Friday, July 24, 2009

Some thoughts on John W. Humphrey's "Ancient Technology".

As mentioned in my future plans post, I have recently been reading John W. Humphrey's "Ancient Technology". I've long considered this particular area a weakness in my all round knowledge of Classical History, and searching out this work was a conscious effort to plug that gap. Generally, owing mainly to the quality of Humphrey's assessment, I think I have succeeded.

As part of the series "Greenwood guides to historic events of the ancient world", the work, perhaps rather predictably, begins with a series foreword by editor Bella Vivante. Given the status of the book as accessible to the general reader, this foreword is quite necessary, but I must confess as someone quite well versed in the classics, I find these forewords a bit of a bore. Essentially the thrust of this one, like most others, is a justification of classical studies.

Considering the decline of classics in schools, I understand the need to defend the discipline to the general reader, and in that respect the foreword is reasonably well written and informative. Nevertheless, it's not why I picked up the book.

Humphrey's begins with a rather snappy and interesting foreword, explaining the background behind the book, introducing the topics to come and suggesting methods of attacking the material within. I found his introductory remarks extremely useful, as they implore the reader to consider, to my mind, two things: Firstly, to consider all elements of ancient technology in context, that is to say - one must forever try not to apply modern standards to classical times - this thought is prevalent throughout the work, especially in the last chapter.

Secondly, he stresses the long term impact of technology, and in particular wants the reader to appreciate that all breakthroughs are based on ideas and inventions that precede them, essentially that where we are now is merely the peak of an ever growing pyramid of technological advances, even seemingly tiny ones.

An interesting device that Humphrey's uses to display the relative explosion in technological advances in the past 3000 years (when compared to the lengthy existence of humans) is to compress 500,000 years into one single year. The result is that on Jan 16th man can make simple tools without any standardisation of form, and then it takes to December 2nd for this to finally happen. Settled life did not begin until the 25th, the Greek alphabet was appeared as 01:40 on the 30th and man went to the moon at 11:30pm on the same day (pg. 10-11).

This compact and easily understood explanation is characteristic of Humphrey's throughout the book, and in helping set everything into context, it is utterly invaluable.

The rest of his introductory sections are also useful and interesting, not to mention expertly methodological. In particular, I liked his section on the problems of literary sources for technology - I found it illuminating and thoughtful.

One thing that is immediately clear as one exits the opening sections is that there is no referencing (a common trend), and while irritating to the academic reader, the work is also aimed at the general reader. That said, this is more than made up for by the copious other useful items added to the end of the work (which I'll mention later).

The remainder of the book is organised into sections, each related to a particular technological field, the topics cover: food and clothing; water, shelter and security, transportation and coinage, recordkeeping and timekeeping and crafts. Generally speaking the organisation into these sections make the work accessible, and prevents it from getting stale. Each section is swift yet detailed.

One of the elements constantly reinforced (even at this point) is the idea that simple devices can have many (perhaps unforeseen) future applications (pg.34) and so Humphrey's urges the reader to be aware of this fact. This is particularly important in the final chapter.

Throughout the work Humphrey's manages to employ a number of highly interesting, tart explanations and comparisons that really help colour the readers understanding of ancient technology. For example, in discussing sieges, he mentions that attacking armies would attempt to poison water supplies to the besieged town using corpses, and he immediately informs the reader that even biological warfare had it's roots in antiquity (pg.35-36). The work in general has a great ability to skim the fat and get to the point of things, often with stark and interesting devices such as this.

Another example is when Humphrey's compares the Oedipus myth to modern road rage (pg.78). While humourous when taken lightly, these brief explanations also serve to reinforce one of the books main points: that all modern technology can be traced back, and that everything is the sum product of what has come before. In this way, Humphrey's utilises these little comparisons to maximum effect.

Somewhat related to this is Humphrey's wonderful explanations of Latin and Greek terminology, where he often gives not just a translation and explanation, but also etymology of the word in question. Some good examples include one that arises from a discussion of the importance of salt (pg.76). Humphrey's outlines the the Via Salaria, that left Rome towards the salt deposits, and the salarium - the yearly allowance given to soldiers so that they could purchase salt - and how, through over 2000 years, this word is the root of our modern word "salary". His explanation is delightful.

Another example of this is the Spanish Balearic Islands, who got their name via the Greek word "baleareis" (to launch) and the Latin word Ballistae (projectile weapons) and the fact that the inhabitants of this area were renowned for their fighting style using these methods (pg.65). It seems there is some debate around the etymology in this case (some of our sources believe the word has Phoenician roots), but Humphrey's provides a valid and interesting explanation. These are just a few instances - the book is literally crammed full of interesting facts, reported in a vivid and lively manner.

Continuing in this style, Humphrey's manages to expose a few common misconceptions, for example that the pyramids were too advanced to be built by humans of that period (he proves that the technology was relatively simple, pg.55). He also challenges the image of Roman aquaducts as the primary source of water to the city, giving ample evidence that they were, in fact, the least common supply method (pg.44).

One of the slightly darker notions that Humphrey raises is the fact that both Classical Athens and Imperial Rome were financially driven by their mineral wealth (at Laurion and Rio Tinto, respectively), and that this mineral wealth, which kick started and supported them so much was effectively brought at the price of countless deaths (pg.108). The dead were, of course, slaves. That the wealth of these mines helped drive technological development is a dark fact that Humphrey is deeply aware of, and explains well.

The work does, however, have a few weaknesses. Some arise from slightly hazy statements, and one or two from poor sentence structure.

One example is that Humphrey's, when remarking on the Roman pride for their decimal system, mentions that Centurions commanded 100 men, but he fails to mention that this changes substantially in the Later Republic and especially after the Marian reforms (dropping below 100, and levelling out at around 80 - although the Centurions kept their names).

Another such occasion is when he mentions the axle blades of the chariot, especially with regards to the Gauls using them (pg.72) but he fails to qualify his statements here, which is bizarre given his extensive experience in archaeological field research, because there is absolutely no archaeological evidence for the existence of these weapons. I found this a particularly strange episode.

A case of poor sentence structure arises when Humphrey's is talking about the Emperors commissioning the building of enormous bath complexes (thermae) and he mistakenly includes Agrippa, who was never Emperor by any definition, among the list of dedicators (pg.48). The sentence is as follows: "Thermae, huge bathing complexes donated by the emperors to benefit the general population of the city. Three had been erected in Rome by the end of the first century C.E.: those of Agrippa and Nero in the Campus Martius, and that of Titus just east of the Colosseum". It could do with some simple editing, as it's misleading as it is.

Humphrey's also seems quite sure of the purpose of Hadrian's wall (pg.64), when in fact there is considerable doubts of what it's intended purpose actually is, especially considering the fact that it's almost never mentioned in our literary sources. Highlighting the academic debate would have been desirable, but Humphrey's makes no mention of it.

Finally, although this particular criticism is a tad unfair. The work is almost entirely focused on the Mediterranean, and while Humphrey's concedes this in his preface (claiming the limits of his own knowledge, and space constraints as the reasons why), it's perhaps a little unfortunate, as a treatment of ancient technology must really consider the influences of many disparate sources had on each other to be truly useful. In this respect, the title of the work is perhaps a little misleading and it may be better understood as a work on the Ancient Technology of Mediterranean Cultures.

Moving towards the end of the book, the final chapter is an exceptionally clear one. Arguing against putting modern perspectives of expectation onto ancient technological advances (he refutes the whole question of why the ancients didn't have an industrial revolution), and outlining why exactly classical civilisations did not such a revolution (a culmination of social attitudes towards manual labour, technology and the supreme interest in land and agriculture) he ties of the book quite nicely with stressing the fact that all technological advances are built upon, and that we cannot criticise the ancients for never making the leap to industrial organisation, when we have used the technological advances handed down to us in such terrible ways. Ending the work on this note brings back acute focus to the idea that all advances, no matter how small, have consequences in the future, and rounds the book off quite nicely.

The final sections of the book are a triumph, in my opinion. Humphrey's includes a large list of "primary sources" detailing all the evidence for the technology described within the book, and they are extremely interesting and accessible. He also includes a good glossary, and an extensive bibliography complete with comments on each entry - a welcome addition. Another feature is a recommendation of internet sites worth visiting and also video resources. In combination all these sections make the book an invaluable reference guide, and as a stepping stone to further research.

The work, then, is generally a great success. It's concise, interesting and well organised. The few faults it does have, of which the Agrippa confusion I hope will be rectified in the future, are easily outweighed by it's considerable good points. It stresses the importance of perspective, and in many ways gives one a greater understanding of the human journey from caveman to modern man, and how each small discovery was used and then built upon to get us where we are today. Combined with the witty and readable style, I consider it to be an excellent guide to the topic of both ancient technology and the development of modern humans.


Relevant bibliography: Humphrey, John W, "Ancient Technology", Greenwood (2006).

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