Water and Cultural History

Driver of Cultural History

Water is a key element in the history of mankind. The earliest settlements started to make it technically accessible. The great river cultures of the Nile, Euphrates and Yangtze River were based on strictly organized water management systems.

In 9,000 BC, the first well was built in Cyprus. As a result, permanent settlements for the first time started to extend into regions without rivers for water supply. The supply of drinking water and irrigation became more reliable through the construction of canals, dams and aqueducts. Societies with such technologies launched a process of complex differentiation, reduced poverty, enabled prosperity and wealth. Consequently, water often played a key role in the worshipping of supreme beings for fertility and long life. The rulers displayed power and abundance through water.

For archaeological sciences the question of resources and their historic uses is a key issue explored together with the natural sciences.

One of the largest archaeological research institutions worldwide is the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) . With 21 locations and in nearly 350 projects, it is present around the globe. The DAI contributes to the development and preservation of cultural heritage in the host countries. As a research institution in the portfolio of the Federal Foreign Office, it plays an important role in German foreign cultural and educational policy.


Shore Settlements - Prehistoric Pile-Dwellings


The important role of water in cultural history is also reflected in the hundreds of UNESCO World Heritage sites directly related to water. The world community has thus agreed to particularly pay attention to preserve the outstanding universal value of such water related cultural and natural sites - not only by means of a nation state, but jointly for and by all of humanity.

Examples of how water has shaped settlement behaviour are pile dwellings along shorelines from the stone and bronze ages in the regions surrounding the Alps.  Owed to the outstanding conserving conditions in waterlogged environments organic materials such as wood, textiles, animal bones and plant residues have been preserved. The dwellings were located in the immediate vicinity of rivers, lakes and wetlands and were built with or on stilts.


Dwellings built on ground level as well as lifted off the ground, protecting the settlements from flood risk, are known. A series of 111 of these dwellings – out of a total of more than 930 - built between 5,000 and 500 BC, were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2011.

The prehistoric pile dwellings provide an outstanding insight into early agrarian culture. Archaeological findings help us understand how people of those settlements interacted with their environment, adapted to changing climate conditions and also introduced new technologies.

Rome - Water is Power


Water can be a costly good to manage and thus it has always played a special role in staging power and wealth, in all antique and modern power centres, in imperial Rome as in the Caliphate of Cordoba.

An example is the Palatine Hill, the centre of power in Rome, which is being researched since 1998, amongst others, by the DAI and the Brandenburg Technical University Cottbus in close cooperation with the Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma. Modern methods such as laser scanning, tachymetry or photogrammetry are applied for the creation of three- dimensional models of the palaces: the Palatine was exclusively connected to an aqueduct, which supplied Rome with water since 312 BC. A technically sophisticated system of lead pipes distributed the water throughout the palace to ensure the water supply to the adjustable fountains of the Palatine for water plays, as well as pools and artificial lakes for summer cooling. 

In ancient Rome water was also a mark of social distinction, represented through the various shapes of baths, the range of themes of glory or the provision of baths for the whole urban quarter. It is estimated that during the Roman Empire about two thirds of the water available were allocated to the emperor and the elite and one third to the overall population. The general water supply of the Roman population was provided by public flowing wells. Latrines built in public squares, theatres and thermal baths served as central places for communication as well as hygiene care.