Barbegal Aqueduct and Mill
History and museums
The Barbegal aqueduct and mill is a Roman watermill complex located on the territory of the commune of Fontvieille, near the town of Arles, in southern France. The complex has been referred to as "the greatest known concentration of mechanical power in the ancient world". Another similar mill complex existed also on the Janiculum in Rome, and there are suggestions that more such complexes exist at other major Roman sites, such as Amida.
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. 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 of perhaps 30-40,000 inhabitants of Arelate at that time. 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.
Vertical water mills were well known to the Romans, being described by Vitruvius in his De Architectura of 25 BC, and mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia of 77 AD. There are also later references to floating water mills from Byzantium and to sawmills on the river Moselle by the poet Ausonius. The use of multiple stacked sequences of reverse overshot water-wheels was widespread in Roman mines, especially in Spain and Wales. It is possible that the mills at Barbegal may also have been used for sawing timber and stone when not grinding wheat. The Hierapolis sawmill from the 3rd century AD shows a crank-activated frame saw being used in this way, and another has been excavated at Ephesus.
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 Arles Museum of Antiquity has an informative reconstructed model of the mill. The site is currently overgrown, and care is needed exploring the ruins. There is a rock-cut memorial to the work of Benoit above the mill to the east. It is not known if the authorities intend to restore the remains at some time in the future, or provide more information and assistance to visitors.
The English science historian James Burke examines Roman watermill technology such as that of the Barbegal aqueduct and mill, concluding that it influenced the Cistercians and their waterpower, which in turn influenced the Industrial Revolution, in the fourth of his ten-part Connections (TV series), called "Faith in Numbers."