“Just Add Water…”

Originally Published in 1976

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Well-head on red-figure cup from Athens, V century B.C. In the Louvre. R. Ginouves Balaneutike, recherches sur le bain dans l'antiquite grecque, Paris, 1962, Pl. XIII:40.
Well-head on red-figure cup from Athens, V century B.C. In the Louvre. R. Ginouvès Balaneutiké, recherches sur le bain dans l’antiquite grecque, Paris, 1962, Pl. XIII:40.

The dehydrated civilization of course cannot be instantly reconstituted by stirring in the appropriate quantity of water. Water must be included from the start, or it is no civilization at all. In ecology, Liebig’s “law of the minimum” asserts that, of all the nutrients and other resources required by a species, the resource which is present in the least amount in proportion to the species’ need will limit the size of the population. The semi-arid land­scapes of the Mediterranean present a dra­matic example of the necessity of water. Although not always the primary determinant of settlement, it is an essential one. Settle­ments cluster around sites with flowing streams, springs, and shallow wells, and avoid waterless areas.

Southern-Argolid-water-sources
The Southern Argolid: water sources

The investigation by the Argolid Explora­tion Project of the relationships between the region’s physical environment and cultural patterns, past and present, necessarily in­cludes a study of water resources. They are recorded, when they can be detected, in the archaeological examination of each ancient site and the anthropologists reckon them among the essential resources of the present-day communities. But a general census of the sources permits a classification by types and correlation with their location, the technical means required for their exploitation and the historical periods of their use. In the late summer of 1971 my wife Susanna and I made a start on this study. Travelling largely on foot, we recorded data on 510 wells, 8 springs and 2 flowing streams. We noted locations, depths to water table, well designs, uses of water, and accompanying technology for drawing and distributing the water. Our sur­vey took place during the last two weeks of the dry season and the first month of the wet season (between 26 August and 5 October), during which time water tables presumably reached their lowest annual levels. No signifi­cant changes in water levels were evidenced during this period.

"Single-family" wells.
“Single-family” wells.

Limited by time and availability of suit­able base maps, we concentrated on the low-lying areas where water supplies and water use are most obvious. We explored most of the coastline between Koiladha on the west and Ayios Athanasios (Fourkaria) on the east, giving particular attention to the alluvial areas extending back from the coast. In addi­tion, we investigated inland travel corridors and some of the more extensively farmed and inhabited areas, such as the central Dhidhima valley. Where wells were indicated on avail­able maps, we investigated but of ten found this information quite unreliable. The more modern piped water systems of several vil­lages (e.g., Porto Kheli, Kranidhi, Ermioni) were omitted from our survey, as were some of the most ancient—the water in mountain gorges used by Palaeolithic hunters (see David Van Horn’s description of the Katafiki).

The survey findings began to trace out the regional distribution of known and probable water sources. For the areas not investigated directly, we inferred the likelihood of the presence of water sources on the basis of landform, geology, vegetation, and patterns of land use and settlement, as interpreted from maps, aerial photographs, and field observation.

The two streams and several of the springs we noted were found along the coast east of the village of Thermisi, emerging from the shale and sandstone (‘flysch’) slopes of the Adheres mountains. This range differs from the primarily limestone bedrock to its west and the geologically recent conglomerate dis­trict south of Kranidhi. The narrow alluvial coast strip at the base of the Adheres range contains numerous shallow wells, used exten­sively to irrigate fruit and vegetable culti­vation.

Most of the numerous wells scattered along the coast east and west of Porto Kheli, between Mouzaki and Nisos Korakias, were also designed primarily for irrigation pur­poses, but the majority of them are now abandoned. Other wells here serve animal watering and domestic needs. The wells of this southern district occur in both alluvial deposits and the conglomerate bedrock. Like­wise, the Koiladha alluvial plain northwest of Kranidhi, and nearby shores possess plentiful wells for crop irrigation, and again, many have been abandoned.

The internally drained Dhidhima valley, a basin in limestone mountains, lies at a higher elevation than the other areas and relies on deeper wells from its valley floor alluvium for its intensive agricultural and other water needs.

A detailed look at water table depths in wells in Koiladha valley and in the Porto Kheli vicinity indicated the existence of a quite uniform ground water surface lying between zero and two meters above present sea level. Near operating motor-driven pumps, this water table was typically depressed up to a meter or more. Estimates from measure­ments along other parts of the coast indicate a comparable situation. Slightly higher loca­tions farther inland (e.g„ the Kranidhi vicin­ity) have correspondingly elevated water tables. The Dhidhima valley lies between approximately 150 and 160 meters above sea level with a water table at about 140 meters elevation.

Types of Water Sources, Technology, and Use

"Single-family" well near Pórto Khéli.
“Single-family” well near Pórto Khéli.
Well with well-head and slop basin for jug in the kitchen of a private house at Halieis. John Young, 1962 excavation. Expedition, Vol. 5, No. 3, p. 4
Well with well-head and slop basin for jug in the kitchen of a private house at Halieis. John Young, 1962 excavation. Expedition, Vol. 5, No. 3, p. 4

Virtually all fresh water sources in the southern Argolid consist of wells. They have been constructed in several styles to serve various needs: domestic uses (drinking, cook­ing, washing), animal watering, and irrigation. One can assume that each architectural style reflects a response to the particular demands for water (type of use and quantity) at the time of construction, as well as the skills, tools, materials, energy, and practices then available. In many cases, however, uses have changed in type or intensity since a well was built and the present uses are not now reflected in the structures. Although each observed well has its own unique style in detail, the wells can be grouped into four major structural types, based on their appar­ent original function.

“Single-family” wells. These are gener­ally the smallest and most simply constructed, round in section and about one meter in diam­eter (occasionally two meters or slightly more). Most are unlined or have stone-lined shafts, with a low stone well-head extending above the ground. However, half of these “single-family” wells were found in the village of Dhidhima, where the stone of the well-head, if not the entire shaft, is replaced by concrete and hand cranks have been installed for raising buckets of water by rope. The Dhidhima wells are quite recent, many associated with houses which did not appear on our 1961 aerial photos. Some of them may be modernizations of earlier existing wells.

Water is drawn from “single-family” wells by hand, usually directly by rope and bucket. Hand cranks or tripod and pulley arrange­ments are the exception outside of Dhidhima. The water is used largely for domestic pur­poses, although the watering of animals and small gardens too is not uncommon. Watering troughs of hollowed logs, stone, or concrete often accompany the wells.

That a high proportion of this type of well was found inside the village of Dhidhima is probably related to its being the only village so far investigated intensively. An equally close look at other villages might reveal a similar concentration of such wells within the built-up area of the village where domestic needs are greatest.

“Public” wells. The structure of these wells very likely evolved from the older ver­sion of the “single-family” style. To the bare or stone-lined shaft and stone well-head, a solid rock platform surrounding the well-head has been added. This platform may extend out­ward from the well-head from less than a meter to over two meters. It may be at ground level or raised above it. It may be very simple or elaborated with benches, walls, steps, and/or hitching rings. One can imagine the need for a platform arising as the water spillage from intensified use of a convenient well turned the dry soil to mud. Milling flocks jostling for a drink would have aggravated such a situation.

Plan of private house at Halieis, showing position of the well in Fig. 5. Expedition, Vol.5, No. 3, p. 4.
Plan of private house at Halieis, showing position of the well in Fig. 5. Expedition, Vol.5, No. 3, p. 4.
Well in ancient house at Halieis. The terracotta well-head has been removed. Wolf Rudolph, 1974 excavation.
Well in ancient house at Halieis. The terracotta well-head has been removed. Wolf Rudolph, 1974 excavation.

Another almost universal feature of “public” wells is the presence of watering troughs or basins. The newer ones are of con­crete, but basins carved of stone are abun­dant. The latter occur in widely varying sizes, shapes, types of stone, and fineness of work­manship, Many of the symmetrical stone basins are discarded ancient olive presses. Well shafts and heads are usually round, but rectangular or square ones are not uncommon.

The “public” type of well is distributed throughout the region, occurring along travel routes or near settlements. Many were found in the interior, around Kranidhi which has the largest population (4,028 in 1961) in the region, Domestic uses and watering of flocks and pack animals are common. As with “single-family” wells, water is drawn exclu­sively by hand, occasionally with the aid of a hand crank or tripod and pulley, and the stone work may be covered with or replaced by concrete. Long usage of ropes at some wells has carved grooves several centimeters deep into the interior surfaces of the stones at the top of the well-heads.

“Animal-pumped” wells, Wells of this type display the most specialized design, con­structed originally for the primary purpose of providing a controlled supply of water for crop irrigation. A donkey (or horse) circling the well activates a continuous belt of scoops which raise water from the well to fill a reservoir. To pass water from the pump to the reservoir, a siphon carries it under the animal’s walkway, From the reservoir, water is distributed as needed to the fields via earthen, cemented stone, or concrete channels. The well-head is typically rectangular with the corners rounded to allow free passage by the donkey and is built sturdily of cemented rock to provide sufficient support for the pump mechanism. Frequently, from one to four arched galleries have been constructed within the well to enlarge the underground water storage volume.

Wells of the “animal-pumped” variety occur throughout the region, but are associ­ated primarily with areas of alluvial deposit—areas with fertile soils and with level ground which facilitates distribution of irrigation water. The wells which are still pumped by animal power are almost entirely in the con­servative Dhidhima valley. Most of the others have been either motorized or abandoned.

"Public wells and non well water sources.
“Public wells and non well water sources.
"Public well between Kranidhi and Ermióni.
“Public well between Kranidhi and Ermióni.
"Public well on the ancient road between Halieis (Pórto Khéli) and Hermione (Ermióni). An ancient olive press has been used as a trough and ancient ashlar blocks for the well-head.
“Public well on the ancient road between Halieis (Pórto Khéli) and Hermione (Ermióni). An ancient olive press has been used as a trough and ancient ashlar blocks for the well-head.

“Motor-pumped” wells. Wells of the fourth and last type are generally the most recently built, although they return to a relatively unsophisticated structure. They are more often round than rectangular, one and a half to three (or more) meters in diameter. They are usually lined with brick, but concrete, cinder block, or no lining at all is not uncommon. Well-heads are almost always lacking. As with the “animal-pumped” wells, the major pur­pose of these wells is irrigation and they are dispersed throughout the areas where irriga­tion is being or has been carried out. However, some of the most recently built wells of this type are intended to provide water for new resort hotels constructed in the Porto Kheli area. Systems for distributing the water from motor-pumped wells are similar to those asso­ciated with “animal-pumped” wells—reser­voirs, pipes, and irrigation channels. In fact, many wells of the older “animal-pumped” type are now converted to motor-driven pumps.

Other water sources. Apart from wells, only a few other sources of fresh water were identified in the southern Argolid. They con­sisted of springs or flowing reaches of inter­mittent streams that have water only at cer­tain times of year. Some of the springs were in fact in the beds of these streams. Exploita­tion of water at or near the surface is charac­teristic of the south side of the Adheres range, east of Thermisi village, where the bed­rock is composed of sandstone and shale (‘flysch’). Despite the present seasonality of flow, we found evidence that considerable effort had been expended on the development of these sources at one time or another. Abandoned structures indicate that their exploitation is not now as intensive as formerly.

The simplest signs of surface water devel­opment were several recent, small excava­tions in dry streambeds or at the base of terrace walls scattered across the region. Pre­sumably these serve as watering places for flocks when intermittent flows dwindle in the spring or early summer. The more elaborate developments are of three types, occurring singly or in combination. First is the collection and storage of water, ranging from simple spring-mouth catch basins or small dams across streambeds to large masonry reser­voirs. Second is the distribution of water from springs, streams, or reservoirs via gravity-fed aqueducts built into the hill slopes. Some of these systems are quite com­plex, with multiple channels and shunting devices. At least one delivers irrigation water to three neighboring valleys.

Grooves from ropes on "public" well perhaps ancient in origin at Plati Pigádhi ("Wide Well") near Kranidhi.
Grooves from ropes on “public” well perhaps ancient in origin at Plati Pigádhi (“Wide Well”) near Kranidhi.

The third type of development was the operation of water-powered mills. Two exam­ples located in steep valleys east of Thermisi where the two flowing reaches of intermittent streams were observed, are both now aban­doned. The mills were virtually identical in structure, of the style known as the aruba penstock. Each stream was dammed, and a hill-slope channel fed water from it to a reservoir above the mill. The reservoir then supplied a column of water enclosed in a rock masonry shaft which turned a turbine at the bottom. On exiting from the mill, the water was again channelized and carried down the valley to irrigate orchards and crops on the alluvial plain.

The springs and streams in the ‘flysch’ country appear to have two main uses at present. One is the direct watering of the flocks that graze on the slopes and ridges of the Adheres mountains. The other is the irri­gation of crops in the valley below, which also benefit from water motor-pumped from wells in the valley floor. Since World War II, the development of truck farming for the Athens market and for export, together with the elimination of malaria along the swampy coast, has brought a striking increase in popu­lation to this part of the Hermionid. Many of the new farmers were once transhumant shepherds such as those with whom Harold Koster journeyed. Abandoned mechanisms, however, show that something like this proc­ess has occurred at least once before.

The only other active non-well sources we observed were springs at the northern entrance to Kranidhi, at Pikrodáfni (“Ole­ander”) between Kranidhi and Ermioni, and on the coast just west of the Mouzaki promon­tory, where catch basins were constructed to collect water for human and animal use. It is no accident that this particular area had important ancient and medieval settlements. In late Roman times Hermione (Ermioni) brought water by aqueduct from near Pikrodafni.

"Animal-pumped" wells.
“Animal-pumped” wells.
"Animal Pumped" well near Koiladha. The ridge of Franchthi is in the background.
“Animal Pumped” well near Koiladha. The ridge of Franchthi is in the background.

Abandoned wells. Of all wells we recorded in the region, over one-third were identified as presently unused and more than ninety percent of these were found to be permanently abandoned, on the basis of col­lapse, disrepair, vegetative overgrowth, or similar evidence. Most abandonments appeared to be quite recent. Traces of earlier well abandonments may have disappeared, The clearest pattern of well abandonment is found in the coastal areas, particularly in alluvial deposits. We noted here a clear trend of abandoned wells among those nearest the sea. They also corresponded strongly with wells of the “animal-pumped” type, about half of which were identified as abandoned throughout the region.

In the Koiladha valley, where we took a close look, salt water intrusion into the ground water clearly appears to have been the prime factor in abandonment. One can picture there having been a proliferation of animal-pumped wells and irrigation systems in the valley, with an associated increasing demand on ground water supplies. Perhaps even at this point the water table was lowered sufficiently to allow brackish water to infiltrate from the sea, but certainly the transition to motorized pumps in recent decades accelerated the drawdown and brought salt water intrusion. In 1971, most abandoned wells in this valley had water standing in them, but residents often identified it as brackish, A few taste tests corroborated these reports. Irrigation systems near the shore were in disuse, while motor-pumping of wells continued farther inland. Some irrigation water was being piped from wells even farther inland.

"Public" well, ancient and modern, at Dhídhima.
“Public” well, ancient and modern, at Dhídhima.

This pattern of abandonment of wells near the coast where animal and/or motor-powered pumping has been practiced [and where motor-pumping may or may not con­tinue back from the coast] appears to be repeated in other parts of the region. Salt water intrusion or simply a depleted supply of fresh ground water most likely led to aban­donment, Other factors, such as local shifts away from agriculture, certainly may have contributed, but it is nevertheless clear that modern water exploitation demands are near­ing or have already exceeded the local water supplies in many parts of the region. Addi­tional evidence is graphically shown by the daily delivery by truck of water from wells three kilometers inland to meet the require­ments of the summer population of Porto Kheli village. One can only wonder what impact several recently constructed large resort hotels and additional planned develop­ments in the Porto Kheli area will have on the ground water supply. Perhaps Liebig’s “law of the minimum” will soon be demonstrated again as water indeed becomes the limiting resource to kcal population carrying capacity.

Further Investigations

Our further efforts will be directed towards completing the water resource survey for the region and correlating this information with that for other natural resources, land use, health conditions and cultural patterns which are being revealed by other investiga­tors in the Argolid Exploration Project. Reconstructions of past water source loca­tions and utilization will permit us to trace shifts and to propose explanations. Among the wells described here as of the “public” and “single-family” types, many are obviously old. The main public well at Dhidhima is seen by its masonry to go back to Classical times. The possibility of dating others through his­torical records, style of construction, or examination of bottom deposits with sur­rounding sites needs to be explored. Analysis of the chemical character of the water from selected sources may have bearing on the varying health of the communities in the region. Finally, investigation should he made of variations in water supply between present and past periods and estimates made of the water resource carrying capacity under past conditions of supply and technology.

In these ways, rather than instantly reconstituting past cultures by adding water, we hope to con tribute to a gradual reconstruc­tion by adding knowledge of the distribution and utilization of water.

Cite This Article

"“Just Add Water…”." Expedition Magazine 19, no. 1 (September, 1976): -. Accessed April 18, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/just-add-water/


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