Water and our Basilica

While helping our ceramicist, Scott Moore, make his way through thousands of pot sherds excavated from the basilica at EF2 at Polis, I’ve been working on writing up some of the preliminary observations on the architecture of the church. Among the most interesting aspects of the the church, is how the builders managed water at the site. The position of the church perpendicular to the north slope of a hill exposed it to apparently significant flow of water. Moreover, the entire area of E.F2 seems to be riddled with well, drains, and water pipes suggesting that water management was more than just an issue for the builders of the church.

P1020936The exposed foundation wall of the south aisle of the basilica. The exposed walls running under the basilica are beneath the rubble drainage layer.

Here is what I penned in the gaps between batches of pottery of the last few days on issues of water and architecture at the basilica at EF2. It’s all provisional and a work in progress, but it’s what I’ve been thinking about the last couple of weeks here at Polis.

From as early as the Hellenistic period there is evidence for concerns about water at the area of E.F2. There are numerous wells in the area associated with the workshops to the south and west of the basilica in the Hellenistic period. The Roman period saw the construction of complex systems of water pipes associated with the paved roads and what appear to be settling basins and drains. White most of these features likely contributed to water supply for various industrial and domestic activities in the city of Polis, it is possible that they also served the important role of water management in the area of EF2. The location of EF2 on the slop of a hill likely exposed the site to the risk of season flooding especially in the event of torrential Mediterranean winter rains.

Several unusual features in the architecture of the the basilica appear designed to protect the foundations of the basilica from the flow of water south to north across the site. On the foundations, below the level of visible walls, a plaster lip protected ran along the roughly mortared foundation of field stones of both the eastern apse and the south side of the basilica. The plaster lip or rim was best preserved along the foundation of the eastern apse where it extended for approximately 15 cm. The purpose of this rim appears to be to prevent water from running down along the foundation through the less densely packed earth associated with the foundation cut. Elsewhere along the line of the foundation excavations revealed sections of foundation wall covered with moist green clay (S06.1991.8). In other places in EF2, similar clay was associated with roof fall, and the water proof character of this clay has led to its continued use to seal roofs even until relatively recent times (e.g. H10.1997.11,4 (vol 1., 55). It seems, then, that the builders of the basilica made an effort to seal the foundations of the church against both water run off from the roof of the building or the surface and the seepage of ground water.

The south side of the basilica saw a more substantial effort to manage the flow of water downslope in the area. The continued presence of a paved road along the upsloap, south side of the church and the probable existence of an open courtyard immediately to the south of the building exposed the southern foundation wall and the piers supporting the south portico to the corrosive effects of water run off. In an effort to counter this risk of water destabilizing the south foundations of the church, the builders designed the courtyard to act as a massive drain. Beneath a level of limey, packed earth which probably represented the ground surface of the courtyard, a loose level rubble which in some places exceeded a meter in depth may have functioned as a massive French drain designed to prevent water from pooling against the south wall of the church and running down running directly down the soft foundation cuts of for the walls. Instead, the porous character of the rubble level served to slow the flow of water south and perhaps even allow it to drain away prior to reaching the vulnerable south wall of the basilica.

The rubble layer is most likely contemporary with the first phase of the basilica and extends almost to the depth of the basilica foundation. Later burials have probably disturbed the integrity of the limey, packed, floor, but there nevertheless appears to be no pottery in the packing that is later than the 7th century with Cypriot Red Slip Form 9 being the latest present (in R09.1986.6,1-2). The massive leveling course of rubble below the floor packing was, in turn, cut by the foundation of the piers of the south portico. In levels associated with the foundations of the the south protico the latest material dates to between 600 and 700 and includes well-document Cypriot Red Slip Form 10. Below the level of the foundations, however, the material is slightly earlier, in general perhaps representing at late 6th to early 7th century date. This rubble level appears to sit immediately atop early Roman deposits dating to the 1st century BC to first AD and even earlier level of Hellenistic date. The diverse assemblage of fine wares, kitchen wares, and transport and utilities wares present in the massive rubble leveling course indicates that it was not only the product of a well-provisions and connected community, but that the rubble course was at least partially associated with discard from other locations in the community. 

P1020976Roman period water pipe.

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