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Urban water supply and discharge in punic city Kerkouane, Tunisia

In the fragile climate-environmental context of ancient Punic city of Kerkouane, water was a key issue. The existence of the Kerkouane settlement for almost four centuries primarily depended on the ingenuity of the local population to challenge the issue of water. This water has been an absolute necessity for urban and peri-urban activities (domestic use, handcrafts’ workshops, agriculture, etc.) and a pillar of development for civilizations that have succeeded in the region.

Overall, there are three aspects that reflect the originality of water system in the city and the good level in hydraulic expertise of the Punic artisans:

1 - The water supply system (through wells)

In the Punic world, in general, three modes of ensuring drinking water are widespread: the springs, the wells and the rainwater harvesting cisterns. However, in ancient Kerkuane drinking water derives almost exclusively from wells.

In fact, each house is equipped with its own well reflecting the high quantity and quality of groundwater and its easy operating. The presence of the well and the bathroom (see point 3) in every house provides evidence that water had a crucial role in the daily life of the Semites.

The systems of water supply, sewage and rainwater drainage in Kerkouane are constructed using carved stone and sophisticated materials. This implies that the level of hydraulic craft is quite developed and is part of the socio-economic dynamics of the city.

The existence of a well in almost every house in Kerkouane make evident that groundwater was rich, safe and of good quality. The small depth of the wells (5–10 meters) signifies a swallow water table that was easily exploitable. The shape of the wells is either rectangular or circular shape, with a tendency to expand in their bottom. To avoid the risk of pollution, each well is covered by a removable lid, made of wood or marble or some metal. This diversity of forms well demonstrates the existence of a difficult, tedious and painstaking job: digger. A skilled and expert workforce was therefore charged with opening the hole, and with constructing the walls with cut stone.

The lack of rainwater cisterns, like those found in Carthage and other Punic cities, presumably shows that in Kekouane people were not concerned about water scarcity. Being blessed with an abundant and renewable aquifer (due to rain), the Punics of Kerkouane had easily won their "struggle for water”.     

2 - The wastewater system

The drainage system of rainwater and wastewater is distinguished by its originality.

The part of the city, now uncovered, proves the existence of a drainage system for rain and wastewater that was quite well developed. Sewers have been recognized in different streets. The outflow of drainage system probably ended in the sea, and care was taken as not to contaminate the underground freshwater. 

3. Water for cleanliness and hygiene

 One of the most remarkable features of ancient Kerkouan is that almost all houses are equipped with elaborate bathrooms. Shoe-shaped bathtubs made from red concrete are the most typical model, with a seat for the bather. The number of bathrooms reveals the interest of the Carthaginians towards the body’s cleanliness and hygiene. Interestingly, this habit is practiced at the privacy of their own homes, quite the opposite from how the Romans practiced bathing in the well known Roman public baths. Obviously, the presence of private instead of public water supply systems reflect a high level of wealth of the population in the city.

The bathrooms and bathtubs are still so well preserved today, that their function becomes obvious to even the unsuspicious visitor: All visitors of Kerkouane site have a pause and take pictures in front of the impressive bathrooms.    

In the remains of the buildings, basins and drains, sewers, gargoyles and parietal and inter-parietal drainers, have been recognised.