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Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Science, Technology and Innovation

This week is science and engineering week (we have plans to celebrate at the Centre) and I have just been reading Ian Shaw’s Ancient Egyptian Technology and Innovation (Bloomsbury 2012) and thinking about how it fits with what I know about Egyptian lithic (i.e. flint) technology.

So, after a long time of know blogging, a few thoughts on Egyptian technology and of course their lithics! The Egyptians used flint tools much later than others in the region. Tillmann (1999) drew up a comparative table of flint use for Egypt and adjoining regions. The detail could be debated. For example, Tillmann stated that flint working ceased in Greece c. 1500 B.C. However, a study by Runnels (1982) showed that obsidian and chert was used until the 10th and 9th centuries BC. Obsidian was used until 400-300 BC. Part of the difficulty lies in differentiating between a lithic and metal using society when there is a continuum, not dichotomy. For example, threshing flints were known in the Levant until the 20th century. Yet, this society would not be considered ‘stone-age’. However, Tillmann’s general conclusion that flint was used in Egypt until a surprisingly late date is correct, in fact it was commonly used into the New Kingdom. 

Does this mean that in some ways they were backward? I would say ‘no’. Flint is sharper than metal, it is lighter (so arrows tipped with it will go further) and is ubiquitous in Egypt as far south as Thebes. Even the fact that it breaks easy may be seen as an advantage. A flint-tipped projectile point breaking in a body is more likely to kill than something which can be pulled cleanly out. The serrated quality of bifacial tools further enhances cutting and their irregular surface might additionally encourage hemorrhaging. Modern hunters sometimes draw a file across metal arrowheads to produce the same effect. One might almost say it is such a great material why did anyone ever use metal? I would guess because metal was pretty, great for making sparkly things.

It’s sometimes said that the Egyptians used flint for a long time because it was bound up with their ideology. To summarize, flint was associated with meteoric iron, it was described in ophidian terms (like the uraeus), it is associated with Seth and Thoth, the fiery daughters of Re, with doorkeepers of the underworld and the northern sky, it is a perfect celestial weapon against the enemies of Re. All this ideological stuff continued into the Ptolemaic Period. Maybe because flint was ideologically important, it was used for a long time. May be, or may be it was used because it was so good (I have even wondered if flint went out of use in graves because arsenical copper was shinier than it, and shininess was an important ideological facet - See Graves-Brown 2013).

If the former, does this make the Egyptians strangely illogical; in thrall to religion? Again no! It has been shown time and time again that people will rarely take up new ideas unless it fits with their own ideologies. Even in the history of weaponry, which one might think was purely logical, development has been guided by ideology, including such unlikely or seemingly illogical areas as aesthetics (van Creveld 1989, 75-76). 

Runnels, Curtis. “Flaked stone artefacts in Greece during the Historical Period.” Journal
of Field Archaeology 9 (1982): 263-273.

Tillmann, Andreas. “Dynastic stone tools.” In Encyclopedia of the archaeology of ancient Egypt, edited by K.A. Bard, 262-265, London: Routledge, 1999.

 Van Creveld, Martin. Technology and war from 2000BC to the present. New York: The Free Press, 1989.

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