Review: Technology of the Ancient World

book cover

Technology of the Ancient World

Henry Hodges’ book “Technology of the Ancient World” is a fascinating look at the origins of the modern worlds technology. Did humans first chip rocks to get a sharp edge or did they first twist plant fibers together to make a thread by rolling them between palm and thigh? Chipped rocks leave evidence that we can see but plant fibers rotted away thousands of years ago. The story of halting progress interrupted by times of conservative malaise is fascinating although, as Hodges points out, there are holes in our knowledge. Without trying the book shows that our love of vivid colors and beauty is ageless and, contrary to what we are sometimes told, world trade has been with us as long as we have been us. Fascinating as this book is it is badly flawed.

It was first published in 1970 and was written using research even older than that. I am not concerned that some of the gaps that Hodges mentions may have been filled by now but by the author’s, by 1970s’ society’s, dismissal of the world outside the “West”. When is the last time you heard of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt referred to as part of “the West”? Outside of the founding of “Western Civilization” I would guess the answer would have to be never. Once Hodges has examined the classical “Western Civilization”, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, he moves on the the rest of the world, the “Barbarians”. First he looks at northern Europe where he admits that some technology outstrips that of Rome. Roman ships, built for the calm Mediterranean pale in comparison to the ships built by the “barbarians” of the north. He also mentions several innovations from the north, great leaps, that never took hold like roller bearings for cart wheels. He attributes this to a failure of the northern people and never offers conquest by Rome as a possible reason the technology was not adopted more widely.

The people of northern Europe got much better treatment than the few pages devoted to other areas of the world. He claims that India imported bronze technology from “the West” but admits that there skills at casting metal were more advanced. We are told that China and the West both imported the composite bow from the Eurasian nomads but that the Eurasian nomads simple dispersed technology, they did not originate it. I am tempted to pull out my copy of David Hackett Fischer’s “Historians’ fallacies: toward a logic of historical thought” (1971) and look for examples of logical fallacies he might have drawn from this book. The flaws I found here have also renewed my desire to read Edward W. Said’s “Orientalism” (1979).

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