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Imaginary scheme of the water-driven sawmill at Hierapolis, Asia Minor, a 3rd-century mill.

The Hierapolis sawmill is believed to be a water-powered stone sawmill at Hierapolis, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Dating to the second half of the 3rd century,[1] the sawmill is considered the earliest known machine to combine a crank with a connecting rod, although neither clear ancient scripts nor engineering drawings were yet found to support this theory.[2]

Some archaeologists believe that the watermill is evidenced by a raised relief on the sarcophagus of a certain Marcus Aurelius Ammianos, a local miller. On the pediment a waterwheel fed by a mill race is shown powering via a gear train two frame saws cutting rectangular blocks by the way of connecting rods and, through mechanical necessity, cranks (see diagram). The accompanying inscription is in Greek and attributes the mechanism to Ammianos' "skills with wheels".[3]


Other sawmillsEdit

Further crank and connecting rod mechanisms, without gear train, are archaeologically attested for the 6th century water-powered stone sawmills at Gerasa, Jordan,[4] and Ephesus, Turkey,[5] both part of the Byzantine Empire at the time. A fourth sawmill possibly existed at Augusta Raurica, Switzerland, where a metal crank from the 2nd century has been excavated.[6]

Literary references to water-powered marble saws in Trier, now Germany, can be found in Ausonius' late 4th century poem Mosella. About the same time, they also seem to be indicated by the Christian saint Gregory of Nyssa from Anatolia, demonstrating a diversified use of water-power in parts of the Roman Empire.[7]

The three supposed finds push back the date of the invention of the crank and connecting rod mechanism by a full millennium.[8] According to Tullia Ritti, Klaus Grewe and Paul Kessener:

With the crank and connecting rod system, all elements for constructing a steam engine (invented in 1712) — Hero's aeolipile (generating steam power), the cylinder and piston (in metal force pumps), non-return valves (in water pumps), gearing (in water mills and clocks) — were known in Roman times.[9]

See alsoEdit



Roman sawmill at Hierapolis
  • Ritti, Tullia; Grewe, Klaus; Kessener, Paul (2007), "A Relief of a Water-powered Stone Saw Mill on a Sarcophagus at Hierapolis and its Implications", Journal of Roman Archaeology, 20, pp. 138–163, doi:10.1017/S1047759400005341
  • Grewe, Klaus (2009), "Die Reliefdarstellung einer antiken Steinsägemaschine aus Hierapolis in Phrygien und ihre Bedeutung für die Technikgeschichte. Internationale Konferenz 13.−16. Juni 2007 in Istanbul", in Bachmann, Martin (ed.), Bautechnik im antiken und vorantiken Kleinasien (PDF), Byzas (in German), 9, Istanbul: Ege Yayınları/Zero Prod. Ltd., pp. 429–454, ISBN 978-975-8072-23-1, archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-05-11
  • Grewe, Klaus (2010), "La máquina romana de serrar piedras. La representación en bajorrelieve de una sierra de piedras de la antigüedad, en Hierápolis de Frigia y su relevancia para la historia técnica (translation by Miguel Ordóñez)", Las técnicas y las construcciones de la Ingeniería Romana (PDF), V Congreso de las Obras Públicas Romanas (in Spanish), pp. 381–401
Roman sawmill at Gerasa
  • Seigne, J. (2002a), "Une scierie mécanique au VIe siècle", Archéologia (in French), 385, pp. 36–37
  • Seigne, J. (2002b), "Sixth-Century Waterpowered Sawmill", Journal of the International Society of Molinology, 64, pp. 14–16
  • Seigne, J. (2002c), "A Sixth Century Water-powered Sawmill at Jerash", Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, 26, pp. 205–213
Roman sawmill at Ephesos
  • Mangartz, Fritz (2010), Die byzantinische Steinsäge von Ephesos. Baubefund, Rekonstruktion, Architekturteile, Monographs of the RGZM (in German), 86, Mainz: Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, ISBN 978-3-88467-149-8
Possible Roman sawmill at Augusta Raurica
  • Schiöler, Thorkild (2009), "Die Kurbelwelle von Augst und die römische Steinsägemühle", Helvetia Archaeologica (in German), 40 (159/160), pp. 113–124

Further readingEdit

  • Seigne, J. (2006), "Water-powered Stone Saws in Late Antiquity. The Precondition for Industrialisation?", in Wiplinger, G. (ed.), Cura Aquarum in Ephesos. Proceedings of the 12th Int. Congress on the History of Water Management and Hydraulic Engineering in the Mediterranean Region, Ephesus/Selçuk, Turkey, October 2-10, 2004, Vol. 1, Babesch suppl. 12, Leiden: Peeters, pp. 383–390, ISBN 978-90-429-1829-0
  • Wikander, Örjan (2000), "Industrial Applications of Water-Power", in Wikander, Örjan (ed.), Handbook of Ancient Water Technology, Technology and Change in History, 2, Leiden: Brill, pp. 401–412, ISBN 90-04-11123-9
  • Wikander, Örjan (2008), "Sources of Energy and Exploitation of Power", in Oleson, John Peter (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 136–157, ISBN 978-0-19-518731-1
  • Wilson, Andrew (2002), "Machines, Power and the Ancient Economy", The Journal of Roman Studies, 92, pp. 1–32, doi:10.2307/3184857, JSTOR 3184857

External linksEdit

  Media related to Roman mills at Wikimedia Commons