by Clare Rasmussen
The Roman Empire was one of many ancient civilizations that understood the necessity of a water supply system, and they became experts in building large aqueducts and urban water systems. They, along with the Greeks, spread new cultural institutions that required water to be used in ways that went beyond the communal needs of the city, such as fountains and bath houses. However, the function and form of these new water supply systems depended on their regional context and could indicate significant cultural changes. My research project at the American Center of Research is part of a larger endeavor, which is to better understand how water was used in Roman cities, especially in provinces distant from the capital at Rome.
I chose to study water because water infrastructure is an overlooked data set in ancient cities. Scholars typically look at artistic and ceramic remains to assess questions of social development. When hydrology is considered, scholarly attention is given to the engineering and architectural aspects of aqueduct construction, ignoring how and why water was utilized and consumed by the inhabitants of the city. My project aims to address an understudied region within water studies and encourage a deeper discussion on the influence of cultural and social diversity on water consumption in the Roman Empire.
My research focuses on several cities within a micro-region of the Roman Empire called the Decapolis (Fig. 1). The Decapolis was a geographic region within the Near East consisting of a loosely grouped collection of ten city-states that emerged in the Hellenistic period and continued to identify together in the Roman period. The ten cities of the Decapolis are located in present-day Jordan, Israel, and Syria. For my dissertation and American Center project, I analyzed four of these cities, all located in northern Jordan: Jerash, Umm Qais, Amman, and Pella. I chose this region and these cities because they provide a unique atmosphere to study waterscapes. They share many similar characteristics of urban planning and investment in Greco-Roman architecture but are topographically diverse. Jerash and Umm Qais are the best-preserved sites, boasting complex aqueducts and water installations. I am using these two cities as my type sites from which to compare two others that are less well preserved: Amman and Pella. Thanks to funding I received from the American Center, I was able to visit these archaeological sites and document water supply features such as pipes, non-ornamental fountains, and water channels.
The first part of my stay at the center was spent visiting archaeological sites relevant to my dissertation and collecting data from existing archaeological remains. Hydrological features are not always included in site plans and excavation reports, so it was important that I visit each in person. My study visits included basic documentation, such as taking photographs of in-situ archaeological features, recording basic measurements, and noting elevations of these features.
The first site I visited was Amman, known as Philadelphia in the Roman period. I visited the Citadel (Al-Qal’a) (Fig. 2) and the Roman buildings downtown. At the Citadel, I analyzed the cisterns and wells that are thought to date to the Umayyad period. The Umayyad palace is, in fact, on top of an earlier Roman monumental structure, so the cisterns and wells of the palace could have been part of a previous Roman enclosure. I also studied the area around the Roman theater and the nymphaeum. It seems that the main water supply was focused in this area during the Roman period and was directly connected to the wadi.
Jerash is a massive site, about 80 hectares in size, which is almost 112 soccer fields! My favorite monument was the Temple of Zeus, which was built on a large hill overlooking the site. It has a spectacular view of the oval plaza and the colonnaded street (Fig. 3). At Jerash, I spent several days visiting the site and walking around the remains, identifying water installations. I found several street fountains along the main colonnaded street, as well as evidence of water supply on the other side streets. I also documented reservoirs and cisterns from the Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic periods. Additionally, I took elevations and analyzed potential water-supply routes.
Pella, also known as Tabaqat Fahl, is located northeast of Jerash, near the junction of the highlands and the Jordan Valley. When I first arrived at the site, I thought it was at a very high altitude overlooking the valley, but when I checked my elevation, I was actually below sea level! The site is famous for its Byzantine churches (Fig. 4) and Iron Age temples. The Roman material is below the Byzantine layers and very hard to excavate because the water table is so high. I was hoping that my observations from the other sites would help me to identify water features at Pella, but the only one I could identify is the already-excavated exedra (seating area), likely part of a bath, and the vaulted structure next to it. The Roman period will continue to remain a mystery here for now.
Umm Qais, also known as ancient Gadara, is an amazing site located in the northwest corner of Jordan. On a clear day, from here you can see the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights in the distance. The long colonnaded street has been excavated, but no street fountains other than the monumental nymphaeum have been identified yet (Fig. 5). However, I found several potential fountains that all had architecture similar to the other Roman monuments and had evidence of plastering.
I spent most of the second part of my stay at the American Center of Research creating a database of all the hydrological data I had collected during my site visits. Additionally, I spent time in the library sifting through old excavation reports and books to which I had had no prior access. My fellowship has also allowed me to travel to other cultural heritage sites in Jordan. For instance, I got to visit Ajloun Castle, Madaba, Umm ar-Rasas, the Dead Sea, Petra, Wadi Rum, and Aqaba. Visiting Petra had a great impact on my research perspective and allowed me a means to compare how other cultures were supplying water in a different region. The aqueduct channel carved into the rockface of the Siq attests to the fact that region, topography, and access to water directly affect how water will be supplied and used.
Jordan is a truly wonderful place, full of rich cultural heritage, and I am lucky that I was able to fully immerse myself in its traditions.
Lichtenberger Achim and Rubina Raja. 2018. The Archaeology and History of Jerash: 110 Years of Excavations. Turnhout: Brepols.
Northedge, Alastair. 1992. Studies on Roman and Islamic Amman: The Excavations of Mrs. C-M Bennet and Other Investigations, volume I. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Smith, Robert Houston, and Leslie Preston Day. 1989. Pella of the Decapolis, volume 2: Final Report on the College of Wooster Excavations in Area IX, The Civic Complex, 1979–1985. [Wooster, Ohio]: The College of Wooster.
Clare Rasmussen is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology at Bryn Mawr College. She holds a BA in anthropology and classical archaeology from the University of Michigan and a MA in classics from the University of Arizona. She is primarily interested in Roman archaeology with a particular focus on water studies, city planning, architecture, landscape, and cultural identity. While she is a resident at the American Center of Research, Clare will be working on her PhD dissertation project, “Water Consumption in the Decapolis: Examining Water Use in Gerasa, Philadelphia, Gadara, and Pella during the Roman Period.” Her dissertation aims to explore the social, cultural, and religious implications of water-supply systems in select cities of the historical Decapolis region of northern Jordan in order to understand how and why local inhabitants adapted, adopted, and modified hydrological structures into the urban armature of their cities. Her project seeks to address an understudied region within Roman water studies, encourage a deeper discussion on the influence of cultural and social diversity on water consumption, and examine the widespread perception of homogenous water consumption in the Roman Empire.