List of ancient watermills

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The Barbegal mill, located on a steep slope in southern France, is considered the biggest ancient mill complex. Its capacity was sufficient to feed the whole nearby city of Arles. Barbegal mill 02.jpg
The Barbegal mill, located on a steep slope in southern France, is considered the biggest ancient mill complex. Its capacity was sufficient to feed the whole nearby city of Arles.
Scheme of a water-driven Roman sawmill at Hierapolis, Asia Minor. The 3rd century mill is the earliest known machine to incorporate a crank and connecting rod mechanism. Romische Sagemuhle.svg
Scheme of a water-driven Roman sawmill at Hierapolis, Asia Minor. The 3rd century mill is the earliest known machine to incorporate a crank and connecting rod mechanism.

This list of ancient watermills presents an overview of water-powered grain-mills and industrial mills in the classical antiquity from their Hellenistic beginnings through the Roman imperial period.


Historical overview

The watermill is the earliest instance of a machine harnessing natural forces to replace human muscular labour (apart from the sail). [3] As such it holds a special place in the history of technology and also in economic studies where it is associated with growth. [4]

The initial invention of the watermill appears to have occurred in the hellenized eastern Mediterranean in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great and the rise of Hellenistic science and technology. [5] In the subsequent Roman era, the use of water-power was diversified and different types of watermills were introduced. These include all three variants of the vertical water wheel as well as the horizontal water wheel. [6] Apart from its main use in grinding flour, water-power was also applied to pounding grain, [7] crushing ore, [8] sawing stones [9] and possibly fulling and bellows for iron furnaces. [10]

An increased research interest has greatly improved our knowledge of Roman watermill sites in recent years. Numerous archaeological finds in the western half of the empire now complement the surviving documentary material from the eastern provinces; they demonstrate that the breakthrough of watermill technology occurred as early as the 1st century AD and was not delayed until the onset of the Middle Ages as previously thought. [11] The data shows a wide spread of grain-mills over most parts of the empire, with industrial mills also being in evidence in both halves. [12] Although the prevalence of grain-mills naturally meant that watermilling remained a typically rural phenomenon, it also rose in importance in the urban environment. [13]

The data below spans the period until ca. 500 AD. The vast majority dates to Roman times.

Earliest evidence

Below the earliest ancient evidence for different types of watermills and the use of water-power for various industrial processes. This list is continued for the early Middle Ages here.

DateWater-powered mill typesReference (or find spot)Modern Country
Possibly first half of 3rd century BC Horizontal-wheeled mill [5] Byzantium (assigned place of invention) Turkey
Possibly c. 240 BC Vertical-wheeled mill [5] Alexandria (assigned place of invention) Egypt
Before 71 BC? Grain-mill ("watermill") [14] Strabon, XII, 3, 30 C 556 Turkey
40/10 BC Undershot wheel mill [15] Vitruvius, X, 5.2Unspecified
40/10 BCPossible kneading machine [16] Vitruvius, X, 5.2Unspecified
20 BC/10 AD Overshot wheel mill [17] Antipater of Thessalonica, IX, 418.4–6Unspecified
c. 70 AD Trip hammer [7] Pliny, Naturalis Historia, XVIII, 23.97 Italy
73/4 ADPossible fulling mill [18] Antioch Syria
2nd century ADMultiple mill complex [19] Barbegal mill France
Late 2nd century AD Breastshot wheel mill [20] Les Martres-de-Veyre France
Second half of 3rd century AD Sawmill; crank and connecting rod system with gear train [21] Hierapolis sarcophagus Turkey
Late 3rd or early 4th century AD Turbine mill [22] Chemtou and Testour Tunisia
Late 3rd or early 4th century ADPossible tanning mill [23] Saepinum Italy
?Possible furnace [8] Marseille France

Written sources

In the following, literary, epigraphical and documentary sources referring to watermills and other water-driven machines are listed.

ReferenceLocationDateType of evidenceComments on
Ammianus Marcellinus, 18.8.11 [24] Amida 359 ADHistoryMultiple mill complex
Antipater of Thessalonica, IX, 418.4–6 [20] Unspecified20 BC/10 ADPoemEarliest reference to overshot wheel mill [20]
Ausonius, Mosella, 362–364 [25] Ruwer river c. 370 ADPoemWater-powered marble saws and grain-mills
Beroea [26] Macedonia 2nd century ADDecreeTax revenue from watermills
Cedrenus, Historiarum compendium, p. 295 [516] [27] India c. 325 ADHistory
CG-CI, pp. 86–90, no. 41 [28] Corinth 6th century AD
CIL, III, 5866 [29] Günzburg 1st/3rd century ADEpigraphyMiller’s guild [30]
CIL, III, 14969, 2 [31] Promona 1st/4th century ADEpigraphy
CIL, VI, 1711 [32] c. 480 ADEpigraphy
Codex Justinianus, XI, 43, 10, 3 [28] Constantinople 474/491 ADLegal code
Codex Theodosianus, XIV, 15.4 [32] 398 ADLegal code
Diocletian, XV, 54 [30] 301 ADPrice edict
Euchromius, VII, pp. 138–9, no. 169 [33] Sardis 4th to 5th/6th century ADEpigraphyWatermill engineer
Gregory of Nyssa, In Ecclesiasten, III, 656A Migne [34] c. 370/390 ADTheologyWater-powered marble saws? [35]
John Cassian, Conlationes Patrum, I, 18 [36] 426 AD?Theology
Letter [37] Egypt 5th century ADPossible watermill
Libanius, Or. 4.29 [26] Antioch 380s ADRhetoricTax on watermills
MAMA, VII, p. 70, no. 305, lines 29–32 [34] Orcistus c. 329 AD [38] EpigraphyTown privilege
Mar. Aur. Apollodotos Kalliklianos [39] Hierapolis Second half of 3rd century ADEpigraphyMember of guild of water-millers
Molitor [30] Châteauneuf 1st century ADEpigraphy
Palladius, Opus agriculturae, I, 41, (42) [40] 4th/5th century ADTreatiseUse of waste water to drive watermills
Pliny, Naturalis Historia, XVIII, 23.97 [41] Italy c. 70 ADEncyclopediaWater-powered pestles [42]
Sabinianus I, 18c. 450 ADHagiography
Strabon, XII, 3, 30 C 556 [28] Cabira Before 71 BC? [43] Geography
Talmud, Shabbat, I, 5 [44] Before 70 AD?
Two inscriptions [18] Antioch 73/4 ADEpigraphyPossibly fulling mills
Visigothic Code, VII, 2, 12 and VIII, 4, 29–30 [41] Late 5th century ADLegal code
Vita S. Romani abbatis, 17–18 [45] c. 450 ADHagiographyWater-powered pestles [42]
Vitruvius, X, 5.2 [46] 40/10 BCEngineeringEarliest description of undershot wheel mill [46]
Vitruvius, X, 5.2 [16] 40/10 BCEngineeringPossible kneading machine

Graphical representations

This section deals with depictions of watermills which are preserved in ancient paintings, reliefs, mosaics, etc.

Place (or object)CountryDateType of evidenceIdentification/Remains
Coemeterium Maius at Rome [47] Italy Late 3rd century AD?Wall painting
Utica [48] Tunisia 4th century ADMosaic [A 1]
Great Palace of Constantinople [49] Turkey c. 450/500 ADMosaicOne probable and one possible representation
Hierapolis sarcophagus [9] Turkey Second half of 3rd century ADReliefWater-powered stone sawmill; earliest known crank and connecting rod system [2]

Archaeological finds

Watermill sites

Below are listed excavated or surveyed watermill sites dated to the ancient period.

Mouzaïa des Mines, near [50] Algeria UnspecifiedUnspecified remains
Oued Bou Ardoun [50] Algeria Possibly 2nd to 3rd century ADUnspecified remains
Oued Bou Ya'koub [50] Algeria UnspecifiedDrop-tower mill
Oued Mellah [50] Algeria Possibly 4th century ADDrop-tower mill
Ardleigh, Spring Valley Mill [51] England UnspecifiedPossible Roman watermill site including millstones
Chesters [51] England Possibly 3rd century ADMill-race, mill-chamber, tail-race, millstones
Fullerton [52] England UnspecifiedTwo watermills
Haltwhistle Burn Head [51] England 225–70 ADEntire establishment
Ickham I [51] England 150–280 ADMill-race, mill-building, fragments of millstones
Ickham II [51] England 3rd and 4th centuries ADMill-race, sluice-gate, mill-building, fragments of millstones
Nettleton [51] England 230 ADMill-race, sluice-gate, wheel-pit, tail-race
Wherwell [51] England Late 3rd or early 4th century ADMill-channel, mill-building (?), fragments of millstones
Willowford [51] England Late 2nd or 3rd century AD? [53] Water-channels, sluices (?), fragments of millstones
Barbegal mill [51] France 2nd century AD [54] Multiple mill complex with sixteen overshot wheels on two mill-races, fed by aqueduct
Fontvieille, Calade du Castellet [55] France 5th/6th century ADHorizontal-wheeled mill
Gannes [51] France Presumably 4th or 5th century ADHorizontal (?) water-wheel
La Crau [56] France 2nd century ADVertical-wheeled mill
La Garde (Var) [57] France UnspecifiedVertical-wheeled mill
Lattes [57] France UnspecifiedUnspecified
Le Cannet-des-Maures [58] France 5th century ADTwo horizontal-wheeled mills
Les Arcs (Var) [56] France 2nd/3rd century ADVertical-wheeled mill
Les Martres-de-Veyre I [59] France 1st century ADUnspecified remains
Les Martres-de-Veyre II [51] France Late 2nd century AD [20] Entire establishment; breastshot wheel [20]
Lyon-Vaise [60] France Late 1st century AD abandonedMillstones, mill-chamber timbers
Paulhan I–III [61] France 40/50–early 3rd century ADThree consecutive mills
Pézenas [62] France 2nd century ADHorizontal-wheeled mill
Taradeau [57] France Late 2nd–4th century ADHorizontal-wheeled mill
Bobingen [63] Germany 117/138 ADPosts, boards, mill-race
Inden [64] Germany End of 1st century BCMillstones, wheel-shaft bearings, paddle fragments
Lösnich I [51] Germany 2nd/4th century AD? [20] Mill-race, wheel-pit, fragment of a millstone
Lösnich II [51] Germany 2nd/4th century AD? [20] Mill-race
Munich-Perlach [65] Germany End of 2nd century ADMill-chamber, mill-race, millstone fragments; possibly duplex drive
Athens, Agora I [51] Greece 5th and 6th centuries ADAqueduct, wheel-pit, mill-chamber, tail-race
Athens, Agora II [51] Greece 460/75 to c.580 ADEntire establishment
Athens, Agora III [51] Greece UnspecifiedUnspecified remains
El-Qabu [51] Israel Possibly RomanUnspecified remains
En Shoqeq [51] Israel 2nd century ADMasonry dam with mills
Farod I–III [51] Israel 5th or 6th century ADThree drop-tower mills
Farod IV–V [51] Israel UnspecifiedTwo mills
Ma'agan Michael [51] Israel 3rd century AD?Masonry dam, with eleven mills
Nahal Tanninim [66] Israel Early 4th/mid-7th century ADSix vertical-wheeled mills with duplex drives and underdriven Pompeian millstones
Wadi Fejjas I–III [51] Israel Probably RomanThree drop-tower mills
Wadi Serrar [51] Israel Probably RomanUnspecified remains
Yarkon [51] Israel 2nd century ADUnspecified remains
Oderzo [67] Italy 2nd century ADMill-race
Rome, Baths of Caracalla I [68] Italy Between 212/235 to mid-3rd century ADTwo vertical-wheeled mills
Rome, Baths of Caracalla II [69] Italy Mid-3rd century to 5th century ADTwo vertical-wheeled mills
Rome, Janiculum [51] Italy Early 3rd century AD [70] Aqueducts, reservoirs, sluices, millstones
Saepinum [23] Italy Late 3rd or early 4th century AD [23] Aqueduct, sluice-gates, wheel-pit, tail-race. [51] Recently identified as tanning mill. [23]
San Giovanni di Ruoti [71] Italy Early 1st century ADUnspecified remains
Venafro [51] Italy Possibly early EmpireUndershot water wheel, [72] millstones
Gerasa [73] Jordan 6th century ADWater-powered stone sawmill with two four-bladed saws; crank and connecting rod system without gear train
Wadi al-Hasa [51] Jordan Probably late RomanAt least nineteen possible drop-tower mills
Oued es Soueïr [50] Morocco UnspecifiedUnspecified remains
Avenches [52] Switzerland 57/58–80 ADMill-race timbers
Rodersdorf, Klein Büel [74] Switzerland 1st century ADMillstone, mill-race
Palmyra [51] Syria Possibly RomanUnspecified remains
Chemtou [50] Tunisia Late 3rd or early 4th century ADTriple helix turbine mill with horizontal wheels
Testour [50] Tunisia Late 3rd or early 4th century ADTriple helix turbine mill with horizontal wheels
Colossae Turkey UnspecifiedPossible multiple-mill complex [75]
Kurşunlu Waterfall, near Perge [76] Turkey UnspecifiedUnspecified remains
Lamus river [26] Turkey Apparently late antiqueSeven horizontal-wheeled mills


The following list comprises stray finds of ancient millstones. Note that there is no way to distinguish millstones driven by water-power from those powered by animals turning a capstan. Most, however, are assumed to derive from watermills. [77]

SiteCountryDate (or find context)Remains
Barton Court Farm [78] England 4th century AD wellFragments of four millstones
Chedworth [78] England Roman villaOne lower stone, fragment of another
Chew Park [78] England Late 3rd or early 4th century ADOne complete upper stone, part of another
Dicket Mead [78] England Roman buildingFragments of millstones
Leeds [78] England Roman pottery dated to 1st and 2nd centuries ADFragment of millstone
Littlecote Roman Villa [78] England 2nd century AD timber buildingFragment of millstone
London [78] England 1st-2nd century ADSeveral millstones
London [78] England Late 2nd century AD Roman shipOne unfinished millstone
Selsey [78] England UnspecifiedFragment of millstone
Vindolanda [52] England Possibly RomanFour millstones
Wantage [52] England On display in museumTwo millstones
Woolaston [78] England c. 320 ADTwo upper millstones
La Chapelle-Taillefert [78] France Pottery and coins from 2nd century ADPair of millstones
Lyon [78] France On display in museumMany unpublished millstones
Paris [52] France On display in museumSix millstones
Aalen [78] Germany On display in museumFive millstones
Cologne [52] Germany On display in museum Three millstones
Dasing [79] Germany UnspecifiedFragments of millstones
Koblenz [78] Germany On display in museum Several millstones
Mayen [78] Germany QuarryUnfinished Roman millstones
Budapest [52] Hungary On display in museum Six millstones
Beit She'an [78] Israel Late 4th or early 5th century ADUpper millstone
Buqueiah [78] Israel Allegedly from ancient watermillUpper millstone
Bologna [78] Italy On display in museumSix millstones
Naples [78] Italy Probably RomanSeveral millstones
Palatine, Rome [80] Italy 4th or 5th century AD47 millstones from at least five watermills
Apulum [78] Romania 2nd or 3rd century ADPair of millstones
Cluj-Napoca [78] Romania 2nd or 3rd century ADUpper millstone
Micia [78] Romania 2nd or 3rd century ADPair of millstones
Caerwent [78] Wales SmithyMillstones
Whitton [78] Wales UnspecifiedFragment of millstone

Water wheels and other components

Although more rare than the massive millstones, finds of wooden and iron parts of the mill machinery can also point to the existence of ancient watermills. [81] Large stone mortars have been found at many mines; their deformations suggest automated crushing mills worked by water wheels. [82]

SiteCountryDate (or find context)Remains
Great Chesterford [78] England Early 5th century AD hoardIron spindle with three winged rynds
Silchester [78] England Mid-4th century AD hoardIron spindle
Saint-Doulchard [83] France 1/10 to c.50 ADPaddles, mill-chamber posts
Conimbriga [52] Portugal On display in museum, allegedly 1st century ADMill-wheel
Hagendorn [72] Switzerland Late 2nd century ADThree undershot wheels
Dolaucothi [8] Wales 1st and 2nd centuries ADStone anvil (Carreg Pumsaint) nearby

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Trip hammer

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Hierapolis sawmill

The Hierapolis sawmill was a Roman water-powered stone sawmill at Hierapolis, Asia Minor. Dating to the second half of the 3rd century AD, the sawmill is considered the earliest known machine to combine a crank with a connecting rod.

Gristmill Mill; grinds grain into flour

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Örjan Wikander is a Swedish classical archaeologist and ancient historian. His main interests are ancient water technology, ancient roof terracottas, Roman social history, Etruscan archaeology and epigraphy.


  1. Greene 2000 , p. 39
  2. 1 2 Ritti, Grewe & Kessener 2007 , p. 161
  3. Wilson 2002 , p. 9
  4. Wikander 2000a , p. 371
  5. 1 2 3 Wikander 2000a , pp. 396f.; Donners, Waelkens & Deckers 2002 , p. 11; Wilson 2002 , pp. 7f.
  6. Wikander 2000a , pp. 373–378; Donners, Waelkens & Deckers 2002 , pp. 12–15
  7. 1 2 Wikander 1985 , p. 158; Wikander 2000b , p. 403; Wilson 2002 , p. 16
  8. 1 2 3 Wikander 2000b , p. 407
  9. 1 2 Ritti, Grewe & Kessener 2007
  10. Wikander 2000b , pp. 406f.
  11. Wikander 1985 , pp. 151–154; Wikander 2000a , pp. 370–373; Wilson 2002 , pp. 9–17; Brun 2006 , pp. 7–9
  12. Wikander 2000a , pp. 397–400
  13. Wikander 2000a , p. 379
  14. Wikander 1985 , p. 160; Wikander 2000a , p. 396
  15. Wikander 2000a , pp. 373f.; Donners, Waelkens & Deckers 2002 , p. 12
  16. 1 2 Wikander 2000b , p. 402
  17. Wikander 2000a , p. 375; Donners, Waelkens & Deckers 2002 , p. 13
  18. 1 2 Wikander 2000b , p. 406
  19. Wikander 1985 , pp. 154–162; Wilson 2002 , p. 11
  20. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Wikander 2000a , p. 375
  21. Ritti, Grewe & Kessener 2007 , p. 154
  22. Wilson 1995 , pp. 507f.; Wikander 2000a , p. 377; Donners, Waelkens & Deckers 2002 , p. 13
  23. 1 2 3 4 Brun & Leguilloux 2014 , pp. 160–170; Wilson 2020 , p. 171
  24. Wilson 2001
  25. Wikander 2000b , pp. 404f.
  26. 1 2 3 Wilson 2001 , p. 235
  27. Wikander 1985 , p. 163, fn. 109; Wikander 2000a , p. 400
  28. 1 2 3 Wikander 1985 , p. 160
  29. Wikander 1985 , p. 169, fn. 41
  30. 1 2 3 Wikander 2000a , p. 398
  31. Wikander 1985 , p. 160; Wikander 2000a , p. 398
  32. 1 2 Wikander 2000a , p. 400, fn. 123
  33. Wikander 1985 , p. 171, fn. 82; Brun 2006 , p. 105
  34. 1 2 Wikander 1985 , p. 171, fn. 82
  35. Wikander 2000b , p. 405
  36. Wikander 2000a , p. 399, fn. 121
  37. Wikander 1985 , p. 171, fn. 69
  38. Wikander 2000a , p. 399
  39. Ritti, Grewe & Kessener 2007 , pp. 143–146
  40. Spain 2008 , p. 82
  41. 1 2 Wikander 1985 , p. 158
  42. 1 2 Wikander 2000b , p. 403
  43. Wikander 2000a , p. 396
  44. Wikander 1985 , p. 161; Wikander 2000a , p. 397, fn. 104
  45. Wikander 1985 , p. 170, fn. 45
  46. 1 2 Wikander 2000a , pp. 373f.
  47. Wikander 1985 , p. 170, fn. 61; Wikander 2000a , p. 375
  48. Wikander 1985 , p. 159
  49. Wikander 1985 , p. 171, fn. 77; Wikander 2000a , pp. 384f.
  50. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Wilson 1995 , pp. 507f.
  51. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 Wikander 1985 , pp. 154–162
  52. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Wilson 2002 , p. 10
  53. Wikander 2000a , p. 397, fn. 106
  54. Wilson 2002 , p. 11
  55. Amouric et al. 2000
  56. 1 2 Brun & Borréani 1998; Brun 2006 , p. 113
  57. 1 2 3 Brun 2006 , p. 113
  58. Brun 2006 , pp. 107, 113
  59. Brun 2006 , p. 112
  60. Brun 1998 , p. 315; Brun 2006 , p. 112
  61. Brun 2006 , pp. 113, 116
  62. Brun 2006 , pp. 107, 116
  63. Wikander 2014 , p. 207
  64. Geilenbrügge 2010 , p. 4; Geilenbrügge & Schürmann 2010; Images: 1 and 2
  65. Spain 2008 , pp. 41f.; Wikander 2014 , p. 207
  66. Ad, Saʿid & Frankel 2005; Spain 2008 , pp. 59–61
  67. Spain 2008 , pp. 42f.
  68. Spain 2008 , pp. 22–24
  69. Spain 2008 , pp. 51–55
  70. Wikander 2000a , p. 393
  71. Wikander 2000a , p. 374
  72. 1 2 Wikander 2000a , p. 385
  73. Wilson 2002 , p. 16; Ritti, Grewe & Kessener 2007 , pp. 149–151
  74. Brun 2006 , pp. 111f.
  75. Wikander 2000a , p. 394, fn. 95
  76. Brun 2006 , pp. 105, 107
  77. Wikander 2000a , p. 372
  78. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 Wikander 1985 , pp. 163–165
  79. Czysz 1994 , p. 152
  80. Brun 2006 , pp. 107, 110
  81. Wikander 1985 , p. 165
  82. Burnham 1997 , pp. 332–336
  83. Champagne, Ferdière & Rialland 1997; Brun 2006 , p. 112


  1. Character as watermill disputed (Wilson 1995 , p. 375)


Watermill lists which summarize the rapidly developing state of research are provided by Wikander 1985 and Brun 2006, with additions by Wilson 1995 and 2002. Spain 2008 undertakes a technical analysis of around thirty known ancient mill sites.

Further reading

Commons-logo.svg Media related to Roman mills at Wikimedia Commons