Tunnels in Antiquity

Published on 25 February 2008
The entrance of the Uzès aqueduct in Nîmes
The entrance of the Uzès aqueduct in Nîmes
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42_cle72aaa6-3.jpg
42_cle72aaa6-3.jpg
(Rights reserved)

In order to meet irrigation needs and supply cities with water, the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome constructed aqueduct canals both above and below ground.

- In most cases, the tunnel started as a trench a few metres deep which was covered with a masonry roof and then with earth. If it was not possible to dig deep enough in this way to have a continuous stream of water, true undergound tunnels were excavated.

- In any case, vertical shafts were built every 50 to 100m in order to let in air and light. The remains of underground aqueducts of this type are to be found in France at Rives de Giers, near Lyon and near Nîmes.

- Some extraordinary structures were built during this period. One of the most famous is the aqueduct tunnel on the Greek island of Samos, built in 530 BC.

Cross-section of an undergound aqueduct
Cross-section of an undergound aqueduct
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Some tunnels were also built in antiquity to transport people, animals and goods. One of the most remarkable of these is at Pouzzoles. It was built by the Romans in 37 AD and measured 900m in length, 7.5 metres in width and 9 metres in height! This tunnel was through soft rock that was easy work with.
When it was necessary to dig through hard rock the technique sometimes employed was to heat the rock with fire in order to make it expand and then cool it suddenly so it would split.
During the Middle Ages, digging and support techniques remained similar to those used in ancient times, but few aqueducts or tunnels were built after the fall of the Roman Empire.

 

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