Online Review: Book

The Seventy Great Inventions of the Ancient World

Edited by Brian M. Fagan. Pp. 304, b&w figs. 70, color figs. 484. Thames & Hudson, London 2004. $40. ISBN 0-500-05130-5 (cloth).

John W. Humphrey


Pliny the Elder would have liked this volume; it is a marvelous compilation of interesting facts about material culture culled from a million years of human history, and is stunningly illustrated with a useful combination of contemporary images from the past and clever reconstructions.

This is the fifth in a popular series that began with Chris Scarre's The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World (New York 1999), a number presumably chosen to recall the ancient list of seven but suitably augmented to represent a broader geographical and chronological framework. The editor of this volume, who has already published The Seventy Great Mysteries of the Ancient World (New York 2001), has assembled an impressive cohort of 42 contributors, experts on the archaeology and anthropology of Europe, the Mediterranean and Near East, the New World (especially Peru), and (minimally) southeast Asia. Joining traditional academics is a group of skilled professionals: the equestrian consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary (Ann Hyland), the director of a precious metals consulting company (Jack Ogden), the rowing master of the trireme Olympias (Boris Rankov), and the literary editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement (Andrew Robinson). The result, as Fagan observes in the introduction (17), is that "these articles are authoritative and dispassionate."

The work is divided into six sections of varying length, each consisting of a series of brief chapters (two to five pages each) on related topics: "Technologies," from fire to glass (12 chapters, including fire; stone, wood, and bone tools; basketry and textiles; ceramics and glass; and metalworking); "Shelter and Subsistence," from houses to chocolate and tea (18 chapters, including construction engineering, hydraulics, agriculture, and food processing); "Transportation," from skis to lighthouses, with an emphasis on land and water transport (11 chapters); "Hunting, Warfare, and Sport," from fishing nets to board games (10 chapters, including the technologies of armor and weapons, fortifications and siege machinery, naval warfare, and competitive sports); "Arts and Science," on musical instruments, writing, astronomy and calendars, maps, mathematics, money and measurements, and medical procedures (14 chapters); and "Adorning the Person," from tattooing to aphrodisiacs, clothing, jewelry, and cosmetics (five chapters).

Individual chapters are introduced by an appropriate ancient or modern quotation, which sets the casual and often playful tone of the volume: "I am a worm, I have seen the fire" (Isaiah); "Just occasionally, an archaeological discovery leaves one speechless" (Robert Rennell); "Time rules life" (U.S. National Association of Watch Manufacturers); "It's pretty, but is it Art?" (Rudyard Kipling). Each chapter then includes a description of the technology or process, with examples drawn from both the Old and New Worlds (one of the volume's great strengths). The whole book is engagingly written (though I did pause when reading that "it was in Egypt that stone architecture took off" [67]), with a superb use of graphics. Highlighted boxes listing key dates in the evolution of the technology repeat major innovations mentioned in the text; and color-coded sidebars present specific inventions in more detail than would fit the style of the narrative (e.g., the woodturning lathe in the chapter on furniture [75], and soap under bathing and sanitation [87]). The editor has usefully cross-referenced the chapters.

Let me declare that there is only one flaw with this volume, though regrettably it is serious. In his introduction, the editor observes: "No one will agree with all our choices, but they are spread widely enough in time and space to reflect the diversity of innovations that have changed human history in many ways" (14). Fair enough, but stating it up front does not release the editor from all responsibility for those choices. Perhaps the title should have omitted the article before Seventy Great Inventions of the Ancient World.

The editor several times notes the importance of these 70 inventions to the evolution of the modern world (e.g., 15), but he omits many of greater impact. No mention here of Hero's screw press (arguably a forerunner of the printing press in the 15th century), differential axle (integral to modern transportation), and steam turbine (inefficient but the first step toward the engines that introduced the Industrial Revolution). Nothing about the extraordinary manipulation of firing environments that produced black- and red-figure pottery, just a photograph with caption but no text (40). Greek construction in stone is given half a paragraph, with reference only to the Parthenon and no comment on technical procedures; the Romans' structural application of concrete, producing ultimately the dome of the Pantheon, is alluded to only in a sidebar (70). Conversely, the intriguing chapter on lighting and heating never strays from the Mediterranean.

That my list of omissions is Eurocentric simply reveals my own ignorance of New World and Asian technologies, so I am grateful for the book's inclusion of these areas. That equal space is given to the social organization within a Central Asian yurt as to the Pompeian domus (64–5) is a good corrective for many of us. But there is a real imbalance in the treatment of inventions, a hint of which is given in the two-page introductory timeline: the section on shelter and subsistence includes stone temples on Malta, the Egyptian pyramids, an ice house in the Near East, public baths in Greece, and cyclopean masonry in Peru.

That said, the inclusion of New World and some Asian examples gives this volume a broad appeal. There are nuggets of information, familiar perhaps to specialists, that will surprise and delight most readers. The earliest known campfire is in Kenya, dating to 1.6 million years b.p. (24), and part of it burned for four or five days. The first evidence for basketry comes from North America (35). Chocolate predates tea and coffee by more than a millennium as the world's oldest "recreational beverage," but it was a relative newcomer when compared to the earliest recreational drug, from the opium poppy in Spain (120). The earliest board games, with tokens placed in holes, originated as a fertility ritual (210). The first known crossword comes from Karnak (230–31), and the earliest false teeth from Etruria (259). A third-century Roman emperor issued a million debased coins a day, a record that was not equaled until the Industrial Revolution (251–52).

The graphics are outstanding, and there is always a clear connection between the text and the illustrations. Some of the photographs are stunning: flint and bone weapons from Montana nestled in the granular texture of deep frozen snow (18–19), a multicolored textile from Peru (54), and the elegant Lion-Man bone sculpture from Germany (217). The drawings by Peter Bull are clear, imaginative, and well integrated with the text, though the pastel colors are sometimes too pale to show details. There are simplified drawings to explain the binary system of alternating threads in weaving (57), reconstructions of early navigation by stars (167), and cutaway drawings, including one of the Baths of Caracalla (87) that is as clear and informative a view of a thermae complex as one could hope for.

The selective bibliography (291–96) includes (with three exceptions) only works written in English, an understandable restriction in view of the volume's audience. Most have appeared in the last two decades and so will be easily accessible, though happily they do include some classics (Pitt Rivers on locks and keys [1883], Bordes on the Paleolithic [1963], and Marsden on Greek and Roman artillery [1969]). The odd omission (e.g., J.F. Healy on ancient mining and metallurgy) is balanced by some unusual Internet sources, such as, on (appropriately) chewing gum.

John W. Humphrey
Greek and Roman Studies
University of Calgary
Calgary, AB T2N 1N4

Book Review of The Seventy Great Inventions of the Ancient World, edited by Brian M. Fagan

Reviewed by John W. Humphrey

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 110, No. 2 (April 2006)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1102.Humphrey

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