Sing, Muse of Science

Bijan Omrani |

Bijan Omrani Tours the Exhibition “Ancient Greeks: Science and Wisdom,” at the Science Museum in London, with Curator Jane Desborough.

Gold headdress, (about 350–100 BCE) adorned with an image of Athena, Goddess of Wisdom © Benaki Museum, Athens.

If I were to hazard an unscientific guess, I’d say that most people who are interested in the Classics were not drawn to it because they had first been inspired by the idea of Ancient Greek science.

For my own part, I was first enraptured in my youth by epic and Greek tragedy. Yet, that part of the Greek scientific legacy which most fully percolates down to the modern schoolroom — mathematics — filled me with deep gloom. Terrible to relate, many teenage hours were spent staring out of the window in a poetic reverie whilst my poor maths teacher tried to drill me on points of Euclid, Pythagoras, and the angle A. Indeed, a number of the ancient texts which were presented to us in the course of learning Greek suggested that the most cultivated and thoughtful of Greeks themselves treated the investigation of the natural world with similar disdain, or even ridicule. The story of Archimedes’ “eureka” moment, running naked from of his bath through the streets of Syracuse after coming up with his theory of buoyancy, cannot but leave one with the impression that those engaged in scientific research are at the very least incorrigibly eccentric and other-worldly. The same goes for Thales of Miletus, an early philosopher of the sixth century B.C., who, as legend relates, wandered around at night so engrossed by star-gazing that he fell into a well. There is also the comedian Aristophanes’ sustained mockery of Socrates as a natural philosopher, portrayed in the Clouds as putting wax boots on a flea to determine how far it could jump, and arguing that the buzzing of the mosquito was a result of it passing air at high pressure through the uniquely tight configuration of its posterior.

We also encounter Socrates’ rejection of such natural philosophy from an opposite direction. In Plato’s Phaedo, he is depicted as rejecting the path of thinkers who investigate the natural world. He argued that it was better to focus instead on the search for the absolute verities of truth, justice, virtue, in the immaterial world of forms.

Perhaps no wonder that as a young student I saw the pursuit of science as being of little value. It was better to study the Humanities, which, as I saw it, not only cherished creativity and the imagination, but also seemed more relevant to the fundamental questions of living.

Visitors in Ancient Greeks Science and Wisdom watch a projection on ancient sarcophagus panels showing the Muses, Apollo & Athena © Science Museum Group

The opening tableau, therefore, of the new Ancient Greeks: Science and Wisdom exhibition at the Science Museum in London makes a welcome challenge to these youthful prejudices. The first display is not of Archimedes jumping from his bath, nor Pythagoras puzzling over triangles. Instead, we are greeted by an assembly of the nine Muses. They are on an exquisite set of carved sarcophagus panels on loan from the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, and on display in Britain for the first time.

The exhibition’s curator, Dr. Jane Desborough, taking me on a tour of the exhibition, points to the two side panels of the sarcophagus. One is of a man clutching a scroll and contemplating a comic mask. The other is of a man, again with a scroll, earnestly examining a sundial mounted on the top of a column.

“The Ancient Greek intellectual outlook was characterised by a union of the arts, science and religion,” explains Dr. Desborough, “not compartmentalised as some modern audiences might think, when they think of chemistry, biology and physics.” What we see as scientific endeavour and investigation might be made manifest by the Greeks in artistic ways. It might also be made in a religious context or under religious inspiration. For example, although the depiction of the Muses here is from a sarcophagus, they were often displayed in Greek places of learning, and invoked not just for purposes of artistic creativity. Whilst one might call on Calliope for assistance with epic poetry, the more scientific Urania would assist with astronomy, and Euterpe with music — a discipline whose treatment in Greek thought was as scientific and mathematical as it was artistic; a point which the exhibition later expands.

An important objective of the exhibition, according to Dr. Desborough, is to use original Greek artefacts to show how Greek scientific thought was made manifest in the arts and everyday life in the Ancient Greek world. It looks at “how the ancients questioned, contemplated and debated the world around them, and how they sought logical, often mathematical explanations for its workings.” It also aims to show how modern scientific research into these ancient artefacts is revealing the forgotten sophistication of Greek science and technology.

The insistence on the use of only original artefacts was a particular challenge in putting together the exhibition, says Dr. Desborough, “so no replicas that lots of shows on this kind of theme have — replica Archimedes’ Screws and things like that. We wanted to do something completely different.” As a result, the exhibition is not large, but the items included are of the highest quality, and frequently on display in the U.K. for the first time ever. Nevertheless, it covers a wide range of ancient Greek experience. It is divided into thematic sections, each centred on an area of the natural world to which Ancient Greek thinkers turned their attention, from the world of the sea, to medicine, music, and astronomy.

Amphora made in Athens, about 520–510 BCE, attributed to an anonymous artist in the Circle of the Lysippides Painter. © Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen Mannheim.

The section after the Muses is entitled “Perilous Seas.” An amphora stands in its centre, made in Athens in the late sixth century BC. On one side, it depicts the companions of wine-god Dionysus, the Satyrs and Sileni, climbing amongst a riot of vines. On the other, a sailor steers a ship under sail. The pictures might allude to the story of the kidnapped Dionysus taking over a ship of pirates, but they might also suggest the function of the amphora — the export of wine.

In another context we might simply admire this amphora for its artistry: the mischievous presentation of the Sileni, contrasted with the elegant line of the ship and the expression of concentration of the face of the helmsman. However, our admiration should go beyond this. Dr. Desborough observes that the representation of the ship is remarkably true to life. The excellence of Greek shipbuilding technology, which allowed city-states such as Athens to extend their trading networks and exchange cultural and intellectual ideas, is something to which we might ordinarily give little attention when looking at such artefacts. Yet, this is part of the story they tell, and it should be part of their wonder.

Indeed, it is only in the present day, thanks to scientific research, that we are beginning to grasp how advanced the technology was. Opposite the amphora, a short film describes a project undertaken at the University of Southampton by Professor Jon Adams and Dr. Sophie Cannon, studying a fifth century B.C. Greek merchant ship — similar to the one on the amphora — whose wreck was discovered in the Black Sea (at a depth of well over a mile) in a remarkable state of preservation. Submersible cameras were used to scan the wreck, which is the oldest known Greek wreck yet to have been found, and the data thus collected allowed the researchers to build a scale model of the craft which could be examined in a pool used to test modern ship designs. Their work showed what an edge the finely-crafted hull gave to the Greek sailors. It allowed them to travel at a speed of eight to ten knots under sail. However, it did leave the ships vulnerable to capsizing in a sudden change of wind direction.

This is perhaps the fate that overtook the artefact which faces the amphora: a statue of Hermes — the god, amongst other things, of trade — which was recovered from another ancient shipwreck. It was part of the same cargo as the famous first century B.C. Antikythera Mechanism, the world’s oldest geared machine used for predicting the movement of heavenly bodies. The statue is haunting. Its body is puckered and worn away, but its face, which was pressed into the silt, avoided erosion by the sea, and looks as fresh as the day it was carved. Its discovery with the Antikythera Mechanism is another striking reminder that scientific ideas and items were exchanged and used in the context of trade, and the exchange of artistic and religious artefacts.

In contrast to Hermes’ austere statue, an array of dishes to one side tells another story of Greek science and the deep. They are each painted with a glorious and whimsical swirl of fish in the manner of traditional red-and-black pottery, but enhanced with touches of white, brown, and yellow. However, these are by no means generic or stylised depictions. Instead, they show different types and species of fish and sea creatures — flatfish, dolphins, electric rays, octopus, and cuttlefish — often with close and loving attention paid to anatomy and character. It seems that the artists had been working from observation, and that they were trying in some cases to capture the details of individual fish that they had seen.

Fish plate, about 370–300 BCE, depicting marine diversity on loan from Kunstsammlungen Antike der Ruhr-Universität Bochum © Science Museum Group (3)

These dishes come from various Greek settlements in the south of Italy, and date to the fourth century B.C. They vividly evoke the spirit of Aristotle’s investigations in the same period into animal life. Aristotle was the first thinker known to have attempted a systematic categorisation of the animal kingdom, classifying creatures into groups defined by their physical characteristics and habitats. Like the artists who created these dishes, his work was also dependent on observation of actual specimens. Much of this was done during a stay on the island of Lesbos at the Pyrrha Lagoon, where he observed the behaviour of animals and carried out dissections. His favourite animal, according to the exhibition, was the cuttlefish: “These creatures swim by the aid of their feet and their fins,” he writes in his History of Animals, “and they swim most rapidly backwards.” The electric ray, depicted on another of the dishes, is also described in Aristotle’s work: “The torpedo narcotizes the creatures that it wants to catch, overpowering them by the power of the shock that is resident in its body… this phenomenon has been actually observed in operation.” This part of the exhibition is a wonderful testimony to the spirit of curiosity which belongs to this period — a spirit, which Dr. Desborough observes, the exhibition is hoping to convey.

The Greeks were not only interested in fish. The following section, entitled “The Mathematical Body,” looks at the ways in which Greek scientific thought approached the human form. A statue on loan from the Louvre in Paris, the Oil Pourer, presents the figure of an athlete preparing for a contest. His proportions, as the exhibition reminds us, were generated by numerical means. The sculptor started with a ratio calculated from the dimensions of the smallest joint in the little finger, and multiplied this up to generate the dimensions of the hand, the forearm, and so on for the rest of the body. For Dr. Desborough, this is one of the more thought-provoking exhibits. This statue may have been an image of perfection for an ancient Greek viewer, and indeed for some observers even today. Yet, did these statues offer an image of perfection to which ordinary people would actually aspire? Particularly in view of a developing understanding of the history of disability and attitudes towards it, the statue highlights the way in which there is a greater diversity of ideas about the notion of bodily perfection.

In a facing display, there is a further sign that Greek scientific thought tacitly acknowledged that the perfection of the athlete was more of an ideal aspiration than a general reality, and that bodily infirmity was a more general lot. Laid out in a cabinet is an extraordinary array of ancient Greek medical equipment used for operations: probes, spatulas, scalpels, instruments for cauterising tumours and reducing bleeding, needles, shears, speculums for removing objects from the ear, hooks, and surgical nails for reconnecting broken bones. While one might be daunted at the thought of encountering any of these implements without anaesthetic, as Dr. Desborough notes, they are a further reminder of how Greek scientific thought did not dwell in the world of theory, but was also down to earth, and of widespread practical utility.

There were of course areas where theory and utility were closely aligned. For Pythagoras and other Greek thinkers, the relationship between mathematical proportions and musical notes was a matter of cosmic significance. The following section, “Harmonious Music,” not only explores this theory in the abstract, with demonstrations of how a taut string divided half-way will produce an equal note when plucked, at a ratio of two-to-one an octave, and so on. One may see another extraordinary survival from the ancient world where these theories of music and harmony found practical expression: an aulos — a double-reeded woodwind instrument with two pipes and finger holes — also on loan from the Louvre. The aulos is shown in action with a painting of aulos player on a fifth-century B.C. bell krater in an adjacent display. Yet, one may also hear its melodies thanks to contemporary scientific research. A short film features the research of Dr. Stephan Hagel of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna, who used ancient evidence as well as computer software to generate a modern replica instrument with the objective of working out how the instrument would sound. One of the challenges in the research was that although the wooden aulos itself had survived, its reed mouthpiece had perished. Dr. Hagel was able to make a plausible reconstruction of the mouthpiece, and, using both evidence about tuning and fragmentary musical notation from ancient Greek texts and inscriptions, bring this long unheard instrument to life.

For ancient Greek thinkers, mathematical harmonies found expression not only in music but also in the movements of celestial bodies. The final section, “Starry Cosmos,” showcases some extraordinarily rare artefacts that illustrate the Greek scientific understanding of space. A film narrated by the Greek researcher Dr. Magdalini Anastasiou shows how the latest research into the Antikythera Mechanism, using the latest in X-ray technology, has allowed the fine workings of the device, which had been corroded by its two millennia submerged in the Aegean Sea, to be reconstructed. The mechanism, operated by an extraordinarily complex system of gears, seems to have allowed the user to calculate the movement of the planets, the phases of the moon and possibly eclipses. Whilst the Antikythera Mechanism is not at this exhibition, a precious variant on it, part of the Science Museum’s collection, is on display. This early Byzantine mechanism is the world’s second-oldest known geared device, dating to the late antique period (A.D. 400–600). It would have acted as a sundial and calendar, telling the time a different latitudes (one can see the Greek names of Thebes, Antioch, Rhodes, Athens, Rome, amongst others, inscribed on its face), whilst also again allowing the calculation of phases of the moon and the date with reference to the positions of the sun and moon.

Byzantine sundial-calendar, 400–600 CE, featuring a list of latitudes for use in 16 different locations © Science Museum Group

Although there is no further evidence for the use of such geared devices for another half-millennium or so, with details of them next appearing in Islamic treatises, it seems that these items may not have been uncommon in the Greek world. The Science Museum’s mechanism may well have been a simpler version of the Antikythera Mechanism, mass-manufactured for practical use by sailors. Again, Greek scientific thought and technology was widespread, and found practical applications for everyday use.

The final object is one of Dr. Desborough’s favourite artefacts in the exhibition. It is a silver celestial globe, dating to between 300–100 B.C., about the size of a grapefruit. On it, 48 constellations of the night sky are intricately engraved, with the portraits of the gods and celestial figures of the constellations mapped on to them. This item, Dr Desborough reminds me, is exceedingly rare. There are only three such globes surviving from antiquity, and this is the first time that this particular example has been shown in the U.K. As she points out, it exemplifies some of the overall themes of the exhibition: it is an object of beauty, but conveys knowledge that we would regard as scientific; it also does so in a context that also appears to be religious, with the depiction of the gods in the heavens and the allusion to myth.

Silver celestial globe depicting 48 constellations, 300–100 BCE © Nicolas and Alexis Kugel Collection, Photo Guillaume Benoit

“Some experts have suggested that it may have been used for teaching students,” speculates Dr. Desborough. As if to confirm this, a crowd of young schoolchildren appear and cluster around the globe. They stare at it transfixed, trying to make out the gods and constellations as their Greek predecessors might have done over two millennia ago. Their unaffected enthusiasm for the object brought me back to the prejudices about science, and the modern division between science and the humanities, which had come from my own education. My later doctoral research led me to examine the idea that the representation of the gods in Greek tragedy may have been influenced by the scientific and cosmological thought of the Presocratic philosophers; by the time I started this work, I had managed to overcome my early prejudices. Nevertheless, it had been a loss that I had not been encouraged to find that the wonder of scientific exploration was also an essential part of the classical world view, and its artistic and religious thinking. This exhibition, with its outstanding artefacts, is one that must be seen by anyone who doubts that the worlds of the sciences and humanities are intricately linked. Moreover, particularly for those involved in Classics pedagogy, it offers a wonderful and original way to engage students aside from the more familiar fare of the usual texts, by using accounts of Greek scientific endeavour. The palpable excitement of the schoolchildren observing the globe was mirrored by a quotation of Ptolemy (second century A.D.) nearby: “…when I follow the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth; I ascend to Zeus himself.”

Ancient Greeks: Science and Wisdom, runs at the Science Museum in London until 5 June 2022. Entrance to the exhibition is free, but tickets need to be booked in advance. The exhibition’s website may be found here.


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Bijan Omrani

Bijan Omrani is the author of Caesar's Footprints: Journeys to Roman Gaul. He is an honorary assistant research fellow at the University of Exeter, and formerly taught Classics at several schools.


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