A Gallery of Inventions

Part 2: More Inventions of the Ancient Near East
Part 3 – Tatian, Clement of Alexandria and the Battle for History.

It is not a stretch to say that the ancient Near East is known in the modern world primarily for its inventions. World-changing Near Eastern inventions such as agriculture, metallurgy, the wheel, writing and the chariot are well known. Yet, these are just the tip of the iceberg of ancient Near Eastern ingenuity and engineering. Here, we will examine some more familiar everyday items that trace their origins to the ancient Near East.

1. Pin Tumbler Locks

Simple barred doors are effective at keeping people out of something, but they suffer from a major flaw: They can’t be opened from the outside. You can lock your front door to keep intruders out at night, but a barred door won’t do you any good to keep people out of your house when you’re not there.

So the solution was to figure out ways to lock and unlock doors from the outside. At around 2000 BC, the Egyptians invented a complex key system that involved using strings to manipulate several cylindrical pieces of wood through a hole. When the space between the cylinders on the string lined up with the edge of the door, the door opened.

Modern replica of an Assyrian pin lock. The back plate would be bolted to the outside of a door. The paddle-shaped object is the key, which is inserted into the bar and pushes up the pins, allowing the bar to be removed.

A less clunky and more elegant solution to the problem came from Assyria. The palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad (built from 717-706 BC) featured a new type of lock that used loose pins to hold the bolt in place. This was a simple version of the modern pin tumbler locks used on most doors in the modern world.

This lock worked by putting the bar on the outside of the door instead of the inside. This bar had a notch cut into it, and holes drilled into the top. When the bar was in place, loose pins in the door dropped into the holes and held the bar in place. To unlock the door, a key with pins sticking out of the end that matched the holes was inserted into the notch and used to push the pins upwards, allowing the bar to be slid free of the door.

The Romans later copied this design, and modern pin tumbler locks operate on the same principles. Their main improvements in modern locks have been to make the pins different lengths (so different keys open different doors), make the whole system smaller and add rotation to make it easier to open.[1]

2. Penicillin

Ancient Egypt was famous throughout the ancient world for its advanced medical practice and excellent doctors. Numerous papyri survive which contain instructions on the diagnosis and treatment of injuries. While doctors in the rest of the world were a singular profession, Egyptian doctors developed a range of specialized fields including dentistry, gynecology and proctology. While many of the prescriptions for drugs are now known to be useless, in some cases the Egyptians stumbled upon something useful.[2]

The Edwin Smith surgical papyrus, a textbook on treating wounds, head trauma, fractures and spinal injuries of the upper body that dated from the 17th century, recommended the following diagnosis and treatment for a wound that appeared to be infected:

If thou examinest a man having a diseased wound in his breast, while that wound is inflamed and a whirl of inflammation continually issues from the mouth of that wound at thy touch; the two lips of that wound are ruddy, while that man continues to be feverish from it; his flesh cannot receive a bandage, that wound cannot take a margin of skin; the granulation which is in the mouth of that wound is watery, their surface is not and secretions drop therefrom in an oily state.

Thou shouldst say concerning him: “One having a diseased wound in his breast, it being inflamed, (and) he continues to have fever from it. An ailment which I will treat.”

Thou shalt make for him cool applications for drawing out the inflammation from the mouth of the wound:

a. Leaves of willow, nbs’-tree ksnty. Apply to it.

b. Leaves of ym’-tree, dung. hny-t’, ksnty, Apply to it. Thou shalt make for him applications for drying up the wound: a. Powder of green pigment wsb-t, thn.t, grease. Triturate bind upon it.[3]

Blue Penicillum bread mold, whose antibiotic qualities were utilized but not fully understood by the ancient Egyptians.

We now know that willow bark has antiseptic qualities that reduce inflammation. Later Egyptian doctors took this treatment further and began prescribing “bread in a rotten condition” to be applied to infected wounds that were discharging pus. Blue bread mold is better known in the medical world by its scientific name Penicillum, making the ancient Egyptians the first to use antibiotics.[4]

Some scientists have expressed skepticism that the amount of penicillin absorbed would have been enough to be effective, but even trace amounts applied directly to a wound would have had some effect on the infection.[5]

The Egyptians did not know that infection was caused by bacteria and did not understand the scientific principles underlying the use of antibiotics. Rather, they figured out the effectiveness of bread mold by trial and error. While throwing anything at an infected wound in hopes that something would work, some Egyptian doctor somewhere decided to try moldy bread, and – surprise -  he got results.

3. Batteries

As I’ve already covered in more detail elsewhere on this site, a number of clay pots with metal rings and rods inside of them have been found in Iraq. They date from about 100 AD, during the Parthian period. Experiments have confirmed that they were capable of operating as wet-cell batteries and could potentially produce half a volt of electricity.

What could the Parthians have possibly wanted to do with a low grad electrical current?  One of the first explanations was that they were used to electroplate objects. However, the electrical current from one battery is not enough to electroplate an object, and no electroplated objects have been found from the ancient world. The most prevalent explanation is that they were used for pain therapy, similar to how electric catfish and rays were used to treat pain in the ancient world. This is certainly possible, but it is also possible that these batteries were a novelty item that gave a slight shock to anyone who touched both pieces of metal but had no practical use outside of being a curiosity.[6]

4. Beer

Beer dates back to at least 3000 BC, although it may have originated earlier, in the pre-urban agricultural societies of the Neolithic period. What is known for sure is that beer became a popular beverage in the Sumerian city-states of Mesopotamia. The Sumerians made wine as well, but beer was clearly the alcoholic drink of choice. In some cities, up to 40% of the yearly grain harvest was diverted to beer making.[7] Like most things in polytheistic cultures, beer making had its own patron goddess, Ninkasi. Most of our information about Sumerian brewing techniques comes from hymns to Ninkasi that describe how beer was made.

A funerary model of a busy beer brewery, from the Egyptian 11th Dynasty, dating to between 2009 and 1998 BC.

In Sumer, barley and emmer were the grains of choice for beer making. The barley grain was soaked and allowed to germinate and sprout. It was then dried, crushed and flavored with herbs, spices, honey or dates – the exact mixture presumably depended on the brewer – and mixed with bappir or “beer-bread.” The mixture was then heated to mash in an oven. Once it was ready, it was spread out to cool and more sugar (from either honey or dates) was added to speed fermentation. Water was added, and the whole mixture sat in a vat and slowly drained through a filter into a vessel below.

The resulting beer still had lots of little pieces of soggy bread floating in it, and as a result it had to be strained before drinking so you got liquid instead of a semi-solid. One way of doing this was to have a common pot of beer on a table, and those socializing around it would each have individual straws with a filter on the bottom that they would use to drink the beer.

This cylinder seal impression from the Early Dynastic IIIa period (c. 2600 BC) shows two seated men drinking beer from a common pot using long straws.

The beer’s thickness did make it an excellent source of nutrients, especially vitamin B. Because Sumerians ate little meat, beer was an important part of their diet and a major source of vitamins.

Beer was also popular in ancient Egypt, where breweries were closely associated with bakeries. The methods of manufacture were similar to those used in Sumer.[8]

5. Automatic Doors

Alexandria during the Hellenistic and Roman periods was one of the world’s foremost cities, full of splendid architecture and technological marvels. During the first century AD, the city was home to an inventor and tinkerer named Heron. A Greek by ethnicity and an Alexandrian native, Heron built a a number of inventions ranging from the whimsical to the immensely practical. His designs for syringes, force pumps, catapults, fire engines, surveying tools and odometers fall into the latter category. His designs for windmill-powered pipe organs, mechanical birds, and an entirely mechanical drama production featuring its own sound effects and several talking puppets are all examples of the former.

Diagram of Heron’s automatic doors. Lighting a fire on the altar heads the sphere on the left, which pushes water into the bucket, causing it to pull on the system of pulleys and open the temple doors.

One of his more spectacular inventions was a temple with automatic doors. When priests lit a fire on an altar in front of the doors, it heated air inside a sphere underneath the altar. The heated air expanded and pushed the water in the sphere through a siphon and into a bucket. As the bucket filled up, it became heavy and lowered down on a system of pulleys. The ropes attached to the pulleys swung poles on which the doors were hinged, opening the doors.

The overall effect of this was to make it look like the statue of the god inside the temple opened his own front door spontaneously in order to receive the sacrifices being offered on the altar. In an updated version of his device, Heron added a trumpet which blew automatically when the doors were opened.

Unfortunately, no trace of any automated temple has been found. There seems little doubt that such systems were used, as Heron makes reference to similar designs created by other inventors. The delicate systems required to open and close the doors are unlikely to have survived for 2000 years.[9]

An animation of Heron’s doors in operation can be seen here.

6. Vending Machines

Another of Heron’s inventions was something he called the “sacrificial vessel which flows only when money is introduced.” This was a vending machine that dispensed water for worshipers to use to perform sacred washing prior to entering the temple.

Diagram of Heron’s vending machine. Dropping a coin in the top hits the paddle R, causing the cork to lift out of the tube and water to flow to the customer.

The machine was very simple. A coin dropped in the top slot fell onto a paddle on the end of a lever and depressed it, causing the other end of the lever to raise up and pull a cork out of the spout in the bottom and allow water to flow out. As the lever pan sloped downwards, coin slid off after a short time and the pan rose back to its original position. The cork then dropped back into place and stopped the water flow.[10]

7. Lenses

The earliest known optical lens was discovered in 1853 by Sir Austen Henry Layard during his excavations of the Assyrian city of Nimrud. Found in a collection of glassware, the lens dates to the latter half of the 700s BC. The lens was not glass, rather it was made from ground and polished rock crystal. The lens is plano-convex, having one flat side and one convex side, and is about a quarter of an inch thick.

The Nimrud Lens, currently on display at the British Museum in London.

The lens is certainly primitive. Its focusing abilities have been described as “poor,” calling into question its utility as a burning lens. It does, however, give a magnification of o.5x, not large but enough to potentially aid a scribe trying to read small cuneiform script or an artist working to add detail to a small cylinder seal.

Other lenses have been found at various Mediterranean sites, and textual evidence from Greece indicates that burning glasses were surely known by the 5th century BC. Some scholars have questioned whether these items were used as magnifying lenses, saying they were meant as jewelry. Yet, the fact remains that lenses such as the Nimrud lens work as magnifying lenses, and there were definitely situations where such lenses could prove useful. It seems hard to imagine that no one would have been idly messing around with their jewelry one day and figured out that they could see things closer when they looked through it.[11]

8. Maps

The Babylonian World Map, also on display in the British Museum.

The Babylonian Map of the World is a curious tablet from about 600 BC, found in Sippar in southern Iraq, which contains a strange pattern of geometric shapes with labels. Many points are labeled with known place names such as “Babylon,” “Assyria,” “Urartu,” and “Elam.” Others have a less specific designations such as “swamp,” “mountain” and “Canal.[12]

Some features on the map correspond to real world locations, for example the walls of Babylon are represented by the square that straddles the Euphrates River, just like the real walls of Babylon. On the other hand, the map only shows locations near to Babylon, although the Babylonians doubtless knew of lands beyond Elam and Assyria. Yet on the map, past Assyria lies the great Ocean that encircles the world. Beyond the ocean lie 7 triangles labeled “islands,” said to be “beyond the rising sun” or “beyond the flight of birds.”

Maps and surveys of local areas, towns, villages and buildings are known from Mesopotamia and elsewhere from earlier dates, but this map is unique in that it is not a representation of something that people can see all at once. Rather, it represents the world as the map-maker imagined it. He couldn’t see the world, he had to draw it based on descriptions, general directions and his own imagination of what the world should look like.

Drawing of the map, with translations of the inscriptions.

Clearly the distorted geography is a function of having to shoehorn the known world to fit the disc-shaped earth that the Babylonians imagined. Therefore, the map appears to be symbolic and stylized. Rather than an exact map of the type we think of today, the map was an artistic representation of the Babylonian view of the world and of their place in it. If you look closely Babylon is not the center of the world as one might expect, rather, the center of the world is a dot put in the middle of the Euphrates River. This might be taken as a representation of how important the Euphrates was to life in Mesopotamia – that is, it was the center of their lives.

9. Libraries

The invention of writing meant the creation of documents. And the creation of documents in turn created the need to store documents. Piling lots of clay tablets in one place meant that one needed systems to categorize and retrieve information, in order to be able to actually find stuff when you needed it. And so, the first libraries were created.

A portion of the Ebla archive during excavation. The tablets were dropped into a heap when the city was destroyed and their shelving collapsed.

The oldest library yet found comes from the Syrian city-state of Ebla, which was destroyed at around 2300 BC. The vast majority of texts were administrative documents, listing taxes, land titles and the like – the sort of thing one would find in a courthouse today. But a smaller group of documents created what could be the first known research library. Some tablets list Sumerian words. Others are a sort of mini bilingual dictionary, listing Sumerian with accompanying Eblaite translations. Two duplicate tablets contained the text of a Sumerian myth.

While the academic holdings of the Ebla library were small, other libraries such as the archive at Nippur (c. 2000 BC) had so many texts that they had to create catalogs of their holdings. Two tablets found at Nippur list the titles held in the archive. At the Hittite capital of Hattushas, cataloging was taken a step further and included short summaries of each tablet. Tablets began to have summaries of their contents added to the end, as well as specifying if they were part of a numbered series. There were limits, of course. Alphabetization was not possible without the use of an alphabet, so the order which titles were listed was haphazard.

Surprisingly, the Assyrians were systematic collectors of library materials. Tiglath-Pileser I (1115-1077 BC) and Assurbanipal (668-627 BC) both systematically collected libraries. Assurbanipal’s library contained a large collection of texts on interpreting omens, a number of texts on translating between Sumerian and Akkadian, and literary texts which include some of our most complete texts of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Much of this material was looted from territories conquered by the Assyrian armies. Others were taken or bought (we’re not clear as to which) from private collections.

Drawing of wooden shelving at the Ebla Archive, showing how it may have looked.

Royal collections were open only to a select few, and those select few could only view official documents under the watchful eye of a court official. Some private collections practiced lending, complete with curses written on the tablets to be called down in the name of various gods on the borrower who did not return his items or returned them damaged.

Later, the Greek Ptolemies would open up another era of Near Eastern libraries by creating the famous Library of Alexandria, dedicated to compiling human knowledge rather than providing necessary services to a monarch. Throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods, libraries flourished in the Near East. Many collections were lost at the end of antiquity, and others were transferred to monastic libraries and preserved there.[13]

10. The “Yo Momma” Joke

Modern eighth grade humor can trace its origins to an Old Babylonian text containing a collection of riddles. Mostly, these riddles serve as a clear illustration of how humor is extremely dependent on cultural context in order to actually be funny. For example, one riddle read:

He gouged out the eye:
It is not the fate of a dead man.
He cut the throat: A dead man (-Who is it?)
Answer: A Governor.

Yet, the intent of some humor is clear even 3,500 years after it was written, as evidenced by this damaged text:

… of your mother
is by the one who has intercourse (with her) (-What/who is it?)

The answer to this riddle is also lost, but we can all see what direction it’s going.[14] For some reason, the publication of this text made national news, even to the point that Stephen Colbert covered it on his show.

Next: Part 2: More Inventions of the Ancient Near East
Part 3 – Tatian, Clement of Alexandria and the Battle for History.


[1] Peter James and Nick Thorpe, Ancient Inventions (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), 468-472.

[2] Kent R. Weeks, “Medicine, Surgery and Public Health in Ancient Egypt,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. 3, ed. by Jack Sasson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 1794-1795.

[3] Edwin Smith Papyrus, translated at http://www.touregypt.net/edwinsmithsurgical.htm#Case%20Forty-One:

[4] Michael D. Parkins, “Pharmacological Practices of Ancient Egypt,” in The Proceedings of the 10th Annual History of Medicine Days, Health Sciences Centre, University of Calgary, March 23-24, 2001 (Calgary, Alberta: Health Sciences Centre, 2001), 10; Milton Wainwright, “Moulds in Ancient and More Recent Medicine,” The Mycologist, Vol. 3, p. 21-23.

[5] Wainwright, “Moulds in Ancient and More Recent Medicine,” 21.

[6] Paul T. Keyser, “The Purpose of the Parthian Galvanic Cells: A First Century A.D. Electric Battery used for Analgesia,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Apr., 1993), 81-90; Peter James and Nick Thorpe, Ancient Inventions (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), 146-157.

[7] James and Thorpe, Ancient Inventions, 333.

[8] Jane M. Renfrew, “Vegetables in the Ancient Near Eastern Diet,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. 1, 197-199; Marten Stol, “Private Life in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. 1, 497.

[9] James and Thorpe, Ancient Inventions, 129-131; L. Sprague De Camp, The Ancient Engineers (New York: Doubleday, 1974), 257-262.

[10] James and Thorpe, Ancient Inventions, 128-129; De Camp, The Ancient Engineers, 258.

[11] James and Thorpe, Ancient Inventions, 157-161, 163.

[12] James and Thorpe, Ancient Inventions, 59-60.

[13] Lionel Casson, Libraries in the Ancient World (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2001), 1-16.

[14] Owen Jarus, “Sex, Beer & Politics: Riddles Reveal Life of Ancient Mesopotamians,” LiveScience, http://www.livescience.com/18147-ancient-riddles-decoded-mesopotamia.html, January 26, 2012; Nathan Wasserman and Michael Streck, “Dialogues and Riddles: Three Old Babylonian Wisdom Texts,” Iraq, (2011) Vol. 73, 117-125.

Image Sources: (Banner) http://www.britannica.com/bps/media-view/123691/1/0/0; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BabylonianWorldMap2.jpg; (Body) http://www.smith.edu/hsc/museum/ancient_inventions/hsc09b.htm; http://photo-dictionary.com/phrase/7500/molded-bread.html; http://miscellaneous-pics.blogspot.com/2011/03/ctesiphon-arch-baghdad-battery.html; http://patentpending.blogs.com/patent_pending_blog/2004/10/the_baghdad_bat.html; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:FuneraryModel-BakeryAndBrewery_MetropolitanMuseum.png; http://cdli.ucla.edu/pubs/cdlj/2012/cdlj2012_002.html; http://thecrystalkim.wordpress.com/2012/01/16/the-item-door/; http://www.kotaku.com.au/2011/01/the-greek-engineer-who-invented-the-steam-engine-2000-years-ago/; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nimrud_lens_British_Museum.jpg; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Baylonianmaps.JPG; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylonian_Map_of_the_World

Articles © Christopher Jones 2012.

2 responses

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