The Ten Books on Architecture, 8.1

Vitruvius  translated by Morris Hicky Morgan

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How to Find Water

1This will be easier if there are open springs of running water. But if there are no springs which gush forth, we must search for them underground, and conduct them together. The following test should be applied. Before sunrise, lie down flat in the place where the search is to be made, and placing the chin on the earth and supporting it there, take a look out over the country. In this way the sight will not range higher than it ought, the chin being immovable, but will range over a definitely limited height on the same level through the country. Then, dig in places where vapours are seen curling and rising up into the air. This sign cannot show itself in a dry spot.

2Searchers for water must also study the nature of different localities; for those in which it is found are well defined. In clay the supply is poor, meagre, and at no great depth. It will not have the best taste. In fine gravel the supply is also poor, but it will be found at a greater depth. It will be muddy and not sweet. In black earth some slight drippings and drops are found that gather from the storms of winter and settle down in compact, hard places. They have the best taste. Among pebbles the veins found are moderate, and not to be depended upon. These, too, are extremely sweet. In coarse grained gravel and carbuncular sand the supply is surer and more lasting, and it has a good taste. In red tufa it is copious and good, if it does not run down through the fissures and escape. At the foot of mountains and in lava it is more plentiful and abundant, and here it is also colder and more wholesome. In flat countries the springs are salt, heavy-bodied, tepid, and ill-flavoured, excepting those which run underground from mountains, and burst forth in the middle of a plain, where, if protected by the shade of trees, their taste is equal to that of mountain springs.

3In the kinds of soil described above, signs will be found growing, such as slender rushes, wild willows, alders, agnus castus trees, reeds, ivy, and other plants of the same sort that cannot spring up of themselves without moisture. But they are also accustomed to grow in depressions which, being lower than the rest of the country, receive water from the rains and the surrounding fields during the winter, and keep it for a comparatively long time on account of their holding power. These must not be trusted, but the search must be made in districts and soils, yet not in depressions, where those signs are found growing not from seed, but springing up naturally of themselves.

4If the indications mentioned appear in such places, the following test should be applied. Dig out a place not less than three feet square and five feet deep, and put into it about sunset a bronze or leaden bowl or basin, whichever is at hand. Smear the inside with oil, lay it upside down, and cover the top of the excavation with reeds or green boughs, throwing earth upon them. Next day uncover it, and if there are drops and drippings in the vessel, the place will contain water.

5Again, if a vessel made of unbaked clay be put in the hole, and covered in the same way, it will be wet when uncovered, and already beginning to go to pieces from dampness, if the place contains water. If a fleece of wool is placed in the excavation, and water can be wrung out of it on the following day, it will show that the place has a supply. Further, if a lamp be trimmed, filled with oil, lighted, and put in that place and covered up, and if on the next day it is not burnt out, but still contains some remains of oil and wick, and is itself found to be damp, it will indicate that the place contains water; for all heat attracts moisture. Again, if a fire is made in that place, and if the ground, when thoroughly warmed and burned, sends up a misty vapour from its surface, the place will contain water.

6After applying these tests and finding the signs described above, a well must next be sunk in the place, and if a spring of water is found, more wells must be dug thereabouts, and all conducted by means of subterranean channels into one place.

The mountains and districts with a northern exposure are the best spots in which to search, for the reason that springs are sweeter, more wholesome, and more abundant when found there. Such places face away from the sun’s course, and the trees are thick in them, and the mountains, being themselves full of woods, cast shadows of their own, preventing the rays of the sun from striking uninterruptedly upon the ground and drying up the moisture.

7The valleys among the mountains receive the rains most abundantly, and on account of the thick woods the snow is kept in them longer by the shade of the trees and mountains. Afterwards, on melting, it filters through the fissures in the ground, and thus reaches the very foot of the mountains, from which gushing springs come belching out.

But in flat countries, on the contrary, a good supply cannot be had. For however great it is, it cannot be wholesome, because, as there is no shade in the way, the intense force of the sun draws up and carries off the moisture from the flat plains with its heat, and if any water shows itself there, the lightest and purest and the delicately wholesome part of it is summoned away by the air, and dispersed to the skies, while the heaviest and the hard and unpleasant parts are left in springs that are in flat places.

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