Pompeii's Sewers Survived a Volcano Apocalypse, After All

Researchers discovered the intact sewer systems of Pompeii, an ancient and doomed Roman city.
Brad Bergan

Deep beneath the lava-stone streets of the ancient city of Pompeii lies a secret. Hidden from the world — since the notoriously-prosperous Roman city was destroyed in the apocalyptic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the first century — is a vast network of water drainage systems that once carried excess rainwater from the city into the sea.


Archaeological Park of Pompeii
The ancient drainage network of tunnels and canals. Source: Archaeological Park of Pompeii

Uncovering Pompeii's ancient Roman sewers

The volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius blanketed residents of Pompeii in volcanic ash and noxious gas, killing almost everyone in its path. More than 16,000 people died, and many of them were frozen in time, leaving behind a ruined city, left derelict for roughly 2,000 years.

Starting in 2018, speleologists have worked with the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, and explored 457 meters (1,500 feet) of grid-like, underground passages, in hopes of studying the city's rainwater drainage system, according to the park's statement.

The three-phase construction of Roman sewers

The network of tunnels and canals branch out from two cisterns below the town center, and are believed to have been built in three separate phases. First was the Hellenistic phase, in the the third century BCE. Then construction continued through the late Republican age of the Roman Empire, during the first century, BCE. Later, during the Augustan reign and on into the imperial age, the third phase seems to have resumed right before the city was blown away in 79 CE.

Experts on the scene have cleaned deposits that collected in the tunnels through the millennia, to restore the system to a functional state. They also found potential problems that required unique solutions, to keep the drainage pipes functioning without failing to respect the sanctity of the archaeological site.

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Archaeological Park of Pompeii 2
A view from inside the tunnels. Source: Archaeological Park of Pompeii

A restorative view into history

This is significant because it gives us a broader view into the history of the inner-workings of Pompeii's ruins — which helps experts maintain and safeguard the many historical features of the ancient city.

"Furthermore, many gaps in knowledge from the past regarding certain aspects or areas of the ancient city are being filled, thanks to the collaboration of experts in various sectors, which allow us to gather ever more accurate data as a result of specialized skills which had never been employed in other periods of excavation or study," said Park Director General Massimo Osanna.

The first phase of this project in Pompeii was scheduled for the end of January. Once completed, the researchers will repurpose canals and cisterns to continue draining water, and ultimately restore this ancient marvel of Roman engineering.

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