Barbegal Aqueduct and Mill

Barbegal Aqueduct and Mill



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The Barbegal Aqueduct and Mill is a Roman watermill complex located in the commune of Fontvieille, near the town of Arles, in southern France.

Barbegal Aqueduct and Mill history

The fascinating Barbegal Aqueduct and Mill archaeological site contains the ruins of an ancient water-powered milling complex and gives crucial insight into Roman use of water-powered engineering.

Not a technology often associated with the Romans, the Barbegal Mill demonstrates that far from being ignorant of such technology, the Romans actually pioneered this kind of harnessing of water power for industrial use.

Probably built in the early 2nd century AD, there are actually two ancient aqueducts that are found within the area of Barbegal, the Eygalières aqueduct and the Caparon aqueduct. Both served to supply the nearby city of Arles, Roman Arelate, while a sluice gate siphoned off water to the mill.

The Barbegal Mill itself was a huge complex built into the slope of the hillside and utilising 16 water wheels to power the massive flour mill. It is thought this industrial-scale operation provided the majority of the bread for the inhabitants of ancient Arles.

Barbegal Aqueduct and Mill today

Today however, only a hint of this impressive complex survives. Sections of the Barbegal Aqueducts can still be seen as can the outer walls of the Barbegal Mill. The Museum of Arles contains a model of the complex demonstrating how it may have appeared in its heyday.

Visitors to Barbegal may park where a minor road crosses the massive remains of the original aqueduct, and walk south about 250 meters along the remains of the aqueduct through the cleft in the ridge to the top of the mill complex. The site is signposted as Roman aqueduct rather than as a mill. The site is currently overgrown, and care is needed exploring the ruins.

Getting to Barbegal Aqueduct and Mill

Barbegal Aqueduct and Mill archaeological site is just outside the town of Arles, France. If you are travelling by car from the centre of the town, you can reach the site in under 20 minutes via the D17 and Route de L’Acqueduc.

If you you are travelling from Paris, take the A6 southbound toward Lyon and the A7 from Lyon to Avignon. From here travel down the D570N before turning onto the D33 at the roundabout in Saint-Gabriel. There is a carpark on site.


The unique hydraulics in the Barbegal water mills, the world's first industrial plant

The Barbegal watermills in southern France are a unique complex dating back to the 2nd century AD. The construction with 16 waterwheels is, as far as is known, the first attempt in Europe to build a machine complex on an industrial scale. The complex was created when the Roman Empire was at the height of its power. However, little is known about technological advances, particularly in the field of hydraulics, and the spread of knowledge at the time. A team of scientists led by Professor Cees Passchier from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) has now gained new knowledge about the construction and principle of the water supply to the mills in Barbegal. The research results were published in Scientific Reports.

A mill complex consisting of a total of 16 water wheels in two parallel rows

Watermills were one of the first sources of energy that did not depend on the muscle strength of humans or animals. In the Roman Empire they were used to make flour and sawing stone and wood. As one of the first industrial complexes in European history, the Barbegal watermills are an outstanding example of the development at that time. The mill complex consisted of 16 water wheels in a parallel arrangement of eight wheels each, separated by central buildings and fed by an aqueduct. The upper parts of the complex were destroyed and no traces of the wooden structures have been preserved, which is why the type of mill wheels and how they worked remained a mystery for a long time.

However, carbonate deposits that had formed from the flowing water on the wooden components remained. These were stored in the archaeological museum in Arles and only recently examined in detail. The researchers found an imprint of an unusual, elbow-shaped flume that must have been part of the mill construction. "We combined measurements of the water basins with hydraulic calculations and were able to show that the flume to which this elbow-shaped piece belonged very likely supplied the mill wheels in the lower basins of the complex with water," said Professor Cees Passchier. "The shape of this flume was unknown from other watermills, either from Roman or more recent times. We were therefore puzzled as to why the flume was designed this way and what it was used for."

An elbow-shaped flume as a unique adaptation for the Barbegal mills

At first glance, the team found such a flume unnecessary and even disadvantageous, because it shortens the height from which the water falls onto the mill wheel. "However, our calculations show that the oddly shaped flume is a unique adaptation for the Barbegal mills," explained Passchier. The distribution of the carbonate deposits in the elbow-shaped flume shows that it was inclined slightly backwards against the direction of the current. This created a maximum flow rate in the first, steep leg of the flume, and at the same time the water jet to the mill wheel obtained the correct angle and speed. In the complicated mill system, with small water basins, this unique solution was more efficient than using a traditional, straight water channel. "That shows us the ingenuity of the Roman engineers who built the complex," emphasized Passchier.

"Another discovery was that the wood of the flume was probably cut with a mechanical, water-powered saw, which is possibly the first documented mechanical wood saw -- again evidence of industrial activity in ancient times." The research was carried out by a multidisciplinary team of experts in geology, geochemistry, hydraulics, dendrochronology, and archaeology.

The carbonate deposits that formed on the ancient hydraulic structures are an important tool for the researchers for archaeological reconstructions. In an earlier project, the team led by Professor Cees Passchier was able to show that the flour from the Barbegal mills was probably used to make ship biscuits. "The carbonate deposits give us extremely exciting insights into the skills of Roman technicians at a time that can be seen as the direct predecessor of our civilization," added Passchier, Professor of Tectonic Physics and Structural Geology at the JGU Institute of Geosciences from 1993 to 2019, now Senior Research Professor in Geoarchaeology.


Contents

The site of the Barbegal aqueduct and mills is on a Roman aqueduct that was built to supply drinking water from the mountain chain of the Alpilles to the town of Arles, France (then called Arelate) on the Rhône River. Twelve kilometers north of Arles, at Barbegal, near Fontvieille, where the aqueduct arrived at a steep hill, the aqueduct fed two parallel sets of eight water wheels to power a flourmill. There are two aqueducts which join just north of the mill complex, and a sluice which enabled the operators to control the water supply to the complex. The mill consisted of 16 waterwheels in two separate descending rows built into a steep hillside. There are substantial masonry remains of the water channels and foundations of the individual mills, together with a staircase rising up the hill upon which the mills are built. The mills apparently operated from the end of the 1st century until about the end of the 3rd century. [2] The capacity of the mills has been estimated at 4.5 tons of flour per day, enough to supply bread for as many as 10,000 [3] of perhaps 30-40,000 inhabitants of Arelate at that time. [4] It is thought that the wheels were overshot water wheels with the outflow from the top driving the next one down and so on, to the base of the hill.


Researching Food History - Cooking and Dining

16 overshot wheels - using water from an aqueduct - ground an estimated four and a half tons of flour per day! If that was not enough, the Romans cut through solid rock on top to connect the aqueduct they built to the mill troughs. AND they built the stone complex on a steep hill in Gaul (France). All this during the 1st century.

The water flowed downhill in troughs acting as a 'mill race' turning the water wheels which moved the gears to the mill stones grinding the grains of wheat into flour.

The image is from "A Roman Factory" by A.T. Hodge in Scientific American, November 1990.

For another large scale operation. a smoke house. see my post on HUGE fish smoker 1779

1 comment:

I visited this site about 2 years ago. Little now remains of the mills but parts of the aqueduct are still extant. The steepness of the cliff down which the buildings descended is still very evident.


Talk:Barbegal aqueduct and mills

Here's a great photo that would add a lot to the article: http://www.mmdtkw.org/03-04BarbegalMill.jpg
Unfortunately i can't find any contact info for the owner on the main page. Anyone have any idea where this pic is from? User-created? From a book? -Monolith2 (talk) 03:04, 13 May 2008 (UTC)

    • I believe this drawing came from the Scientific American, Nov. 1990 pp 106-111, where you will find the black and white drawing[1]. It would therefore be protected. Your source simply added the yellow background.Tvbanfield (talk) 15:57, 14 May 2008 (UTC)
        • While this specific picture may or may not be protected, I doubt that a visual model/representation of a historical object itself could be copyrighted. Probably the best solution would be for someone to make a rough sketch representing the basic structure of this object by following what is represented in this above picture. This way the information provided by this picture would become available here and any potential copyright issues would be avoided. Abvgd (talk) 09:50, 17 December 2010 (UTC)
        • BTW, a quick Google image search will provide a multitude of depictions of the mill based around the same basic model. Here are just a few additional pictures: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]. So, take your pick :) A talented artist would be abe to create a quick sketch quicker than it took me to post these images here P Abvgd (talk) 06:33, 20 December 2010 (UTC)

        I have some photos taken in April 2007 of the ruins, can be used if required. http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/ Geoportail satellite photo of the site: Geoportail satellite photo —Preceding unsigned comment added by Licornenoire (talk • contribs) 06:48, 11 May 2009 (UTC)

        4.5 tonnes ? per day? for 10 thousand or 40 thousand people? Does not compute. 100-400 kilos flour per day per person? Even if they fed all their livestock on bread? No way. Please quote reliable source or maybe refigure? — Preceding unsigned comment added by EideticGeezer (talk • contribs) 14:19, 25 October 2015 (UTC)

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        I've located a seemingly reputable source [1] that disputes several of the claims the article currently has in regards to production figures.

        The source claims that, instead of the currently sourced 4.5 tons of flour per day, "The mills had an estimated production capacity of 25 metric tons of flour per day, enough to feed a population of at least 27,000 people. "

        Given that the current claim is sourced via a book that I am unable to access and a permanently dead link (in a language I do not speak), I am suggesting replacing the current claim with the citation I located.

        Does anyone have access to the book, and if someone does, is it a more reputable source than the one I located? LonelyProgrammer (talk) 09:08, 13 November 2020 (UTC)


        The Unique Hydraulics in the Barbegal Water Mills, the World’s First Industrial Plant

        The Barbegal watermills in southern France are a unique complex dating back to the 2nd century AD. The construction with 16 waterwheels is, as far as is known, the first attempt in Europe to build a machine complex on an industrial scale.

        The complex was created when the Roman Empire was at the height of its power. However, little is known about technological advances, particularly in the field of hydraulics, and the spread of knowledge at the time. A team of scientists led by Professor Cees Passchier from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) has now gained new knowledge about the construction and principle of the water supply to the mills in Barbegal. The research results were published in Scientific Reports.

        A mill complex consisting of a total of 16 water wheels in two parallel rows

        Watermills were one of the first sources of energy that did not depend on the muscle strength of humans or animals. In the Roman Empire they were used to make flour and sawing stone and wood. As one of the first industrial complexes in European history, the Barbegal watermills are an outstanding example of the development at that time.

        The mill complex consisted of 16 water wheels in a parallel arrangement of eight wheels each, separated by central buildings and fed by an aqueduct. The upper parts of the complex were destroyed and no traces of the wooden structures have been preserved, which is why the type of mill wheels and how they worked remained a mystery for a long time.

        However, carbonate deposits that had formed from the flowing water on the wooden components remained. These were stored in the archaeological museum in Arles and only recently examined in detail.

        The researchers found an imprint of an unusual, elbow-shaped flume that must have been part of the mill construction. “We combined measurements of the water basins with hydraulic calculations and were able to show that the flume to which this elbow-shaped piece belonged very likely supplied the mill wheels in the lower basins of the complex with water,” said Professor Cees Passchier. “The shape of this flume was unknown from other watermills, either from Roman or more recent times. We were therefore puzzled as to why the flume was designed this way and what it was used for.”

        An elbow-shaped flume as a unique adaptation for the Barbegal mills

        At first glance, the team found such a flume unnecessary and even disadvantageous, because it shortens the height from which the water falls onto the mill wheel. “However, our calculations show that the oddly shaped flume is a unique adaptation for the Barbegal mills,” explained Passchier. The distribution of the carbonate deposits in the elbow-shaped flume shows that it was inclined slightly backwards against the direction of the current. This created a maximum flow rate in the first, steep leg of the flume, and at the same time the water jet to the mill wheel obtained the correct angle and speed. In the complicated mill system, with small water basins, this unique solution was more efficient than using a traditional, straight water channel. “That shows us the ingenuity of the Roman engineers who built the complex,” emphasized Passchier.

        “Another discovery was that the wood of the flume was probably cut with a mechanical, water-powered saw, which is possibly the first documented mechanical wood saw – again evidence of industrial activity in ancient times.” The research was carried out by a multidisciplinary team of experts in geology, geochemistry, hydraulics, dendrochronology, and archaeology.

        The carbonate deposits that formed on the ancient hydraulic structures are an important tool for the researchers for archaeological reconstructions. In an earlier project, the team led by Professor Cees Passchier was able to show that the flour from the Barbegal mills was probably used to make ship biscuits. “The carbonate deposits give us extremely exciting insights into the skills of Roman technicians at a time that can be seen as the direct predecessor of our civilization,” added Passchier, Professor of Tectonic Physics and Structural Geology at the JGU Institute of Geosciences from 1993 to 2019, now Senior Research Professor in Geoarchaeology.


        The Barbegal Mills: The Largest Concentration of Mechanical Energy in Antiquity

        About 12 kilometers north of the city of Arles, in the Provence region of southern France, is the small town of Fontvieille. It is a commune of just 3,500 inhabitants who live from agriculture and tourism, but until the 5th century AD it was also the place where the greatest concentration of mechanical energy was found in the entire ancient world.

        At the end of the first century A.D., the most important Roman hydraulic complex was built there, consisting of two aqueducts and 16 mills, today called Barbegal. The two aqueducts joined just north of the complex, where a lock controlled the water supply to the mills, and then continued to supply the city of Arelate (today's Arles).

        The ruins of the aqueduct of the Barbegal Mills. Photo: Carole Raddato/Flickr

        The water flowed down the side of a steep hill along which 16 water wheels were arranged in two parallel sets of eight wheel each on both sides of the channel, so that the flow of the first drove the successive water wheels to the base of the hill.

        The capacity of these water wheels, which were used to grind flour, is estimated at about 4.5 tons per day, which would have allowed feeding the entire population of Arelate (which at the beginning of the second century AD numbered approximately 12,500 inhabitants).

        Model of the Barbegal mill, Musée de l'Arles antique. Photo: Carole Raddato/Flickr

        Some researchers believe that they could also have been used to saw wood and cut stone, when they were not grinding wheat, due to similarity in the arrangement of the mills with those found in some Roman mines in Spain and Wales, as well as with the sawmill at Hierapolis (3rd century AD ), where a rack saw was similarly activated.

        It is known that the complex remained in use during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, and then gradually declined until its complete destruction and abandonment in the 5th century, coinciding with the invasions that put an end to the western empire.

        According to the archaeologist Fernand Benoit the complex could have been built by the Gallo-Roman engineer Q. Candidius Benignus (Fifth Candido Benigno), who belonged to the Arelate carpenters corps and whose sarcophagus bears an inscription that says: no one surpassed him in the art of mechanical engineering and in the conduction of water courses .

        As for the ownership of the mills, Benoit believes that they probably belonged to the owner of the Roman villa near La Mérindole.

        Today there are important masonry remains of the water channels and foundations of several of the mills, in addition to the stepped channel that goes up the hill, which can be visited. At the Fontvieille tourist office there is a reconstruction of one of the water wheels, and at the Arles Museum you can see a reconstruction of the whole.

        This article was originally published in La Brújula Verde. It has been translated from Spanish and republished with permission.


        A mill complex consisting of a total of 16 water wheels in two parallel rows

        Watermills were one of the first sources of energy that did not depend on the muscle strength of humans or animals. In the Roman Empire they were used to make flour and sawing stone and wood. As one of the first industrial complexes in European history, the Barbegal watermills are an outstanding example of the development at that time. The mill complex consisted of 16 water wheels in a parallel arrangement of eight wheels each, separated by central buildings and fed by an aqueduct. The upper parts of the complex were destroyed and no traces of the wooden structures have been preserved, which is why the type of mill wheels and how they worked remained a mystery for a long time.

        However, carbonate deposits that had formed from the flowing water on the wooden components remained. These were stored in the archaeological museum in Arles and only recently examined in detail. The researchers found an imprint of an unusual, elbow-shaped flume that must have been part of the mill construction. “We combined measurements of the water basins with hydraulic calculations and were able to show that the flume to which this elbow-shaped piece belonged very likely supplied the mill wheels in the lower basins of the complex with water,” said Professor Cees Passchier. “The shape of this flume was unknown from other watermills, either from Roman or more recent times. We were therefore puzzled as to why the flume was designed this way and what it was used for.”


        The unique hydraulics in the Barbegal water mills, the world's first industrial plant

        The Barbegal watermills in southern France are a unique complex dating back to the 2nd century AD. The construction with 16 waterwheels is, as far as is known, the first attempt in Europe to build a machine complex on an industrial scale. The complex was created when the Roman Empire was at the height of its power. However, little is known about technological advances, particularly in the field of hydraulics, and the spread of knowledge at the time. A team of scientists led by Professor Cees Passchier from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) has now gained new knowledge about the construction and principle of the water supply to the mills in Barbegal. The research results were published in Scientific Reports.

        A mill complex consisting of a total of 16 water wheels in two parallel rows

        Watermills were one of the first sources of energy that did not depend on the muscle strength of humans or animals. In the Roman Empire they were used to make flour and sawing stone and wood. As one of the first industrial complexes in European history, the Barbegal watermills are an outstanding example of the development at that time. The mill complex consisted of 16 water wheels in a parallel arrangement of eight wheels each, separated by central buildings and fed by an aqueduct. The upper parts of the complex were destroyed and no traces of the wooden structures have been preserved, which is why the type of mill wheels and how they worked remained a mystery for a long time.

        However, carbonate deposits that had formed from the flowing water on the wooden components remained. These were stored in the archaeological museum in Arles and only recently examined in detail. The researchers found an imprint of an unusual, elbow-shaped flume that must have been part of the mill construction. "We combined measurements of the water basins with hydraulic calculations and were able to show that the flume to which this elbow-shaped piece belonged very likely supplied the mill wheels in the lower basins of the complex with water," said Professor Cees Passchier. "The shape of this flume was unknown from other watermills, either from Roman or more recent times. We were therefore puzzled as to why the flume was designed this way and what it was used for."

        An elbow-shaped flume as a unique adaptation for the Barbegal mills

        At first glance, the team found such a flume unnecessary and even disadvantageous, because it shortens the height from which the water falls onto the mill wheel. "However, our calculations show that the oddly shaped flume is a unique adaptation for the Barbegal mills," explained Passchier. The distribution of the carbonate deposits in the elbow-shaped flume shows that it was inclined slightly backwards against the direction of the current. This created a maximum flow rate in the first, steep leg of the flume, and at the same time the water jet to the mill wheel obtained the correct angle and speed. In the complicated mill system, with small water basins, this unique solution was more efficient than using a traditional, straight water channel. "That shows us the ingenuity of the Roman engineers who built the complex," emphasized Passchier.

        "Another discovery was that the wood of the flume was probably cut with a mechanical, water-powered saw, which is possibly the first documented mechanical wood saw - again evidence of industrial activity in ancient times." The research was carried out by a multidisciplinary team of experts in geology, geochemistry, hydraulics, dendrochronology, and archaeology.

        The carbonate deposits that formed on the ancient hydraulic structures are an important tool for the researchers for archaeological reconstructions. In an earlier project, the team led by Professor Cees Passchier was able to show that the flour from the Barbegal mills was probably used to make ship biscuits. "The carbonate deposits give us extremely exciting insights into the skills of Roman technicians at a time that can be seen as the direct predecessor of our civilization," added Passchier, Professor of Tectonic Physics and Structural Geology at the JGU Institute of Geosciences from 1993 to 2019, now Senior Research Professor in Geoarchaeology.

        Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.


        The Engineering Techniques Used at Barbegal Mills

        What really mystified the researchers was that it did not provide any discernible advantages. The Professor is quoted by Science Daily as saying that “However, our calculations show that the oddly shaped flume is a unique adaptation for the Barbegal mills.”

        They found that the elbow-shaped channel was inclined slightly against the current and this increased the flow of water in part of the flume. Yet at the same time, the water jet to the wheels of the mill was at the correct velocity and angle. This was much more effective for this particular mill complex than the traditional method, using straight flumes.

        Three plausible models to place an elbow-flume in the wheel pits of the Barbegal complex with matching hydraulic models at right. (C. C. W. Passchier et al., 2020/ Nature)

        Based on the finds, the experts were able to develop a model of the Barbegal aqueduct and mills and have finally solved the mystery of how it works. This discovery shows the extraordinary ingenuity of Roman engineers.

        During the research, the team also found that ‘the wood of the flume was probably cut with a mechanical, water-powered saw, which is possibly the first documented mechanical wood saw,’ according to Science Daily . This finding was based on the regular cuts with straight spacing on the imprint of the chute. This can help to explain some of Rome’s many advanced engineering achievements.

        This study has shown the value of carbonate deposits to the history of science and technology. It can help researchers to understand how aqueducts and mills were designed in the past. The researchers wrote in Nature that ‘this knowledge can be useful for hydrologists to identify which springs can be regenerated or reused, or how depletion can be mitigated, for instance as a result of climate change.’ In this way, the study of deposits can also help scientists to identify and preserve possible water sources in arid regions.

        Top image: Ruins of the Roman aqueduct ( Olja/Adobe Stock) and model of the Barbegal mills. (Carole Raddato/ CC BY SA 2.0 )


        Watch the video: Barbegal aqueduct and mill, Arles. Fontvieille. France, Provence HD