History of Sewage Treatment
Although it may not be something you have considered before, the history of sewage treatment actually goes back almost 12,000 years. From wells to copper drainage pipes to the wastewater systems we know today, sewage treatment has (thankfully) come a long way. Keep reading to learn more!
Prehistory of sewage treatment
During the Neolithic era, also known as the New Stone Age from around 12,000 years ago to around 6,500 years ago, it appears that humans dug permanent wells for water use, however not much is known about sewage and its channels.
Around 3000 BCE however, in Skara Brae (a settlement in Scotland), there is evidence of a small ‘cell-like’ room in homes that may have been used as a primitive-style toilet. These rooms appeared to be connected to an indoor, tree bark lined, stone fresh and wastewater system, moving liquids around the small area.
Bronze and early Iron Ages
During the Bronze and early Iron Ages, different parts of the world were doing a few different things.
Ancient Near East
- Mesopotamia: Introduced the world to clay sewer pipes around 4000 BCE, using them to capture rainwater in wells or remove wastewater. They also introduced the world to the first known examples of brick constructed ‘Latrines’ (ie. toilet) around 3200 BCE.
- Ancient Persia: The first systems used for sanitation in this area were built in prehistoric Iran around 3000 to 2000 BCE. Persian Qanats (gently sloping underground channels to transport water) and ab anbars (traditional reservoirs) were used for water supply and cooling.
- Ancient Egypt: The Pyramid of Sahure (c.2400 BCE) and an adjoining temple complex have been found to have copper drainage pipes.
Ancient East Asia
In Ancient China, evidence of some of the earliest water wells by humans has been found (as early as 6000 to 7000 years ago). Plumbing evidence has also been found that dates back to the Qin (221 to 206 BCE) and Han (206 BCE to 220 AD) dynasties.
Indus Valley Civilisation
The Indus Valley Civilisation in East Asia has quite a lot of early evidence in relation to sewage treatment. This Bronze Age civilization lasted from 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE (in its mature form from 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE) and had homes made of mud or mud bricks, and clay bricks. Most houses had their own private toilet, and sewage was disposed through underground drains built with carefully laid bricks. They had a water management system that was very sophisticated for its time, with numerous reservoirs established and drains from homes were connected to wider public drains. In practice, water from the roof and upper storey bathrooms was carried through enclosed terracotta pipes or open chutes that emptied out onto the street drains.
- Ancient Greece: The ancient Greek civilisation of Crete, known as the Minoan civilisation, were the first to use underground clay pipes for sanitation purposes. They were also the first to utilise a flush toilet, in around the 18th century BCE, and used stone sewers that they regularly flushed out with clean water.
- Roman Empire: The Cloaca Maxima was constructed in Ancient Rome and constitutes one of the world’s earliest sewage systems. It carried sewage to the River Tiber and public toilets were constructed above it. There are also Roman towns in the UK which had complex sewer arrangements around 46 BCE to 400 AD.
Medieval and early modern ages
- Islamic World: Due to the stresses that Islam places on cleanliness and personal hygiene, especially when it comes to the Islamic hygienical jurisprudence (which dates back to the 7th century), bathhouses were very common all across the Islamic world. Islamic toilet hygiene also requires the washing with water after toilet usage, for purity and to minimise germs.
- Medieval Europe: Medieval European cities used small natural waterways to dump sewage in and, after time, these waterways were covered and turned into sewers. Open gutters and drains ran along the centre of streets (known as kennels in the UK and split streets in Paris). The first closed sewer constructed in Paris was however designed by Hugues Aubird in 1370 on Rue Montmartre and was 300 metres long; it was designed to help combat the awful smell. Dubrovnik set out the parameters surrounding the construction of septic tanks and septic channels in the Statute of 1272, and these were built in the 14th and 15th centuries (they are still used today!).
- Classic and Early Modern Mesoamerica: It has been found that the Classic Maya at Palenque, which is in southern Mexico and thrived around the 7th century, had underground aqueducts and flush toilets.
“Sewage farms” (i.e. wastewater application to the land for disposal and agricultural use) were operated in Bunzlau (Silesia) in 1531, in Edinburgh (Scotland) in 1650, in Paris (France) in 1868, in Berlin (Germany) in 1876 and in different parts of the USA since 1871, where wastewater was used for beneficial crop production. In the following centuries (16th and 18th centuries) in many rapidly growing countries/cities of Europe (e.g. Germany, France) and the United States, “sewage farms” were increasingly seen as a solution for the disposal of large volumes of the wastewater, some of which are still in operation today. Irrigation with sewage and other wastewater effluents has a long history also in China and India; while also a large “sewage farm” was established in Melbourne, Australia, in 1897.*
Collection of waste
A range of objects were used to collect human waste during this period, including outhouses, pail closets and cesspits. In China and Japan, they relied heavily on human waste as fertiliser, as cattle manure was not readily available.
In most cases however, cities did not have an actual functioning sewer system before the industrial era (approximately 1760 AD to 1820 - 1840 AD) and relied on rain and nearby waterways to wash sewage off the streets. In some locations, there were stepping stones to use to avoid the sewage that just flowed down the streets freely.
A flush toilet was invented for Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century by Sir John Harrington, which released waste into cesspools.
After the adoption of gunpowder in European countries, municipal outhouses became an important source of raw material for the creation of saltpeter. In London, the contents of outhouses was collected every night by specific wagons and delivered to the nitrite bed. When it arrived, it was laid into specially designed soil beds to produce earth rich in mineral nitrates. The nitrate rich-earth would be then be further processed to produce saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, an important ingredient in black powder that played a part in the making of gunpowder
Modern age wastewater systems
The Modern Age saw cities and countries working at different rates when it came to sewage treatment:
- Places such as Rome and Istanbul developed a network of sewer to collect wastewater, and a huge array of these systems still work to this day. They have just been rerouted from waterways to a treatment plant.
- European countries largely ignored what the Romans were doing and didn’t really progress with sewage treatment until the Enlightenment Era (17th to 19th century). It is also worth noting that the huge amount of growth that came with the Industrial Revolution resulted in grossly overpopulated streets, which resulted in a large amount of disease.
- As part of a trend of municipal sanitation programs in the late 19th and 20th centuries, many cities constructed extensive sewer systems to help control outbreaks of disease such as typhoid and cholera.
- Early techniques involved land application of sewage on agricultural land, with the use ofland treatment systems continuing into the nineteenth/twentieth century in central Europe, USA, and other locations all over the world. They caused serious public health concerns and negative environmental impacts however, and during the 1840s and 1850s, resulted in the spread of waterborne diseases like cholera and typhoid.
- When the links between these diseases and the water supply became clear, engineering solutions were implemented that included the development of alternative water sources using reservoirs and aqueduct systems, relocation of water intakes and water and wastewater treatment systems.
Sewage Treatment Today
These days, the first world has a range of options available when it comes to sewage treatment. These include:
- Municipal sewage systems.
- Septic Systems.
- Home Sewage Treatment Plants.
Sewage has come a long way in the last 12,000 years thankfully!
If you would like further assistance when it comes to wastewater treatment for your home in South-East Queensland, give Express Wastewater a call today to 1300 722 517.