Historical Science & Technology

Pont du Gard: Aqueduct Yeah!

Constructed of shelly limestone, the Pont du Gard is an ancient Roman aqueduct that is still standing today, crossing the Gardon River in southern France. Built circa 40 CE, the three-tiered bridge was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1985.

Slap On Some Aqueduct Tape & Call It A Day

Details are understandably a little spotty roughly 2,000 years later, but the architect of the Pont du Gard is generally credited as Marcus Vipsanius “Big Marc” Agrippa, son-in-law and stooge of Emperor Augustus. Agrippa was the senior magistrate responsible for the water supply to Rome and its many colonies. Historians estimate that construction of the bridge took about 15 years and employed roughly 800 to 1,000 workers.

The Pont du Gard today. Well, not today today, but y'know, recently.

The Pont du Gard today. Well, not today today, but y’know, recently.

As the Roman Empire slowly fell apart, so did the Pont du Gard. From the 4th Century CE onward, maintenance of the aqueduct was neglected—invading forces and local uprisings kept Roman forces plenty busy. Debris, plant roots, and mineral deposits combined to create deposits up to 20 inches thick on each wall. At its peak, the Pont du Gard carried an estimated 44 million gallons of water a day to the citizens of Nîmes, but this flow had slowed considerably by the 6th Century CE and the aqueduct fell out of use.

The Pont du Gard continued to serve as a toll bridge for centuries, however. In the 13th Century CE, the King o’ France gave locals the right to collect tolls from those using the bridge, with the caveat that these same locals were in charge of maintaining the bridge.

Three centuries later, lead Huguenot Henri, Duke of Rohan (“Big Hank”) and his traveling soldiers caused significant damage to the bridge when they hauled their artillery across it on their way to battle against French royalists. To fit his carts and cannons through the bridge’s narrow spaces, he had one side of the second level of arches cut away to only a third of their original thickness. Unsurprisingly, this severely compromised the Pont du Gard’s structural integrity.

Restoration efforts began in 1703, commissioned by local authorities, but by 1835 the bridge had deteriorated so badly that it was nearing collapse. Napoleon III visited the site in 1850, and set architect Charles “Big Chuck” Laisné to the task of repairing it, with funds provided by the Ministry of State. Following further restoration efforts, the most recent of which concluded in 2000 CE, it continued to be used as a footbridge across the Gardon.

A Marvel of Engineering

The Pont du Gard’s highest tier stands over 160 feet above the surface of the Gardon River. The upper deck of the three-level structure descends only about one inch from one side to the other, showing the exceptional precision of which Roman engineers were capable, despite the limited technology of the time.

Photo credit: sabrina. G via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Historical Science & Technology, World-Changing Inventions

The Wheel Deal

Though history will ultimately show that the distinction belongs to the toaster oven, the wheel is often regarded as mankind’s greatest invention. If nothing else, the device paved the way for most other major inventions, making it the Citizen Kane of human mechanical innovations.

And, like that interminably boring yet highly influential film, the wheel seems like it’s just been around forever—never really invented, just a part of the fabric of the world since time immemorial. But deep down inside, you know it wasn’t just magically birthed upon the Earth—it had to come from somewhere. Here’s the skinny on how the wheel came to be.

Step 1: Wheel; Step 2: ???; Step 3: Fortune

Agriculture and pottery, two industries that can benefit greatly from the use of wheels, were “invented” during the Aceramic Neolithic period (circa 9500 to 6500 BCE). However, the wheel itself was not actually developed until several thousand years later, during the late Neolithic, roughly 4500 to 3300 BCE. The invention of the wheel is considered one of the leading factors leading to the rise of the Bronze Age.


Early precursors to the potter’s wheel were developed in the Middle East in the 5th millennium BCE. However, these stone or clay wheels were not true, free-spinning potter’s wheels and required considerable effort to turn. The earliest evidence of a true potter’s wheel comes from Mesopotamia circa 4000 BCE; the oldest surviving example has been dated to roughly 3100 BCE.

The earliest evidence of wheels being used for vehicles comes from the latter end of the 4th millennium BCE. Wheeled vehicles were developed nigh simultaneously by the Sumerian culture in Mesopotamia, the Maykop culture of northern Caucasus, and the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture of central Europe. The oldest surviving example of a wheel-and-axle vehicle comes from Stare Gmaine, in Slovenia; it is dated to roughly 3340 BCE.

The earliest visual depictions of wheeled vehicles come from the Halaf culture, circa 6500 BCE, but as there is no evidence of Halafians actually using wheeled vehicles, it’s probably just the result of some hippie painter getting a little crazy with the ol’ artistic license.

Roll Out

Certain evidence suggests that the Ancient Chinese developed wheeled vehicles as early as 2000 BCE. There is definitive evidence of the wheel’s use in China circa 1200 BCE, when the chariot was introduced to the region.

The oldest surviving evidence of the wheel in Britain was discovered in early 2016. A large, wooden wheel measuring roughly one meter in diameter was discovered at the Must Farm archaeological site in East Anglia, and has been dated to roughly 1100 BCE. Additional artefacts uncovered near the wheel, including a hub and a horse’s spine, suggest that the wheel was part of a horse-drawn cart. Who knew horses were into art?

Though the Olmecs and other Ancient American cultures developed wheel-like implements for children’s toys and other small-scale uses (historical examples date to roughly 1500 BCE), they did not use “full size” wheels for carts or other transportation uses. The prevailing theory as to why these cultures didn’t use wheeled vehicles is that they had no domesticated animals large or strong enough to pull carts. The only options were bison, which are notoriously difficult to domesticate, and llamas, which were not really used outside of the Andes Mountains.

Beginning in approximately 400 BCE, potter’s wheels and water wheels were used extensively in the Nubian region of Ancient Africa. Horse drawn chariots, an innovation derived from the Egyptians, were also common. Outside of Nubia, Ethiopia, and Somalia, the wheel was little used in Africa until its “introduction” by Europeans in the 19th century CE.

Construction & Variations

The earliest wheels were wooden discs with holes in them for axles to pass through. Early man quickly discovered that a single horizontal slice of a tree is unsuitable for use as a wheel, as it lacks the appropriate structural strength; instead, longitudinally-derived boards were rounded out to form circles.

These early wheels generally fell into one of two types during the Neolithic period: “circumalpine,” in which the wheel and axle rotate together; and “Baden,” in which the axle remains stationary. Spoked wheels were invented more recently (circa 2000 BCE), and allowed for lighter and faster vehicles. Spoked-wheel war chariots were developed shortly after; iron-rimmed wheels were introduced by the Celts during the first millennium BCE.

From there, very little variation, modification, or innovation occurred until the late 19th century CE, when wire-spoked wheels and pneumatic tires were developed.

Photo credit: spodzone via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Historical Science & Technology, Science & Society

Notable Local Alphabets of Archaic Greece

The Archaic Period of Ancient Greece lasted from the 8th century BCE until 480 BCE, during the Greco-Persian wars. The Greek alphabet was still not 100 percent codified at this point, as the 22 original symbols (letters) adapted from the Phoenician alphabet were slowly being replaced by the 24-letter Greek alphabet that exists today. As such, many areas of Greece developed their own variations of the alphabet, some of which were in use for centuries before the “official” Greek alphabet was put into use throughout the land. The most historically significant of these local alphabets are known as “Old Attic,” “Euboean,” and “Corinthian.” Read on to learn more!

The Old Attic Alphabet

Until the late 5th century BCE, the capital city of Athens used a variation of the so-called “light blue alphabet,” which included two unique letters and replaced multiple, similar letters with single letters (multiple E variations were reduced to a single E, for example). Additionally, Athens’ Old Attic alphabet used a number of letter forms that varied from the “traditional” shapes and were, at least partially, borrowed from alphabets of neighboring regions.

By the end of the 5th century BCE, it was commonplace for writing to be done in both standard and Old Attic alphabets, with words that used different letters in the different language written side-by-side. As part of the reforms that came about after the Thirty Tyrants, a formal decree was, um, decreed in 403 BCE, decreeing that all public writing must be done in using the newly-agreed upon full alphabet. Fittingly, given its name, the Old Attic alphabet was hastily packed in a cardboard box, stashed up in the rafters, and promptly forgotten about for like twelve years.

Pretty sure this is from that shield Indy finds in "Last Crusade."

Pretty sure this is from that shield Indy finds in “Last Crusade.”

The Euboean Alphabet

Not a typo of “European,” the Euboean alphabet was used Eretria, Chalkis, and related colonies throughout southern Italy. This variation brought the Greek alphabet to Italy, where it, in turn, begat Etruscan and other Old Italic alphabets, which ultimately led to the Latin alphabet we use today (more or less). A number of the features distinct to the Latin alphabet can be found in their nascent forms in the Euboean alphabet.

Like Old Attic, the Euboean alphabet dropped certain letters, combined some, and added others, while also using modified letter shapes. It even included letters that were not used in writing at all, but were still part of the alphabet for some reason; some of these letters made epic comebacks and found themselves in full use in later versions of the alphabet.

The well-known classicist (as “well known” as a classicist can be, anyway), and current Halls-Bascom Professor of Classics Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Barry “Big Barry” Powell has suggested that the Euboea region was likely where the Greek alphabet was first used in written form, in roughly 775 BCE, and that the written language may well have been developed solely for the purpose of writing down epic poetry. Someone get those beatniks a guitar and teach ‘em how to write an actual song like a normal person!

The Corinthian Alphabet

Used extensively across southern and eastern Peloponnese, the Corinthian alphabet also modified or reduced the usage of certain letters, while at the same time integrating letters from different alphabets that existed elsewhere. It maintained the use of two letters that were deemed obsolete in other alphabets, and combined its’ parent alphabet’s multiple Es into a single letter that was, for reasons unknown, shaped like a B; in place of the B, the Corinthian alphabet used a modified J.

The Corinthians were not real good with letters and such.

Photo credit: Kirk Siang via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Historical Science & Technology, Science

The Edwin Smith Papyrus

Named for the antiquities dealer who purchased it in 1862, the Edwin Smith Papyrus is oldest known medical writing to deal with trauma surgery. Consisting of descriptions of practical treatment for 48 different injuries, fractures, wounds, and tumors, it is believed to be an early military surgery manual. It’s suggests some pretty impressive skills and knowledge for doctors who operated 3,600 years ago.

Medicine Not Magic

Dated to circa 1600 BCE, during the 16th and/or 17th Dynasties of Ancient Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period, the Edwin Smith Papyrus (ESP) is one of four significant medical-related papyri from this period. Unlike the others, while prescribe magic or spells for certain maladies, ESP describes a legitimate scientific and medical approach to treating injuries and ailments.

Over 15 feet long, ESP includes extensive inscription on both sides. The A side contains 377 lines in 17 columns, while the B side holds 92 lines in 5 columns. It is almost fully intact, with only minor damage and wear despite its age; however, it was cut into multiple single-column pages by some 20th century jack@$$. ESP is written right-to-left in hieratic, which is essentially cursive hieroglyphics. (Who knew that was a thing?)

A portion of the Edwin Smith Papyrus, displaying some splendid penmanship.

A portion of the Edwin Smith Papyrus, displaying some splendid penmanship.

Most of the medical information provided by the ESP relates to trauma and surgery. The front details 48 case histories of injuries/illnesses and their treatments, organized by organ or body part, starting with the head and moving down the body. Each case also offers additional info on the patients, explanations of what caused the trauma (in most cases), diagnosis, and prognosis. Titles are highly descriptive—“Practices for a gaping wound in his head, which has penetrated to the bone and split the skull”—because catchy titles had not yet been invented. The back of ESP contains eight magic spells, five prescriptions, and a few sections devoted to gynecology and cosmetics.

A number of treatments are described in detail, including closing wounds (of the lip, throat, and shoulder) with sutures, bandaging, splinting broken bones, poultices, infection prevention and cures (mostly honey-related), and how to stop bleeding with raw meat, which seems a bit suspect by modern standards. ESP contains the world’s first known descriptions of several internal structures of the skull and brain, as well as the first ever written use of the word “brain”. (Like ever, in the history of ever. Ever.)

Big Ed with the Assist

Born in Connecticut in 1822, Edwin “Big Ed” Smith was an American Egyptologist. He purchased the papyrus that now bears his name in Luxor, Egypt, at age 40, and it was in his possession until his death in 1906. His daughter subsequently donated the papyrus to the New York Historical Society, who displayed it at the Brooklyn Museum from 1938 to 1948. At that time, it was gifted by the Society and the Museum to the New York Academy of Medicine, where it is still on display today. (It was briefly on exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, from 2005 to 2006.)

Smith had a working knowledge of hieroglyphs, but did not know hieratic well enough to translate the scroll himself. In 1930, it was successfully translated by American archaeologist James Henry “Big Jim” Breasted and Dr. Arno Luckhardt. This translation demonstrated for the first time that the Ancient Egyptians used rational, scientific medical treatment methods, not just magic potions and spells as other medical resources of the time suggested.

Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images via Scandinavian / No known copyright restrictions

Historical Science & Technology, World-Changing Inventions

Bloomery: Iron, Not Underpants

Iron is, for lack of a better word, good. If you haven’t spotted any iron around you today, it’s only because we’re so used to it that it has become essentially invisible. But before iron became ubiquitous in architecture, transportation, and elsewhere, the people of Earth had to make do without and hold their buildings and bridges up with rocks or trees or whatever. And so, tired of an ironless lifestyle, ancient man created the bloomery, with which they could smelt iron to their hearts content.

A Bloom of One’s Own

Consisting of a pit or chiminey (generally made of earth, clay, stone, or other heat-resistant material) with one or more pipes entering through the side walls near the base, a bloomery was the earliest manmade method of smelting iron. Preheated charcoal is used to “fire” iron ore inside the bloomery, and the pipes allow air to enter the furnace via natural draft or with assistance from bellows. The product of a bloomery is porous iron and slag, known as “bloom.” The so-called “sponge iron” that results from the process can be further forged to create wrought iron.

Not coincidentally, the development and widespread use of the bloomery ushered in the Iron Age. Earlier samples of processed iron do exist, but these artefacts have been identified as meteoric iron, which required no smelting, or happy accidents produced in bronze smelting processes.

The surviving remnants of an early American bloomery.

The surviving remnants of an early American bloomery.

A History of Bloomery

The earliest archaeological evidence of the use of bloomeries comes from East Africa, where bloomery-smelted iron tools have been dated to 1000 to 500 BCE. In sub-Saharan Africa, Forged iron tools dating back to 500 BCE have been found amongst relics from the highly advanced and mysterious Nok culture.

In Europe, the first bloomeries were small by necessity, capable of smelting only about 1 kg of iron at a time because they simply could not be built any bigger at the time. By the 14th century BCE, large bloomeries with capacities up to 300 kg had been developed. Some even used waterwheels to power their bellows.

At a larger scale, bloomeries expose iron ore to burning charcoal for longer. Combined with the more powerful air blast required to adequate heat the charcoal in these larger chambers, this often led to the accidental production of pig iron. This pig iron was naught but a waste product for roughly a century, until the arrival of the blast furnace, which enabled smelters to oxidize pig iron and turn it into cast iron, iron, or steel.

Eventually, the bloomery would be replaced for nearly all smelting processes by the blast furnace. Developed in China in the 5th century BCE, the blast furnace did not make its way to the West until the 15th century CE. It was long thought that the ancient Chinese did not use bloomeries, and instead went straight to blast furnacin’. However, recent evidence suggests that bloomeries were in use in China as early as 800 BCE, having migrated eastward from Europe.

Photo credit: mixedeyes via Small Kitchen / CC BY-NC-SA