the ‘Hippocratic sleeve’.
The primitive water filtration device was very simple. Consisting of a fine cloth bag, people would boil the water before passing it through the device. This would in turn filter out any sediments, removing bad tastes, smells or visible impurities from the water.
Mayan filtration at Tikal.
Probably the most impressive feat in ancient water treatment comes courtesy of the Mayans. The earliest example of municipal water treatment in ancient history can be traced back to the central American Mayan city of Tikal. Volcanic minerals, capable of capturing heavy metals and microbes, were detected in one of the largest water reservoirs in the area. The act the materials were not naturally occurring in the area suggests they were brought there for a purpose.
This led to the discovery of the Corriental reservoir filtration system that dates back 2,185 years ago, in the height of the Mayan cities’ prosperity. Harmful contaminants such as heavy metals, and microbes were caught in the ‘molecular sieve’ that consisted of crystalline quartz and a compound of aluminium and silicon.
The system remained operational in the city until its abandonment in the late medieval period, displaying the effectiveness of the system, and the longevity in the discovery of its component materials.
Other Examples of Ancient Water Filtration.
There are other examples of ancient water filtration worth mentioning aside from the famous instances mentioned above. Diophanes, a Greek agricultural writer of the first century in Nicaea (in the modern-day Turkish city of Iznik) suggested that macerated laurels would purify rainwater. Paxamus, another Greek writer, suggested that pounded coral and barley would do the same thing. In the 8th century AD, Gerber, an Arabian chemist, advised in draining water from one vessel into another using ‘wick siphons’. All these techniques, in addition to those listed above, displays the ancient world’s propensity of dealing with issues, and modern water filtration is built on these fundamentals.
Many of the techniques discussed above are still in use as viable methods today. Distillation, an ancient process, is still used and achieved in the same way. The minerals found in Tikal’s Corriental water treatment plant, as well as those found in the ancient Egyptian device are still present in modern-day water filtration techniques. Just as with the ‘Hippocratic sleeve’, these fundamentals are as viable today as back then through their simplicity. Only with the capability of modern scientists to detect microscopic contaminants, and the advancement in pumping technology, have water treatment solutions improved in efficiency and effectiveness over time.