Indoor Plumbing is Older Than You Think

We all know the Greeks and Romans had indoor plumbing of a sort. Would it then shock you to know that indoor plumbing got its start around 6,000 BCE in Sumeria? Sumeria in modern day Syria, Iran, and Iraq is the oldest civilization we know of (at this point). Things that were discovered during archaeological digs around Sumeria revealed that they had toilets (not exactly like we have them today) and they had bathtubs. They also had copper pipes that carried water from a water tank to these bathrooms as well as kitchen areas in the houses of the rich nobles and royals.

Sumeria became a huge thriving metropolis because Sumerians learned how to store water and irrigate farmland. To this end, Sumer had water tanks carved out of stone that could trap and hold water when it rained. The water then flow through a system of pipes to irrigate farmland. However, because the irrigation system worked so well, that those that could afford it, had their own stone water tanks built and installed at their homes, along with pipes to carry the water to the areas where it would be used.

A series of valves was used to keep the water from flowing out of the tanks when it wasn’t needed or wanted. The lids of the water tanks were carved in a funnel like structure. The center had a hole in it for water to run into the tank, and the sides were sloped to ensure as much water as possible entered the tank, whether by accident or by design, this type of lid helps prevent evaporation. Making Sumerian water tanks very effective.

Furthermore, rich houses were made of stone and had flat roofs. This design was used to further increase the capabilities of water tanks, as they discovered how to make it so water would flow off the roof, down a pipe and into the top of the water tank.

As time progressed, even poorer houses could use this system. The poor built duplex like houses. They would share a common wall to cut down on the construction costs and the houses were normally made of mud bricks and also had flat roofs. Water tanks were set up to gather water off the roofs of these shared brick structures and pipes led into the houses.

Furthermore, Sumerians created toilet chairs. In rich houses, toilets were made of sandstone and could be “flushed” with water. In poorer houses, the toilet was made of wood and repeated flushing would cause them to rot, so they were flushed less often. A toilet chair is just a chair that sat over a hole in the floor that emptied into a cesspit type structure. In richer urban areas the cesspits were drainable using a system of pipes. In poorer areas cesspits had to be cleaned out by hand.

However, it is important to note that even the poor had a dedicated “bath room.” The bath room was always located in the southern corner of the house. In the households of the rich, these rooms were often 15 feet square. In poorer houses it was only about 6 feet square. Towards the end of Sumer, the clay fired bathtub was created and many “older houses” had tubs installed in places where a pipe came out of the wall to fill up a basin bowl that was used to wash up. The floors of Sumerian bathrooms were made of bricks and sloped towards a center hole in the middle of the floor where the toilet chair could be placed in one needed to use the bathroom or where water from the bathtub or basin bowl could be poured directly down the hole when done with it.

It is worth noting that sanitation and hygiene were better during the days of Sumer and Egypt than during the Middle Ages in Europe. Ancient Egypt used Sumerian designs for sanitation and hygiene and even progressed them, creating shower systems and using urban cesspits to create farmland outside cities. It is also worth noting that the Greek concept of indoor plumbing came about after the Greeks began to visit places in the Middle East and northern Africa. In other words, Greek indoor plumbing was most likely inspired by indoor plumbing in Babylon and Egypt.

In another twist, Sumerians were encouraged to bathe if they felt sick. When water tanks ran empty, Sumerians and Egyptians both had water carriers, water could be purchased from water carriers and they would bring water and fill up the water tank of a house. If you could not afford water for whatever reason, most cities had cisterns that were open to the public for the express purpose of bathing and the populace was encouraged to bathe in the rivers. Sumerians were expected to bathe at least twice a week in some way – at home, in a cistern, or in a river (not just wash face and hands).

Bathing fell from favor after the rise of the Catholic Church because it was considered “immodest.” No early civilizations cared about the exposure of body parts. To these civilizations, bathing was often a social event. Even though the rich could bathe in their homes, they could just as often be found in the rivers and cisterns surrounding their cities. Men, women, and children bathed together. However, the Catholic Church believed nudity lead to temptation. In the early middle ages, bath houses were still a thing, although segregated by gender. The Church was of the opinion that it was just as sinful for 5 women to bathe together as for men and women to bathe together, so they used propaganda to discourage bathing completely. As a matter of fact, they encouraged never being nude, ever. There was never a reason for a person to not wear clothes after about the age of 4 in the opinion of the Church.

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