Ancient art of invention

YOU’VE just ordered a pint. You’re sitting gazing out at the concrete building opposite. The footie is on the television above the bar. A vending machinewinks beside the door to the toilets.

You might think that the things around you are quintessentially modern. But you’d be wrong. All of the components in this picture (well, ok, apart from the telly) were invented by ancient peoples who lived more than 1,000 years ago. The makers of What The Ancients Did For Us, which starts on BBC2 this week, believe we have the peoples of Mesopotamia, Central America, China, India, Arabia, Greece and Rome to thank for many life-changing discoveries, from rubber bands to central heating.

"We have a tendency to think of ancient peoples as being stupid because they didn’t have television or mobile phones," says series presenter Adam Hart-Davis. "But of course they were just as intelligent as we are, and they didn’t waste their time watching television or texting each other. So they used their intelligence and invented some wonderful things."


The discovery of beer was probably accidental. Leave some damp barley sitting in a warm room and it will ferment all by itself. The drinking of beer - then a safe alternative to water, which was often polluted - goes back at least 5,000 years to the Sumerians, an advanced and inventive civilisation living in the fertile lands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Brewing took place in temples under the control of women serving the goddess Ninkasi. Art from the fourth millennium BC shows Sumerians drinking beer through long tubes with perforated bases, which acted as filters. Inevitably, perhaps, there were those who drank too much, and the culture has left its own legacy of bizarre hangover cures.


The nose job might look like a phenomenon of modern Hollywood, but Indian surgeons were performing them back in 600BC. The celebrated surgeon of the period, Sushruta, wrote a medical textbook listing hundreds of illnesses and surgical procedures, including rhinoplasty - nose reconstruction - in which he was a particular specialist. His nose jobs were done for remedial not cosmetic reasons, using flaps of skin taken from the cheek to repair a nose damaged in battle or in an accident. Nineteenth-century surgeons learned much from the ancient Indians, and the benefits of their theories of holistic medicine are only just being rediscovered.


Rubber was not produced industrially in the West until the 1800s, but the Incas, Aztecs and other Central American peoples used it as far back as 1600BC. They discovered that the morning glory vine, a creeper on the rubber tree, could be combined with the raw material to create a durable, elastic substance. They used it to waterproof clothes and shoes, and used rubber bands to fix metal tools into their wooden hafts. The rubber was also used to produce rubber balls for their national sport. While the Chinese take credit for the first football game, the Mesoamericans played a game rather like volleyball. It seems to have been very popular and largely recreational, though it was also played on religious festivals, when the losing side faced the "honour" of being sacrificed to the gods.


We British can lay claim to the oldest lavatories in the world - the first ancient settlement to set aside a cubicle in each house for the purpose is Skara Brae on Orkney, but the Romans are the founding fathers of the public convenience. Roman toilets consisted of a row of stone benches with holes for latrines, but no cubicles. Like bath houses, they seemed to serve a dual function as a place for socialising. Often the two were placed next to one another, so that the waste water from the baths would be used to flush the loos. Roman baths were legendary, with underground hypocausts to heat the water, the smoke and fumes from which were used to heat the floor and walls. Wealthy Romans had similar central heating systems installed in their homes, especially in Britain.


The Aztecs believed the cacao tree had been brought from heaven by the god Quetzalcoatl, who stole it from paradise. Fermented, roasted and ground into a paste, the seeds could be combined with water and spices to make a drink, served hot or cold, which was so revered it was drunk only by warriors, the elite and priests. Montezuma, the last Aztec emperor, is said to have drunk nothing but "xocolatl", and got through up to 50 goblets a day. He called it "the divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue." The Spanish settlers found it an acquired taste, but acquired it quickly, and shipped it back to Europe where it became a luxury in solid and liquid form.


In 1938, in Iraq, archaeologists dug up a small earthenware jar thought to be between 1,000 and 2,000 years old. It contained a small copper cylinder and an iron rod. When the man who found it suggested it might be a battery, he was shot down in flames, but recent investigations suggest he was right. A replica of the object produced about half a volt of electricity when filled with grape juice. One possible use for the "Baghdad battery" might have been electroplating - coating silver artefacts with a thin layer of gold.


We might associate it with breeze-block modernism, above, but concrete built the Roman empire. They did not discover it, but were the first to exploit its potential after discovering pozzolana, a sandy volcanic ash found in the bay of Naples, which hardened into a stone-like mass when mixed with water. In the first century AD, Vitruvius wrote about it in his builder’s manual, On Architecture.

Thanks to concrete, the Romans were able to build bigger and stronger harbours, bridges, aqueducts and buildings which rose four or five storeys off the ground.

Some of its greatest achievements still stand today, such as the Colosseum and the Pantheon - its huge unsupported dome uses pumice dust, which produced a lighter concrete.


The early Muslims were accomplished chemists, inventing the process of distillation, which is used to make whisky, vodka and other spirits, even though their religion forbade them from drinking. "Isn’t it sad?" says Hart-Davis. "They invented the word alcohol, but they only used it for medicinal purposes! Distilled liquid was sterile, and was also fairly bactericidal, so it was good for cleaning wounds." The Arabs used distilled liquids for other purposes, including anaesthetics and inks, and distilled plant and flower materials to make perfumes, meaning the city of Damascus was the early centre of the perfume industry.


The world’s first vending machine was built for a temple in Alexandria in the first century AD. If you put a coin in the slot, a short draught of holy water came out. The invention, ideal for the devout worshipper in a hurry, was a brainchild of the Greek inventor Heron. His other inventions, usually executed in miniature, included a weight-and-pulley system for opening temple doors "by magic", a miniature steam engine and a robot theatre. "Heron was a very good egg," says Hart-Davis, "a very bright, intelligent man, but most of his inventions were party tricks or executive toys."


In keeping with the famous phrase, several cultures have reinvented the wheel. Although it is hailed as the greatest invention of all time, some societies were less than taken with it. Wheels were used in Ancient Egypt, but were abandoned for 1,500 years because wheeled vehicles were no match for camels in the desert. The Aztecs, Mayas and Incas had wheeled children’s toys, but anything larger was useless on their steep and rocky trails. The first to use them consistently were the Sumerians, around 3200BC. In China, however, the vehicle of choice was the wheelbarrow, considered so valuable tactically in the wars of the third century AD that code names were used for them in official reports. The availability of gunpowder gave rise to deadly wheelbarrow rocket squadrons, and "caravans" of wheelbarrows powered by sails were the most spectacular way of crossing the country’s vast plains.

• What the Ancients Did For Us starts tomorrow night on BBC2. The book which accompanies the series, What The Past Did For Us, by Adam Hart-Davis is out now.

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