TECHNOLOGY OF THE ANCIENT GREEKS


1) Metallurgy of steel

2) Bronze alloy

3) Beekeeping and medicine




1) I continue to find valuable insights into culture in the world of words, believing that words are, in every sense of the term, true "artifacts". Looking at the Gr. sideron, I note first that it cannot be a Greek word in terms of the Indo-European process, since an initial *s-* followed by a vowel will weaken to a rough breathing (*hideros, which does not occur). The standard etymology ties sideron to Latin sidus 'star', both coming from some Near Eastern source which has discovered the basic properties of iron in meteorite residues. Since meteorites are heated and at the same time reduced as they pass through the atmosphere, the final product which reaches earth will be pure iron, chem. Fe. Soft, non-rusting and possibly magnetic, this iron in insignificant bits would be interesting but not really important.

A passage in Homer makes it clear than in whatever period Homer existed, or wrote about, steel (as against iron) was current, and a good deal was known about its properties. In the passage in the Odyssey describing the way Odysseus thrusts the burning end of a pole into Polyphemus' eye, Homer remarks that it sizzled like a forge-heated piece of metal which the smith plunges into water, '... for that "ge" is the strength of iron...'. Now it is true that steel does harden by being heated above the transformation point, and cooled rapidly, and this is true of an iron material which has a range of carbon from ten to forty points, but not of meteoric iron or, on the other hand what we call "cast iron", which has a larger amount of carbon. So its must be that Homer or his sources are aware of a heat-treatable variety of steel, which on hardening can be made hard enough to cut unhardened steel. This hardening property, with the subsequent "tempering" or withdrawing of selected amount of the hardness, is what makes steel a superior material.

But what does the particle "ge" mean? Certainly in this context it is "deictic", it points to the situation mentioned and puts the accent on "sideron", in contrast to something else. Copper and copper based alloys behave in exactly the opposite way when heated and plunged in water, they become totally soft, or annealed. Homer is foot-noting "for this is the way you harden steel, (but not copper, please)". This points to a sophisticated knowledge of the two current metals and their treatment by the metalworker in his forge. There has been much discussion about exactly when a true steel appeared in ancient times, I believe this passage establishes without doubt the availability of the hardenable variety of iron (that is, steel) at least as early as Homer's time, or at the time he is drawing his information from.

2) In the Telemacheia, when Athena disguises herself as a ship's captain, she says she is carrying loads of "white iron" or "leukon sideron" to Cypros. This can be nothing else that the whitish oxide of tin which was needed for alloying with copper to make bronze. (Copper casts abominably, while the addition of about ten percent tin makes it flow into the moulds perfectly, while increasing the base strength of the material.) The word for tin is Gr. kassiteros, and the Kassiterides which Herodotos mentions are somewhere in the West, perhaps the Scilly islands, or the tin mines in England which had been worked since remote times. The question remains: How were large amounts of tin transported from Britain to Cypros? An overland route seems highly improbable, an all-sea route possible but difficult with a heavy load. Since Athena is speaking of sea transport to Cypros, could it be that the Mediterranean leg of the trip was by boat, overland by oxcart from northern France, and boat again from England? In any case, it is white tin, not gray cast iron bars, which arrives at Cyprus by boat! Nobody would bring iron to Cyprus, the ancient home of the copper trade, whereas tin in a natural concomitant of copper in making bronze. (There is a much more elaborate treatment of this topic in my web page: Mythology of the Greeks.)

3) In the wake of much discussion of ancient beekeeping, I would like to point to a source of further information. Mr. Charles Mraz came to Vermont some sixty years ago and became expert in beekeeping and the scholarship of the subject. He noticed that beekeepers rarely had arthritis, and studied the injection of venom from live bees into subjects who had arthritic conditions, with some success. The AMA never condoned his work, but groups in other parts of the world worked in similar directions. He is a quick and knowledgeable man in his eighties, and I believe a good reference for anything, ancient or modern, connected with bees. He can be reached by letter: Charles Mraz/ Chipman Hill, Middlebury VT 05753,

I suspect that the ancient symbol of medicine with two snakes tied to a stick, may have been a practical way of injecting snake venom, which is chemically very similar to bee venom, for medical uses.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris