Water quality and health conditions in ancient times

ROOTS Interdisciplinary ResearchFrom ancient to modern times, human populations have exploited water springs not only for recreational purposes or for religious practices but also for medicinal reasons and as drinking water supplies. Because water springs are transition areas between groundwater, surface water, and the terrestrial ecosystem, they display a particular microbial community signature that consists of both endemic species and those deriving from the surrounding environments. In modern as in ancient times, water sources like this have been coupled to aqueducts, and unfortunately, by the time the water reaches the consumer, its quality may have differed dramatically from the source point, for example, bacterial cells can attach to each other forming biofilms on the surface of the pipes. In Roman times, there were beliefs and empirical knowledge concerning the quality of water. However, the quality of aqueduct water from ancient cities has never been properly assessed, leaving open questions regarding the biotic and abiotic composition of the water channels.
The project will be based on the study of fossilised biofilms from the aqueduct of the ancient city of Sufetula (Sbeitla, Tunisia) from the 1st to the 6th century AD, in order to characterise the water quality and detect possible pathogen contamination. To tackle this research endeavour, our study will analyse carbonate deposits preserved in the aqueduct conduit. This study is a first test on this material that will highlight the potential of such analyses to improve knowledge about health conditions in antiquity. The project aims to a) identify the microbiome of ancient aqueducts through metagenomic analysis where microscope analyses were not conclusive, b) to identify possible correlations between seasonal weather (stable isotopes) and the development of certain microorganisms, c) to assess the quality of the aqueducts’ water in Roman times and late antiquity, and d) to identify the possible diffusion of contamination.


Project by:
Guillermo Torres g.torres@ikmb.uni-kiel.de (Subcluster Dietary ROOTS ) and Nicolas Lamare nlamare@roots.uni-kiel.de (Subcluster Urban ROOTS) in cooperation with Mohamed Ben Nejma (Institut national du Patrimoine, Tunis).


Fieldwork + Activities


Participating Institutions