Friday, 3 August 2018

Book Review: Ancient Inventions by Peter James and Nick Thorpe

Pros: nice overview on a large number of topics 

Cons: only a few photographs, mostly hand drawn illustrations, dated information

The book is comprised of an introduction and chapters on medicine, transportation, high tech, sex life, military technology, personal effects, food, drink, and drugs, urban life, working the land, house and home, communications and sport and leisure. Each chapter is subdivided, so under personal effects there are sections on mirrors, makeup, tattooing, soap, razors, perfume, wigs, clothing and shoes, jewelry, spectacles, and umbrellas. They’re followed by a shortened list of sources, a bibliography and index. The book covers a surprisingly large range of topics, and a large range of locations. While the majority of ancient artifacts are from the Middle East/Mediterranean, the book covers a fair amount of Chinese discoveries as well. South and Central America, Japan, India, and other places are also mentioned to a lesser degree.

Modern society tends to look down on civilizations of the past as being lesser in many ways. This book shows that a lot of habits and tools we think are modern have been around for a long time. Sometimes they’re lost and rediscovered, sometimes they have a long continuous history. The ingenuity of our ancestors is incredible and it’s fascinating to see the variety of things they invented.

Most of the images are hand drawn illustrations, which is fine when showing cross sections but odd when they’re meant as reproductions of historical items. I’m guessing they were unable to secure the rights to photographs and so did the next best thing, but it really would have been better to have photographs. And what photos the book does have are all black and white.

The book came out in 1994, so the information is already dated. That’s not to say it’s all wrong, just that you have to accept that not all of the conclusions mentioned here are still agreed upon. I do think the authors did a fantastic job of both showing how archaeological conclusions shift over time as new finds are discovered/researched, and also explaining that some mysteries may have different solutions to the ones proposed in this volume.

While the book has some limitations, it’s a fantastic volume if you want a nice overview of the breadth of human achievement throughout ancient history.

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