Water Everywhere, Except Right Here

I did boatloads (pun intended) of research while writing the first draft of the novel but here and there I handwaved a few things to save for later. Well, it’s later. And, well, it’s wells.

I gave my Hebrew family compound its own well, knowing that the technology and the space issues would probably make that impossible. They’re walking distance to the Nile (one of the Nile Delta distributaries) so do their bathing and laundry there. And those that make bricks are right next to the river and wash up there after their shifts.

But of course they’ll need water back home. Not just for drinking and cooking but also for some washing up, dishes, livestock (those kept within the compound, like birds), and their garden (which is going to mostly be wastewater, but that has to come from somewhere too).

It turns out that there weren’t very many wells. Sometimes the water table was just too deep. Sometimes the ground wasn’t conducive to digging. And other times there simply wasn’t space. We in the modern era may think of a well as just a few feet across with a pump or a bucket lifting the water out. But in areas where it’s hard to dig (or the technology for deep narrow digs didn’t exist) and the water table is low, the mouth of the well can be quite large.

Mouth of the well of Deir el-Medina, looking north (© D. Driaux). “Whilst the water supply system set up seems to have worked efficiently, about one century before the end of the settlement, during the reign of Ramesses III (1187–1157 BC), the administration records on an ostracon the first attempt to dig a well, probably ordered by the state itself, in the vicinity of the workmen’s village. Situated a few hundred metres north of the settlement, in the desert, this large well extended 52 m down to the water level.” Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).

For the New Kingdom workmen’s village outside of the main city of Amarna, a local well wasn’t practical.

The easiest solution was to bring water to the village. Archaeological evidence…show that a water delivery system existed to meet the needs of both the inhabitants of the village and also the animals they tended. Due to the status of the settlement—made by the state, for its own purposes—it makes sense that this isolated village, with few opportunities for self-sufficiency, was supplied by the administration. The origin of the water itself seems to have been one of several wells located at the edge of the main city…The state therefore delegated responsibility to these establishments for sending goods, and the water from their wells to the workmen’s village….The water was carried in a particular kind of vessel: imported and reused Canaanite amphorae or imitations of this form. These handled jars have a slender form, a size (between 50 and 60 cm high) and a capacity (ca. 19 l) which allow a relatively easy transport, in particular on the back of a donkey. The water was then…unloaded and brought a few meters further to a spot in front of the village, named by excavators as the “zîr-area” because of the large number of fragments of water jars (Arabic zîr) found there…The water was then poured into the zîrs which, with their rounded bases, stood in small emplacements built of stone, brick rubble and marl mortar. The water jars provided a standing source of water and villagers then took the water they needed inside the village. Without any written documents, it is quite difficult to estimate the daily needs of the inhabitants; one zîr contained ca. 35 l but this was probably not enough to cover all daily needs, whether for a single man or a family. If that is so, then the jars would have needed to have been refilled more than once. The number of water jars contained in this area is estimated at around 50. This number is also the estimated number of houses, on average, occupied here at any one time. On the basis of one resupply of water stocks per day, almost 1750 l of water had to be sent to the village daily (35 l × 50 zîrs). A simple calculation gives 92 as the number of Canaanite amphorae necessary to bring this important supply of water; and if we consider that one donkey was able to carry two amphorae, one on each side, then 46 donkey journeys were required. Through such calculations we can build a general picture of the logistics of supplying the Amarna workmen’s village with water.

Water supply of ancient Egyptian settlements: the role of the state. Overview of a relatively equitable scheme from the Old to New Kingdom (ca. 2543–1077 BC).  Delphine Driaux.  Water Hist. 2016; 8: 43–58.  Published online 2016 Jan 12. doi: 10.1007/s12685-015-0150-x

It’s unclear how many people, on average, made up one of the 50 households in the above village. In my story, my family compound of around 55 people had 11 huts (nearly 75 people once my time travelers arrived). Let’s round up and say my family needed one-quarter the water of the workmen’s village (because of larger families), though much of that would happen in the Nile itself, without need for transport.

If each amphorae held 11 liters (just under 3 gallons), a human could carry two of them on a yoke. The water for that would weigh 28.5 lbs. I’m not sure how much the weight of the jars (or a similarly sized bucket) and the yoke adds, but it’s not an unreasonable total for a strong man to carry for a mile (the distance of the brickyards in my story, though the Nile itself is closer).

The jug in this picture is more for individual use than for transport and storage (it’s too small!). The Egyptian zîrs are much larger and pointy on the bottom so they need to be stored in a rack or with a base. There is a great picture of them here. And also here.

Water Jar (Globular Jar), 1980-1801 BC, Marl clay. Diameter: 17.9 cm (7 1/16 in.); Overall: 20 cm (7 7/8 in.); Diameter of aperture: 7.6 cm (3 in.), Cleveland Museum of Art, Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern Art. Egypt, EL-Haraga, cemetery S, tomb 366, excavated in 1914, Middle Kingdom, Second half of Dynasty 12, 1980-1801 BC. Gift of the British School of Archaeology in Egypt.

If they instead loaded up a cart (as there were oxen, carts, and well packed pathways), or a hand-pushed cart, they could easily carry a lot more. Let’s say 300 lbs on a smaller cart. Or around 30 gallons (114 liters) of water (after accounting for the weight of the containers).

One of the most important recent milestones has been the recognition in July 2010 by the United Nations General Assembly of the human right to water and sanitation. The Assembly recognized the right of every human being to have access to enough water for personal and domestic uses, meaning between 50 and 100 litres of water per person per day. The water must be safe, acceptable and affordable. The water costs should not exceed 3 per cent of household income. Moreover, the water source has to be within 1,000 metres of the home and collection time should not exceed 30 minutes.

Global Issues: Water. United Nations.

50-100 liters = 13.25-26.5 gallons. This is on the high side for people with access to a river for bathing and laundry and other large projects. It leaves a need for drinking and cooking water (though some would happen at the river) and some hygiene around the home (handwashing mainly).

Another United Nations brief clarifies that water needs:

Include drinking, personal sanitation, washing of clothes, food preparation, and personal and household hygiene…Most of the people categorized as lacking access to clean water use about 5 litres a day-one tenth of the average daily amount used in rich countries to flush toilets….Most people need at least 2 litres of safe water per capita per day for food preparation….The basic requirement of drinking water for a lactating woman engaged in even moderate physical activity is 7.5 litres a day.

The Human Right to Water and Sanitation.  Media brief.  UN-Water Decade Programme on Advocacy and Communication and Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council.   

How much water will need to be hauled from the Nile to the family compound each day? Let’s say 5 gallons (19 liters) per day per person. They can head for the river for extra water trips if necessary, as well as extra trips to do large cooking or washing projects, so it’s not necessary to have a buffer amount.

This gives us 375 gallons per day (for 75 people) or 1420 liters.

If we assume the compound has one wagon (they’ll have more when they leave on the Exodus), we can guess it might carry 400 kg (880 lbs) of cargo. That’s about 110 gallons of water if the containers weigh nothing…let’s say 90 gallons in containers.

Or four trips (Maybe three trips if the brickmakers bring some back with them and there are some trips with a donkey, or a low water needs day, etc.) to the river per day to fill up a cistern (each zîr holding 35 liters or 9.25 gallons, but they would have also used buckets and perhaps some more permanent structure as well).


1 Comment

  1. Ancient Egyptian Carpentry – The Boat Children (Out of Egypt)

    January 7, 2023 at 10:21 am

    […] For more on the carrying capacity of wagons and carts, see: Water Everywhere, Except Right Here. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *