Thursday, August 5, 2010

Precipitation Harvesting in Antiquity

The Cistern

Since the dawn of early cultures people have not only used natural water resources but also improved them by artificial methods. Based on observations of nature they constructed small and large storage vessels for temporary storage and transfer of water.
Cisterns were originally constructed in the region around the Mediterranean since the 3rd millennium B.C. Typically early cisterns were shaped into the natural rock with an inlet being covered by stones or wooden plates. In Roman times the use of stone as structural building material was introduced to cistern design. To avoid seepage and water loss the joints were filled with plaster. Population numbers of entire regions were dictated by the local cistern storage capacity. Modern cisterns range in capacity from a few litres to thousands of cubic metres, effectively forming covered reservoirs.

Umayyad Cistern, Jordan.

Vaulted Roman cisterns

Cistern chambers on the La Fourvière hill in Lyon (France)

Cistern Prachinburi Province, Thailand

Cistern, Iran.

Sketch of Nabataean cistern in Auara, Jordan. Built for private use by individual families. Storage capacity 200 m3.

Chandra Baori step well
This step well is located opposite Harshat Mata Temple and is one of the deepest and largest step wells in India. It was built in the 9th century and has 3500 narrow steps in 13 stories and is 100 feet deep.

Roman cisterns, aqueducts and step wells.

The Basilica Cistern or "Sunken Palace" lies beneath the city of Istanbul.


  1. Some amazing images here and a really interesting subject. The stepped well in India is a fantastic design that could be applied to other situations.

  2. I am curious as to why these old constructions do not still collect water? Just a thought. I own a smalliron fence Houston based company and ran across your blog when searching for landscaping blogs but I really enjoy it!

  3. Hello,

    I work for an engineering firm and we are putting together a presentation covering the topic of rainwater harvesting and you have some great pictures of ancient cisterns that we would like to incorporate into our presentation to show ancient techniques vs. modern techniques. We are particularly interested in the picture titled "Vaulted Roman Cisterns" and "Roman Cisterns, Aqueducts and Step Wells". Our presentation would be for educational purposes and we would be happy to give you proper credit for the photos. You can email a response to

  4. The stepped well is a masterful undertaking. It is a shame that in many ways we have lost all desire to build things that take time! Everything must be done yesterday and for as little as possible. This clearly wasn't the case for this well!

  5. Wow! The Chandra Baori Step Wall is amazing! And to think some of these cultures were thought of as "primitive"! Lovely and inspiring blog.