My post from last month highlighting a number of less well known inventions from the ancient Near East proved quite popular, so a sequel is of course forthcoming. Once again, this series avoids covering well known innovations like cities, writing, schools, agriculture and the wheel. Here are some more inventions that you may not know came from the ancient Near East.
1. Investment Banking
Modern banking traces its origins to Babylonian temples in the early 2nd millennium BC. Ancient Mesopotamian temples always had a redistributive economic function. Temples took in donations and tax revenue and amassed great wealth. They then redistributed these goods to people in need such as widows, orphans, and the poor (sometimes the temples became corrupt and hoarded wealth, but that’s a topic for another article).
After a thousand years of this, the priests who ran the temples were literally sitting on giant piles of money. So around the time of Hammurabi (in the 18th century BC), they began to make loans. Old Babylonian temples made numerous loans to poor and needy entrepreneurs. The loans were made at reduced below-market interest rates lower than those offered on loans given by private individuals, and sometimes arrangements were made for the creditor to make food donations to the temple instead of repaying interest.
Nevertheless, the temples still lacked many of the features of a full bank. They did not take deposits, issue checks, or engage in fractional reserve banking. They were religious institutions offering loans as a charity service, closer to modern microfinance initiatives than to Goldman Sachs.
Something closer to modern banking emerged in the neo-Babylonian period in the 7th century BC. Banking was conducted by certain families who passed the trade on from parents to children. The Ea-iluta-bani family of the city of Borsippa was active from 687 to 487 BC. Beginning as mid-level land owners possessing several tracts of agricultural land, the men of the family married well, received decent sized dowries, and invested their liquid assets (mostly silver and food products) in loans.
Numerous contract documents have been recovered which list recipients of loans, the amount loaned, the term of the loan and the interest rate to be paid. When the loan was repaid, the tablet was usually broken. This gives us a possibly skewed picture of loans, because the only tablets we can read are from the loans that were not repaid.
What we can tell is that the Ea-iluta-bani family generally loaned at 20% annual interest. In other cases, possibly when the debtor was less reliable, items were taken as security in lieu of interest. If the loan was not repaid, the item would be kept and sold. Sometimes the security was an item that increased in value, such as a slave that could perform service for the creditors for the duration of the loan. This was in effect a disguised form of interest.
The Ea-iluta-bani family tended to make about half of their loans in silver and the other half in food products. There were no coins in use, so silver was measured by weight and purity. Silver had the advantage of having a fairly constant value. Food products on the other hand tended to decrease in value shortly after the harvest time and increase in value during times of the year when they were less plentiful. The family, therefore, tried structure contracts so as to lend out foodstuffs when they were cheapest and get repaid when they were more more expensive, making a greater profit.
Silver, on the other hand, could be loaned out at any time. 80% of our surviving contracts are for periods six months or less, but this may simply indicate that short term loans were less likely to be repaid. The Ea-iluta-bani family women would often loan out their dowry as a long term investment in order to make a steady stream of profit from interest payments.
By the time of the Persian Empire, finance was a major business in the cities Babylon, Borsippa, Sippar, Uruk, Nippur, Uruk, Larsa and Ur. Banking families such as the Egbi in Babylon, Iddin-Nabu of Babylon and Murashu of Nippur became very wealthy and even engaged in international commerce with countries outside of Mesopotamia. The Murashu broadened their investments under Persian rule, in addition to simple loans they branched out into real estate and managed and rented land. Due to their large land holdings, the Murashu family became extremely powerful in Persian-controlled Mesopotamia. They may have become too powerful. All record of their activity ceases after the 10th year of Darius II in 413 BC. Either the records are lost, or Darius moved to end their power.
2. Poison Gas
In AD 256, the Sassanid Persians under Shah Shapur I laid siege to the Roman border fortress town of Dura-Europos in Syria on the Euphrates River. During the assault, the Persians built several siege ramps. They also dug a number of mines to try and cause the walls of the fortress to collapse.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Assyria is famous primarily for its military innovations. Siege warfare, cavalry, and the integration and methodical organization of warfare were all advanced considerably by the Assyrian state in its insatiable desire to conquer its neighbors. What Assyria is not well known for are its civil innovations. Yet, Assyrian armies were sacking foreign cities, the Assyrian homeland was being enriched with various things stolen and looted from other countries. The Assyrians may not have been great innovators, but they were great derivators, taking inventions from various parts of the world and adapting them to their own needs.
Assyria was a land power for sure, which means that its power was at its roots based on agricultural production. As both an agrarian society and a highly militarized state, Iron Age Assyria is not the type of society where one would expect to find much independent thought or innovation in the civilian sector. This is partly true. Few pieces of Assyrian agricultural technology were new. Most were adapted from surrounding cultures. But some great agricultural innovations and feats of engineering did arise.
The heart of ancient Assyria was situated along the Tigris River, in what is now northern Iraq. The Two Rivers were vital to farming in what would otherwise be a desert, but they also carry six times the silt of the Nile River. This means that their river beds are shallower and fill up faster, and therefore the rivers change courses more often. They also flow faster, and the Tigris flows even faster than the Euphrates. While the Nile flooded regularly and predictably and gently inundated Egypt’s fields every year, the shallow beds, fast rate of flow and heavy silt load meant that the Tigris and Euphrates were prone to violent, unpredictable floods that spilled over their banks and washed away fields rather than replenished them.
As a result, systems of levees and canals were built in Mesopotamia from as early as Sumerian times. Canals were used to trap water, which could then be used to irrigate fields. There were no sluice gates to control the water flow, rather, fields were flooded by digging through the canal wall to flood the field, and then shoveling mud into the breach to seal it back up again once the desired amount of water had come through.This meant that each farmer’s field had to directly border a canal. As a result, complex canal systems sprung up everywhere people lived in Mesopotamia. Maintaining the canals was a major duty of government. The nation’s food supply depended on it.
Rivers flooded in the spring as mountaintop snows melted at the sources of the rivers. Canal breaching was done at this time on fallow fields to prepare them for planting. The fields would then be plowed in autumn after a rain. If there were no rains, more irrigation was required. Once the field had dried out enough so that the ground was not wet, but before it was rock hard, it was ready to be plowed.
Plowing was done with oxen, typically four to a plow. The soil was tough enough that the plow required three or more passes for the point to break up the soil create a good furrow. It took three men to work a plow team, to guide the oxen and hold down the plow handles. There was no steering mechanism on plows or any wheels. Once the end of the furrow was reached, the oxen had to be unhitched and the plow turned around, and the oxen re-hitched and the process begun again in the other direction.
The generally accepted history of the catapult holds that it was first invented in the Greek city-state of Syracuse on the island of Sicily in 399 BC. The Syracusan general Dionysius I had led a military coup in 405 BC that overthrew Syracuse”s democratically elected government and installed himself as a dictator. His first acts as dictator were to put Syracuse’s society and economy on a war footing. Dionysius planned to go to war with Carthage, who controlled the western half of Sicily, and seize total control of the island.
In order to do this, the Syracusans sought new weapons. Dionysius brought in engineers from around the Greek world to work on new technology. The Greeks in Italy had previously invented an early crossbow called the gastraphetes, which had superior range to a manually drawn bow. Dionysius’ engineers took this a step further and created arrow and stone-throwing machines to be used in assaulting Carthaginian fortifications.
These early catapults developed into the double-armed torsion catapults used all over the ancient Mediterranean world (the Chinese developed catapults independently at around the same time). They were used by the Romans, Greeks, Carthaginians, Macedonians and all the Hellenistic kingdoms. Some catapults grew to very large sizes and packed enormous destructive power.
Yet, there are indications here and there that the Syracusans were not the first to come up with the idea of using levers, springs and torque to fling boulders at their enemies. Several vague clues from ancient writers indicate that the idea of the catapult might have a more eastern origin.
The first comes from the Biblical book of Chronicles’ record of the reign of King Uzziah of Judah. Uzziah reigned for 52 years in the mid 8th century BC. During his reign Judah undertook a large-scale military buildup, including improving the fortifications of Jerusalem. As part of the fortifications, he “made devices invented for use on the towers and on the corner defenses so that soldiers could shoot arrows and hurl large stones from the walls.”