Intuitively one might think that access to water was not a problem for most ancient Egyptians who lived in close proximity to the Nile or a canal running from it. Indeed the visitor to Egypt today who sees the country while cruising up or down the river will often see children swimming in the Nile or women washing clothes on its banks. However, the immediate availability of this extraordinarily rich water source did not, and indeed does not, solve the requirements for water of either an ancient or modern population, especially when it comes to water for human consumption. One reason for this is the use of the Nile, not only as a source of water and major transport artery, but also as the channel for human (and animal) waste, and so major settlements with the greatest requirement for water also produced the most immediate pollutants of that water. In addition, although tasks that required heavy use of water below drinking quality would have been carried out on or close to the banks of the Nile, this was not without additional risks; as the Satire on the Trades notes: ‘The washerman washes on the riverbank with the crocodile as a neighbour.’
We have some idea about how much water would be required. The practicalities for water consumption for humans in a tropical climate today, as suggested by the United Nations Refugee Agency, indicate a minimum survival ration of 7 litres (1½ gallons) per day, more typically 15–20 litres (c. 3½–4½ gallons) per day as a minimum allocation for a refugee in a refugee camp. Animals are more water-greedy: every day, cattle need 25–30 litres (c. 5½–6½ gallons), goats and sheep 15–20 litres (c. 3½–4½ gallons) and pigs 10–15 litres (c. 2½–3½ gallons). Therefore access to substantial quantities of clean water was crucial for all Egyptian settlements.
The answer was to sink a well. In the cultivated areas of the Nile Valley and Delta this could be achieved by sinking a stone-lined shaft well, which essentially consisted of a ‘tube’ formed by small limestone blocks (the small talatat blocks favoured for rapid building work at Amarna were ideal). The gap between the outside of this tube and the surrounding soil could be filled in with clean sand. The sand and the gaps between the blocks would filter the water, which could be drawn from the well using a leather bucket on a rope. Such wells must have been very common in dynastic Egypt, but, because of the nature of their construction, few of them have been discovered and excavated. Rare examples, both from the reign of Ramesses II, come from Tell el-Abqa’in in the West Delta, Samana near Qantir in the East Delta and Amarna. A later variant of this type, attested at Sais, had a lining of ceramic ‘rings’. In the Nile Valley and Delta, apart from times of very low Nile inundations, subsoil water levels were high and wells easy to sink. Paradoxically, the time when usable water would have been most difficult to come by was when the floods of the inundation covered the land.
Although an obvious source of water, the banks of the Nile were not always the safest place to drink, as illustrated on this New Kingdom papyrus. Rutherford Picture Library.
Although unsuitable for large-scale agricultural irrigation, the shaduf was a useful device for lifting limited quantities of water, for example to water a garden in an elite residence, as in this New Kingdom tomb scene. Abdel Ghaffar Shedid.
In some desert or desert-edge sites it was necessary to cut through rock in order to reach a good water source. Such effort was usually only attempted as part of a royal enterprise that required the provisioning of an expedition in extreme conditions. Textual references to such wells in the gold-bearing regions of Nubia and the Eastern Desert can be found at Kanais (near Edfu) where Seti I notes:
How painful is a way that has no water! What are travellers to do to relieve the parching of their throats? … Woe to the man who thirsts in the wilderness! Now, I will plan for them. I will make for them the means to sustain them so that they may bless my name.
Ramesses II boasts of surpassing his father’s achievement in digging wells for gold-miners in his stela from Quban, which talks about a well in ‘the desert land of Akuyata’ that had been abandoned at 120 cubits (about 60 m, 197 ft) during the reign of Seti I, but when Ramesses chose the nearby spot to sink a well, water was struck at only 12 cubits. This well, like many of these important facilities, was given a name: ‘The Well [which is called] Ramesses, Beloved of Amun, is Valiant in….’ Although these early Ramesside wells have not yet been discovered, a set of similar, contemporary wells was sunk into the soft limestone under the site of Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham to reach an aquifer containing fresh water 4 m (13 ft) below the surface.
The temple built by Seti I, along with a well, at the mining site of Kanais in the Eastern Desert. Rutherford Picture Library.
Wells in the Archaeological Record
However, despite these examples of actual wells and reports of well-construction, water supply is an aspect of settlement archaeology that seems to be vastly under-represented. Although partial archaeological survival is a major issue, the fact that we have no idea how, for instance, the substantial community at Kahun acquired its water is remarkable. The only site with a large ancient population to have produced relatively extensive evidence of well-use is Amarna. These are attested archaeologically in the city, and from illustrations of them in private tombs of the Amarna elite.
The particular conditions of Amarna (subsoil water is reached 9 m (30 ft) below current ground level) required that wells be constructed in two stages, firstly a large, square pit, with an access stairway running down its interior sides. At the base of this pit a narrower shaft was sunk to reach water. A large well was a standard element of the equipment of the large Amarna villas, where they probably served not just the immediate household but a wider neighbourhood. This would create the ideal situation of not moving water further than necessary – since a litre of water weighs 1 kg (2.2 lb), a family of four with water needs of 15 litres (3½ gallons) each per day, had a total daily requirement weighing more than 60 kg (132 lb).
In addition, the social aspects of a well as a focal point for a small settlement, or a neighbourhood within a larger one, may also have been more widely important. As Edward Lane-Poole, writing about village life in Upper Egypt in 1895, noted:
In the neighbourhood of every village there is a well, shaded by a clump of palm-trees. Here the men often collect for gossip, and hither the women come to fetch their water, their tall, upright, well-formed figures moving gracefully under the weight of the large pitchers they carry on their heads.
Scene from the tomb of Meryre at Amarna, showing the royal gardens. The most striking feature is the detailed depiction of a well (top left), which, for emphasis, is actually carved slightly deeper into the wall of the tomb. Steven Snape.