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.
The watermill is the earliest instance of a machine harnessing natural forces to replace human muscular labour (apart from the sail).As such it holds a special place in the history of technology and also in economic studies where it is associated with growth.
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.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. Apart from its main use in grinding flour, water-power was also applied to pounding grain, crushing ore, sawing stones and possibly fulling and bellows for iron furnaces.
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.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. Although the prevalence of grain-mills naturally meant that watermilling remained a typically rural phenomenon, it also rose in importance in the urban environment.
The data below spans the period until ca. 500 AD. The vast majority dates to Roman times.
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.
|Date||Water-powered mill types||Reference (or find spot)||Modern Country|
|Possibly first half of 3rd century BC||Horizontal-wheeled mill||Byzantium (assigned place of invention)||Turkey|
|Possibly c. 240 BC||Vertical-wheeled mill||Alexandria (assigned place of invention)||Egypt|
|Before 71 BC?||Grain-mill ("watermill")||Strabon, XII, 3, 30 C 556||Turkey|
|40/10 BC||Undershot wheel mill||Vitruvius, X, 5.2||Unspecified|
|40/10 BC||Possible kneading machine||Vitruvius, X, 5.2||Unspecified|
|20 BC/10 AD||Overshot wheel mill||Antipater of Thessalonica, IX, 418.4–6||Unspecified|
|c. 70 AD||Trip hammer||Pliny, Naturalis Historia, XVIII, 23.97||Italy|
|73/4 AD||Possible fulling mill||Antioch||Syria|
|2nd century AD||Multiple mill complex||Barbegal mill||France|
|Late 2nd century AD||Breastshot wheel mill||Les Martres-de-Veyre||France|
|Second half of 3rd century AD||Sawmill; crank and connecting rod system with gear train||Hierapolis sarcophagus||Turkey|
|Late 3rd or early 4th century AD||Turbine mill||Chemtou and Testour||Tunisia|
|Late 3rd or early 4th century AD||Possible tanning mill||Saepinum||Italy|
In the following, literary, epigraphical and documentary sources referring to watermills and other water-driven machines are listed.
|Reference||Location||Date||Type of evidence||Comments on|
|Ammianus Marcellinus, 18.8.11||Amida||359 AD||History||Multiple mill complex|
|Antipater of Thessalonica, IX, 418.4–6||Unspecified||20 BC/10 AD||Poem||Earliest reference to overshot wheel mill|
|Ausonius, Mosella, 362–364||Ruwer river||c. 370 AD||Poem||Water-powered marble saws and grain-mills|
|Beroea||Macedonia||2nd century AD||Decree||Tax revenue from watermills|
|Cedrenus, Historiarum compendium, p. 295 ||India||c. 325 AD||History|
|CG-CI, pp. 86–90, no. 41||Corinth||6th century AD|
|CIL, III, 5866||Günzburg||1st/3rd century AD||Epigraphy||Miller’s guild|
|CIL, III, 14969, 2||Promona||1st/4th century AD||Epigraphy|
|CIL, VI, 1711||c. 480 AD||Epigraphy|
|Codex Justinianus, XI, 43, 10, 3||Constantinople||474/491 AD||Legal code|
|Codex Theodosianus, XIV, 15.4||398 AD||Legal code|
|Diocletian, XV, 54||301 AD||Price edict|
|Euchromius, VII, pp. 138–9, no. 169||Sardis||4th to 5th/6th century AD||Epigraphy||Watermill engineer|
|Gregory of Nyssa, In Ecclesiasten, III, 656A Migne||c. 370/390 AD||Theology||Water-powered marble saws?|
|John Cassian, Conlationes Patrum, I, 18||426 AD?||Theology|
|Letter||Egypt||5th century AD||Possible watermill|
|Libanius, Or. 4.29||Antioch||380s AD||Rhetoric||Tax on watermills|
|MAMA, VII, p. 70, no. 305, lines 29–32||Orcistus||c. 329 AD||Epigraphy||Town privilege|
|Mar. Aur. Apollodotos Kalliklianos||Hierapolis||Second half of 3rd century AD||Epigraphy||Member of guild of water-millers|
|Molitor||Châteauneuf||1st century AD||Epigraphy|
|Palladius, Opus agriculturae, I, 41, (42)||4th/5th century AD||Treatise||Use of waste water to drive watermills|
|Pliny, Naturalis Historia, XVIII, 23.97||Italy||c. 70 AD||Encyclopedia||Water-powered pestles|
|Sabinianus I, 18||c. 450 AD||Hagiography|
|Strabon, XII, 3, 30 C 556||Cabira||Before 71 BC?||Geography|
|Talmud, Shabbat, I, 5||Before 70 AD?|
|Two inscriptions||Antioch||73/4 AD||Epigraphy||Possibly fulling mills|
|Visigothic Code, VII, 2, 12 and VIII, 4, 29–30||Late 5th century AD||Legal code|
|Vita S. Romani abbatis, 17–18||c. 450 AD||Hagiography||Water-powered pestles|
|Vitruvius, X, 5.2||40/10 BC||Engineering||Earliest description of undershot wheel mill|
|Vitruvius, X, 5.2||40/10 BC||Engineering||Possible kneading machine|
This section deals with depictions of watermills which are preserved in ancient paintings, reliefs, mosaics, etc.
|Place (or object)||Country||Date||Type of evidence||Identification/Remains|
|Coemeterium Maius at Rome||Italy||Late 3rd century AD?||Wall painting|
|Utica||Tunisia||4th century AD||Mosaic|
|Great Palace of Constantinople||Turkey||c. 450/500 AD||Mosaic||One probable and one possible representation|
|Hierapolis sarcophagus||Turkey||Second half of 3rd century AD||Relief||Water-powered stone sawmill; earliest known crank and connecting rod system|
Below are listed excavated or surveyed watermill sites dated to the ancient period.
|Mouzaïa des Mines, near||Algeria||Unspecified||Unspecified remains|
|Oued Bou Ardoun||Algeria||Possibly 2nd to 3rd century AD||Unspecified remains|
|Oued Bou Ya'koub||Algeria||Unspecified||Drop-tower mill|
|Oued Mellah||Algeria||Possibly 4th century AD||Drop-tower mill|
|Ardleigh, Spring Valley Mill||England||Unspecified||Possible Roman watermill site including millstones|
|Chesters||England||Possibly 3rd century AD||Mill-race, mill-chamber, tail-race, millstones|
|Haltwhistle Burn Head||England||225–70 AD||Entire establishment|
|Ickham I||England||150–280 AD||Mill-race, mill-building, fragments of millstones|
|Ickham II||England||3rd and 4th centuries AD||Mill-race, sluice-gate, mill-building, fragments of millstones|
|Nettleton||England||230 AD||Mill-race, sluice-gate, wheel-pit, tail-race|
|Wherwell||England||Late 3rd or early 4th century AD||Mill-channel, mill-building (?), fragments of millstones|
|Willowford||England||Late 2nd or 3rd century AD?||Water-channels, sluices (?), fragments of millstones|
|Barbegal mill||France||2nd century AD||Multiple mill complex with sixteen overshot wheels on two mill-races, fed by aqueduct|
|Fontvieille, Calade du Castellet||France||5th/6th century AD||Horizontal-wheeled mill|
|Gannes||France||Presumably 4th or 5th century AD||Horizontal (?) water-wheel|
|La Crau||France||2nd century AD||Vertical-wheeled mill|
|La Garde (Var)||France||Unspecified||Vertical-wheeled mill|
|Le Cannet-des-Maures||France||5th century AD||Two horizontal-wheeled mills|
|Les Arcs (Var)||France||2nd/3rd century AD||Vertical-wheeled mill|
|Les Martres-de-Veyre I||France||1st century AD||Unspecified remains|
|Les Martres-de-Veyre II||France||Late 2nd century AD||Entire establishment; breastshot wheel|
|Lyon-Vaise||France||Late 1st century AD abandoned||Millstones, mill-chamber timbers|
|Paulhan I–III||France||40/50–early 3rd century AD||Three consecutive mills|
|Pézenas||France||2nd century AD||Horizontal-wheeled mill|
|Taradeau||France||Late 2nd–4th century AD||Horizontal-wheeled mill|
|Bobingen||Germany||117/138 AD||Posts, boards, mill-race|
|Inden||Germany||End of 1st century BC||Millstones, wheel-shaft bearings, paddle fragments|
|Lösnich I||Germany||2nd/4th century AD?||Mill-race, wheel-pit, fragment of a millstone|
|Lösnich II||Germany||2nd/4th century AD?||Mill-race|
|Munich-Perlach||Germany||End of 2nd century AD||Mill-chamber, mill-race, millstone fragments; possibly duplex drive|
|Athens, Agora I||Greece||5th and 6th centuries AD||Aqueduct, wheel-pit, mill-chamber, tail-race|
|Athens, Agora II||Greece||460/75 to c.580 AD||Entire establishment|
|Athens, Agora III||Greece||Unspecified||Unspecified remains|
|El-Qabu||Israel||Possibly Roman||Unspecified remains|
|En Shoqeq||Israel||2nd century AD||Masonry dam with mills|
|Farod I–III||Israel||5th or 6th century AD||Three drop-tower mills|
|Farod IV–V||Israel||Unspecified||Two mills|
|Ma'agan Michael||Israel||3rd century AD?||Masonry dam, with eleven mills|
|Nahal Tanninim||Israel||Early 4th/mid-7th century AD||Six vertical-wheeled mills with duplex drives and underdriven Pompeian millstones|
|Wadi Fejjas I–III||Israel||Probably Roman||Three drop-tower mills|
|Wadi Serrar||Israel||Probably Roman||Unspecified remains|
|Yarkon||Israel||2nd century AD||Unspecified remains|
|Oderzo||Italy||2nd century AD||Mill-race|
|Rome, Baths of Caracalla I||Italy||Between 212/235 to mid-3rd century AD||Two vertical-wheeled mills|
|Rome, Baths of Caracalla II||Italy||Mid-3rd century to 5th century AD||Two vertical-wheeled mills|
|Rome, Janiculum||Italy||Early 3rd century AD||Aqueducts, reservoirs, sluices, millstones|
|Saepinum||Italy||Late 3rd or early 4th century AD||Aqueduct, sluice-gates, wheel-pit, tail-race. Recently identified as tanning mill.|
|San Giovanni di Ruoti||Italy||Early 1st century AD||Unspecified remains|
|Venafro||Italy||Possibly early Empire||Undershot water wheel, millstones|
|Gerasa||Jordan||6th century AD||Water-powered stone sawmill with two four-bladed saws; crank and connecting rod system without gear train|
|Wadi al-Hasa||Jordan||Probably late Roman||At least nineteen possible drop-tower mills|
|Oued es Soueïr||Morocco||Unspecified||Unspecified remains|
|Avenches||Switzerland||57/58–80 AD||Mill-race timbers|
|Rodersdorf, Klein Büel||Switzerland||1st century AD||Millstone, mill-race|
|Palmyra||Syria||Possibly Roman||Unspecified remains|
|Chemtou||Tunisia||Late 3rd or early 4th century AD||Triple helix turbine mill with horizontal wheels|
|Testour||Tunisia||Late 3rd or early 4th century AD||Triple helix turbine mill with horizontal wheels|
|Colossae||Turkey||Unspecified||Possible multiple-mill complex|
|Kurşunlu Waterfall, near Perge||Turkey||Unspecified||Unspecified remains|
|Lamus river||Turkey||Apparently late antique||Seven 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.
|Site||Country||Date (or find context)||Remains|
|Barton Court Farm||England||4th century AD well||Fragments of four millstones|
|Chedworth||England||Roman villa||One lower stone, fragment of another|
|Chew Park||England||Late 3rd or early 4th century AD||One complete upper stone, part of another|
|Dicket Mead||England||Roman building||Fragments of millstones|
|Leeds||England||Roman pottery dated to 1st and 2nd centuries AD||Fragment of millstone|
|Littlecote Roman Villa||England||2nd century AD timber building||Fragment of millstone|
|London||England||1st-2nd century AD||Several millstones|
|London||England||Late 2nd century AD Roman ship||One unfinished millstone|
|Selsey||England||Unspecified||Fragment of millstone|
|Vindolanda||England||Possibly Roman||Four millstones|
|Wantage||England||On display in museum||Two millstones|
|Woolaston||England||c. 320 AD||Two upper millstones|
|La Chapelle-Taillefert||France||Pottery and coins from 2nd century AD||Pair of millstones|
|Lyon||France||On display in museum||Many unpublished millstones|
|Paris||France||On display in museum||Six millstones|
|Aalen||Germany||On display in museum||Five millstones|
|Cologne||Germany||On display in museum||Three millstones|
|Dasing||Germany||Unspecified||Fragments of millstones|
|Koblenz||Germany||On display in museum||Several millstones|
|Mayen||Germany||Quarry||Unfinished Roman millstones|
|Budapest||Hungary||On display in museum||Six millstones|
|Beit She'an||Israel||Late 4th or early 5th century AD||Upper millstone|
|Buqueiah||Israel||Allegedly from ancient watermill||Upper millstone|
|Bologna||Italy||On display in museum||Six millstones|
|Naples||Italy||Probably Roman||Several millstones|
|Palatine, Rome||Italy||4th or 5th century AD||47 millstones from at least five watermills|
|Apulum||Romania||2nd or 3rd century AD||Pair of millstones|
|Cluj-Napoca||Romania||2nd or 3rd century AD||Upper millstone|
|Micia||Romania||2nd or 3rd century AD||Pair of millstones|
|Whitton||Wales||Unspecified||Fragment of millstone|
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.Large stone mortars have been found at many mines; their deformations suggest automated crushing mills worked by water wheels.
|Site||Country||Date (or find context)||Remains|
|Great Chesterford||England||Early 5th century AD hoard||Iron spindle with three winged rynds|
|Silchester||England||Mid-4th century AD hoard||Iron spindle|
|Saint-Doulchard||France||1/10 to c.50 AD||Paddles, mill-chamber posts|
|Conimbriga||Portugal||On display in museum, allegedly 1st century AD||Mill-wheel|
|Hagendorn||Switzerland||Late 2nd century AD||Three undershot wheels|
|Dolaucothi||Wales||1st and 2nd centuries AD||Stone anvil (Carreg Pumsaint) nearby|
A crankshaft is a shaft driven by a crank mechanism, consisting of a series of cranks and crankpins to which the connecting rods of an engine is attached. It is a mechanical part able to perform a conversion between reciprocating motion and rotational motion. In a reciprocating engine, it translates reciprocating motion of the piston into rotational motion, whereas in a reciprocating compressor, it converts the rotational motion into reciprocating motion. In order to do the conversion between two motions, the crankshaft has "crank throws" or "crankpins", additional bearing surfaces whose axis is offset from that of the crank, to which the "big ends" of the connecting rods from each cylinder attach.
Ancient Roman architecture adopted the external language of classical Greek architecture for the purposes of the ancient Romans, but was different from Greek buildings, becoming a new architectural style. The two styles are often considered one body of classical architecture. Roman architecture flourished in the Roman Republic and even moreso under the Empire, when the great majority of surviving buildings were constructed. It used new materials, particularly Roman concrete, and newer technologies such as the arch and the dome to make buildings that were typically strong and well engineered. Large numbers remain in some form across the empire, sometimes complete and still in use to this day.
A watermill or water mill is a mill that uses hydropower. It is a structure that uses a water wheel or water turbine to drive a mechanical process such as milling (grinding), rolling, or hammering. Such processes are needed in the production of many material goods, including flour, lumber, paper, textiles, and many metal products. These watermills may comprise gristmills, sawmills, paper mills, textile mills, hammermills, trip hammering mills, rolling mills, wire drawing mills.
A water wheel is a machine for converting the energy of flowing or falling water into useful forms of power, often in a watermill. A water wheel consists of a wheel, with a number of blades or buckets arranged on the outside rim forming the driving car.
A sawmill or lumber mill is a facility where logs are cut into lumber. Modern sawmills use a motorized saw to cut logs lengthwise to make long pieces, and crosswise to length depending on standard or custom sizes. The "portable" sawmill is of simple operation. The log lies flat on a steel bed, and the motorized saw cuts the log horizontally along the length of the bed, by the operator manually pushing the saw. The most basic kind of sawmill consists of a chainsaw and a customized jig, with similar horizontal operation.
A noria is a hydropowered machine used to lift water into a small aqueduct, either for the purpose of irrigation or to supply water to cities and villages.
A crank is an arm attached at a right angle to a rotating shaft by which circular motion is imparted to or received from the shaft. When combined with a connecting rod, it can be used to convert circular motion into reciprocating motion, or vice versa. The arm may be a bent portion of the shaft, or a separate arm or disk attached to it. Attached to the end of the crank by a pivot is a rod, usually called a connecting rod (conrod).
A trip hammer, also known as a tilt hammer or helve hammer, is a massive powered hammer. Traditional uses of trip hammers include pounding, decorticating and polishing of grain in agriculture. In mining, trip hammers were used for crushing metal ores into small pieces, although a stamp mill was more usual for this. In finery forges they were used for drawing out blooms made from wrought iron into more workable bar iron. They were also used for fabricating various articles of wrought iron, latten, steel and other metals.
The ancient Romans were famous for their advanced engineering accomplishments. Technology for bringing running water into cities was developed in the east, but transformed by the Romans into a technology inconceivable in Greece. The architecture used in Rome was strongly influenced by Greek and Etruscan sources.
Renaissance technology was the set of European artifacts and inventions which spread through the Renaissance period, roughly the 14th century through the 16th century. The era is marked by profound technical advancements such as the printing press, linear perspective in drawing, patent law, double shell domes and bastion fortresses. Sketchbooks from artisans of the period give a deep insight into the mechanical technology then known and applied.
Antipater of Thessalonica was the author of over a hundred epigrams in the Greek Anthology. He is the most copious and perhaps the most interesting of the Augustan epigrammatists. He lived under the patronage of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, who appointed him governor of Thessalonica.
The Arab Agricultural Revolution was the transformation in agriculture from the 8th to the 13th century in the Islamic region of the Old World. The agronomic literature of the time, with major books by Ibn Bassal and Abū l-Khayr al-Ishbīlī, demonstrates the extensive diffusion of useful plants to Medieval Spain (al-Andalus), and the growth in Islamic scientific knowledge of agriculture and horticulture. Medieval Arab historians and geographers described al-Andalus as a fertile and prosperous region with abundant water, full of fruit from trees such as the olive and pomegranate. Archaeological evidence demonstrates improvements in animal husbandry and in irrigation such as with the sakia water wheel. These changes made agriculture far more productive, supporting population growth, urbanisation, and increased stratification of society.
Ancient Greek technology developed during the 5th century BC, continuing up to and including the Roman period, and beyond. Inventions that are credited to the ancient Greeks include the gear, screw, rotary mills, bronze casting techniques, water clock, water organ, torsion catapult, the use of steam to operate some experimental machines and toys, and a chart to find prime numbers. Many of these inventions occurred late in the Greek period, often inspired by the need to improve weapons and tactics in war. However, peaceful uses are shown by their early development of the watermill, a device which pointed to further exploitation on a large scale under the Romans. They developed surveying and mathematics to an advanced state, and many of their technical advances were published by philosophers, like Archimedes and Heron.
Roman technology is the collection of antiques, skills, methods, processes, and engineering practices which supported Roman civilization and made possible the expansion of the economy and military of ancient Rome.
A ship mill is a type of watermill. The milling and grinding technology and the drive (waterwheel) are built on a floating platform on this type of mill. Its first recorded use dates back to mid-6th century AD Italy.
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.
A gristmill grinds cereal grain into flour and middlings. The term can refer to either the grinding mechanism or the building that holds it. Grist is grain that has been separated from its chaff in preparation for grinding.
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.
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.
Media related to Roman mills at Wikimedia Commons