We went to Athens a week ago and got to enjoy some of their world class museums. I was glad to have a second, more leisurely visit this time to the National Archaeology Museum, especially the Prehistoric and bronze collections.
The Prehistoric collection has some of the earliest pottery, sculpture and jewelry found in Greece. I was struck this time by how successive technological innovations in ceramics and metal working opened successive floodgates of creativity. It seems that, as soon as a new technological development became diffused, there would follow immediately wave after wave of new designs. Some of these design changes were utilitarian, some were aesthetic, and some even led to the creation of new tools, but the abruptness of these waves of innovation suggest that these hundreds of new ideas were just waiting in people's minds for an opportunity to become real.
I've been browsing in Ideas: a history of thought and invention, from fire to freud by Peter Watson, which talks about the ancient equivalent of patents, wherein kings held the rights to innovations created by their craftsmen and which afforded them economic or political advantages. But as certain technologies like bronze forging and lost wax casting broke away from those restrictions, the knowledge of these technologies spread, and in many different places variations emerged simultaneously, the way that ripples on a pond echo and create new sets of concentric circles.
The museum in Athens displays some rudimentary molds and unfinished castings like this one that illustrate the process of trial and error (read: learning). By about 1750 BC bronze as we know it was perfected from an alloy of copper with tin and other metals. According to Watson, metallic tin never occurs naturally, so bronze depended as well on major developments in mining and smelting. How the ancients learned to identify sources of tin is remarkable in itself.
But as amazing as the explosion of technological knowledge in ancient times was -- extracting metals from ores and working them, glass making, ceramics, tool design -- equally amazing are the beautiful forms that these technologies produced. Little bronze figurines and axe blades are one thing, but to create something like the Jockey of Artemision (ca 140BC) and the youth pictured at the top of this post, required a unique and awesome fusion of ability and imagination (click on the images to enarge).
The ancient creations are surprisingly beautiful even in our post-modern age, and they strike a chord in us from across the centuries. They give us further evidence that technology is not an end in itself, whether it's bronze casting or robotics. Rather, technology is a means for us to release the ideas that are latent in all of us.
The more accessible that any technology becomes, the more we flourish. The more inaccessible that technology, the more it is used for the interests of a few. That's the philosophy behind open source. Technology can be exploited for bad ideas as well as good ones, but who knows what ideas are locked up on the wrong side of a political, economic or digital divide, waiting for the right tool to make them real?