Monday 26 November 2012

Roman Technology versus Ritual Objects

Antikythera computer - no chips,
but lots of gears,
just like a 19th-century calculator
It's a pretty standard thing in archaeology, something is dug up in a farmer's field that doesn't quite fit in with the standard crockery of a particular era and suddenly it becomes a 'ritual object'. And, yes, a lot of the odd bits and bobs from early history probably do have some sort of ritual or religious connection...but of course, that's not to say they all do. Think about it, if someone digs up a cassette tape in two thousands years time, it might just as easily be described as a ritual object - I mean, geez, there's already a whole generation who don't know what a cassette tape is. So how many things dug up from the Roman era - currently classified as a 'ritual object' - could be an example of everyday classical age technology? The Baghdad batteries and the Dendera light bulb have both been largely dismissed as 'ritual objects' by the mainstream - and yes, perhaps they are, but we're not talking computer chips here, both contain pretty basic technology that could have been developed long before the Napoleonic wars. And then there's a long standing 19th & 20th-century attitude that "everything we've invented is brand new so nothing like it could have existed before." A good example of this was the excavation of Caligula's pleasure yachts in Lake Nemi during the 1930s. Several bronze water taps were recovered from the wrecks that so closely resembled modern day faucets they were dismissed as recently dumped rubbish. The fact is, a solution to an ancient problem is going to end up looking very similar to the solution for a modern problem - this is why ancient ship anchors look the same as modern ones and why the 2000-year old Antikythera clockwork computer looks identical to 19th-century mechanical calculators. In the end, mainstream archaeology needs to be more open minded - if a mystery objects exhibit modern day characteristics, then there's a reasonable chance it is an ancient solution to the same modern day problem.

A 2000-year old Roman anchor -
same solution to the same problem 

So where does this leave the Dendera light bulb? There's no way every Roman household was crammed with batteries and light bulbs...but that's not to say this technology didn't have some important alternatives to household lighting - and that could at least explain the lack of physical evidence for an ancient light bulb in Roman cities. Think tunnels. During the Roman era more road and water tunnels were dug than at any time before the 1800s. Mining was booming and shafts were going ever deeper - and ever darker. Logically lighting these shafts was with oil lamps, but air quality would have been appalling - to the point where excavations may have become impossible. And, well, that would have cost money. The Dendera light bulb may have been a solution - and probably an expensive one. But was it? I don't know, maybe we should look more closely at Roman mines or tunnels for glass, copper rings and iron spikes. However, chances are, if these objects have been found, they have probably been described as...ritual objects.      

Find out if Calvus was in the electrical business

1 comment:

  1. As always great stuff Arthur and one or your most thought provoking blogs. It is so very true that even today in modern society a solution to a problem manifests itself in pretty much the same way anywhere in the world even if the solution was totally independent, indeed even totally unknown to others half a world away looking for the same solution.

    So, given that human thousands of years ago were still basically the same animal as we are today, it makes perfect sense that once again solutions should manifest themselves into ideas, artifacts, writings that are recognisable to us today. However, with our arrogance as a so called 'civillised society' we would rather delude ourselves in the comfort of discovered artifacts being mere 'ritual objects'.