Technology transfer across the ages

  • Themes: Culture in Production

There are countless instances throughout history of what could be called intellectual property theft — from the appropriation of the technology of Chinese silk manufacture in Byzantium to beer-brewing or porcelain recipes in Europe. How did these technology transfers come about?

The Standard of Ur (2600 BC), Mesopotamia, British Museum, London.
The Standard of Ur (2600 BC), Mesopotamia, British Museum, London. Credit: agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo.

It is a truism to say that technology is all around us. Whether it’s the mobile phone you reach for before getting out of bed, the electricity powering your home, the car, bus or train you take to work or the web interface you use to attend a meeting, teach a class or consult with your doctor, technology is literally staring you in the face, all day, every day. Ah, you think, but not if I live off-grid. If I’m in a cabin in the forest without electricity, running water and Wi-Fi, then I’m free from technology. Actually, you’re not. The axe you use to split wood, the bucket and rope you employ to acquire water, the boots on your feet, the spun fabrics of which your clothes are made, are all products of technology.

Philosophers, historians, artists, scientists and engineers, ranging from the ultra-theoretical to those with a string of patents to their name, have written about technology for centuries, and the definition of this vast, often nebulous term has had countless incarnations since Aristotle’s writings on techne. As a domain of knowledge, he argued, techne enjoyed a lower status than either theoretical or moral knowledge, a point that was not lost on Eric Schatzberg in his recent book Technology: Critical History of a Concept. That perspective has certainly resonated throughout much of Western scholarship and has permeated my own field of ancient Near Eastern studies since the nineteenth century.

Writing about irrigation, metallurgy, ceramic manufacture or fishing nets has unquestionably been seen as a lower-status form of scholarship than expounding upon Gilgamesh, the law code of Hammurabi or royal rhetoric. And yet, as in our twenty-first-century world, technology was everywhere in the ancient Near East and, as such, is every bit as deserving of serious study as literature, art, hermeneutics or semiotics. For while Aristotle may have written a good deal about techne, the Greeks certainly did not invent technology, and although I have no interest in joining the late Samuel Noah Kramer in extolling the ‘firsts’ of Mesopotamian civilisation and their resonance for us today, it is certainly the case that technology predates ancient Greece by several million years, beginning with the first modification of matter by early hominins.

Technology today can be identified on many different scales, from the nano to the mega. In the ancient Near East, the scale was more compressed, yet the same principle obtained. Just as technology aids us — complicating our lives as well, to be sure, and placing constraints on what we can and cannot do — it also performed that function in antiquity. Technology in the ancient Near East can be discerned operating at a variety of physical and spatial scales, along a spectrum extending from the micro to the macro. At the micro end of the technological spectrum we can, for example, identify the use of boring and cutting tools to manufacture cylinder seals, small cylinders of a hard material (baked clay, shell, stone, metal) only a few centimetres long, engraved with scenes and sometimes inscriptions (in mirror-writing) which, when rolled onto a soft surface, like an unbaked clay tablet or lump of clay sealing the mouth of a storage jar, left an impression of whatever was carved on the seal itself as a means of identification. Thousands upon thousands of such cylinder seals, the earliest of which date to c.3500 BC and the latest to c.300 BC, are scattered across museums and private collections around the world. As for macro-scale examples of technology, these included buildings standing tens of metres high and extending over many thousands of square metres, irrigation canals running for kilometres, brickyards producing millions of baked bricks each year, state-run pottery workshops where hundreds of thousands of ceramic vessels were thrown on fast wheels and fired in industrial-sized kilns, and textile factories employing tens of thousands of workers (mainly women and children) that turned out hundreds of thousands of pieces of cloth for the dependent workers employed by the central government.

Writing, a technology that transformed communication and became an instrument of accounting long before any prayers or epics were recorded, was invented in southern Mesopotamia c.3400 BC and, over the ensuing centuries, became an essential part of administration and governance for both small states and large empires, employed for everything from small receipts for sales of goods and services to royal propaganda. Archaeologists and scholars of early writing systems have often discussed the ‘idea of writing’ and the problem of independent invention. In effect, this is a subject that applies to all technology in the ancient Near East. Was writing invented only once, after which the knowledge of it, from scribal practices to concepts about how to deploy it, diffused widely across the Eurasian landmass? Or were different writing systems invented in different areas that had no contact with or influence upon one another? Precisely the same discussion has taken place among metallurgists. Was bronze, for example, the alloy of tin and copper, discovered and perfected in far-flung locales, ranging from western Europe to China, or was it a unique invention, the knowledge of which spread across the continents?

In trying to assess the likelihood of prehistoric technology transfer there are, of course, many considerations. Bronze, for example, came to be employed in many areas lacking in tin or copper sources. In such cases, it was not necessarily a knowledge of the mining and refining (smelting) of ores that was adopted from another regional centre, but of casting and methods of manufacture. This raises the question of technological knowledge, or know-how. Is it possible for complex technologies that may involve what could be called ‘folk chemistry’ — the control of oxygen supply in a furnace, the use of fluxes and so on — to spread through verbal means? As we have no evidence of the movement of anything resembling written instructions or handbooks on technologies such as smelting, refining, casting or the construction and use of kilns, is it conceivable that such technological complexes were communicated and diffused without an actual movement of trained craftsmen?

There are countless instances throughout history of what could be called intellectual property theft — from the appropriation of the technology of Chinese silk manufacture in Byzantium to beer-brewing or porcelain recipes in Europe. When archaeological evidence clearly demonstrates that, chronologically, a certain technological innovation occurred in one place and, a thousand years later, it is found in another, distant locale, we are certainly justified in positing the origin of the technology in one core area and its subsequent diffusion elsewhere. Whether we are talking about bronze, which appeared in the Near East long before it began to be made in China, or cotton, which is attested in India millennia before it appeared in the Near East, most scholars are comfortable with presuming that one area was an original hearth of invention from which a given technology spread to other parts of Eurasia. The question is, however, by what means?

Itinerant craftsmen are well evidenced in the ancient Near East and one can conjure up any number of scenarios that might help us understand how their movement resulted in the concomitant spread of a particular technology. Gold filigree, for instance, was present in Georgia long before examples of it appear in the Royal Cemetery of Ur in southern Mesopotamia, c.2500 BC. Could some craftsmen have found their way from the Caucasus to what is today southern Iraq, introducing a new technology in jewellery manufacture for an élite clientele? The likelihood of this happening over vast distances within the lifetime of a single craftsman seems slim. However, the time-honoured, if somewhat discredited, notion of ‘diffusion’, once a panacea for all the inexplicable, seemingly coeval appearances of technologies across Eurasia, has something to offer in cases such as these. In the past, prehistorians rejected diffusion because it was invoked as a mechanism of contact in ways that now seem somewhat laughable. Every time the same motif appeared on pottery found thousands of kilometres apart, it was attributed to diffusion, going in the direction from the earlier to the later manifestation of the design. In the case of some technologies, critics of diffusionism argued, it was more logical to assume independent invention in two or more different places, rather than a speculative, chronologically implausible case of diffusion.

In fact, there are other ways in which technologies may diffuse and people, including craftsmen, may move across the landscape. Already in prehistoric times the presence of hugely dissimilar, painted pottery in one and the same small settlement suggests that exogamy may have served as a mechanism for the diffusion of alien motifs and even technologies. If, as has been demonstrated in ethnographic studies conducted all over the world, most pre-modern, pre-industrialised pottery manufacture was done by women, and exogamous marriage combined with patrilocal residence patterns were in place — in other words, women from one village, when they married, moved to the village of their husband — then it is easy to see how decorative motifs, and even shapes and pottery production techniques, could have been brought from one place to another as female potters were transplanted from their home villages to those of their mates.

Pottery manufacture and pottery decoration are not the only technologies that may have been transmitted across the landscape in this fashion. Metallurgy, stoneworking, textile crafts — anything, in short, from the macro to the micro — could have been diffused through exogamous marriage patterns. Of course, there are other driving factors as well. The advantages of a technology have, historically, led rulers to engage skilled craftsmen from outside their native regions. Examples abound in more recent times of skilled jewellers, armourers, fortification specialists, astrologers, physicians and many others leaving their homes to work for foreign princes. The advantages of cast bronze weaponry that could be standardised and mass-produced (within reason) would have been apparent to the kings of the city states of Umma and Lagash in southern Iraq when they went to war with each other in the mid-third millennium BC. Spearheads with sockets that could be firmly attached to a wooden spear shaft, cast iron arrowheads with three projecting wings for better flight and penetration, and armour-piercing war hammers were probably not invented over and over again, but, as technologies to be employed in war, conferring advantages to those with them over those without, they were almost certainly diffused along with the metalsmiths capable of manufacturing them.

In all of these examples we must reckon with a sliding archaeological timescale, from the earliest attestation of a given technology to the later manifestations of it. Yet such diffusion need not have occurred overnight. In some cases, it was surely an incremental process by which technologies and the advantages they brought with them were carried across short distances, through adjacent polities, until, after a few centuries or a millennium, they were to be found in widely separated areas, geographically speaking. In this sense, diffusion is a perfectly respectable mechanism to invoke in studies of technology transfer.

Yet another issue that is rarely mentioned in studies of technology in the ancient Near East is that of different states of technological sophistication in different areas. Technologies serve us in a variety of ways and can become essential without our even realising it. But not all societies or their members have the same technological needs. The military, for example, as noted in the examples cited above, had an appetite for certain kinds of technology that differed from the members of a village community. Urban societies had needs that rural ones did not. From an archaeological perspective, these differing needs contributed to a very different material culture ‘signature’. In other words, the sorts of finds made in excavating an urban setting may differ from those found in a rural one. A rural community may appear ‘Neolithic’ compared to an urban one. Two contemporaneous sites — one urban and the other rural — may differ to such an extent that the rural one appears stuck in the Stone Age while a few kilometres away people were living in utterly different conditions that appear more sophisticated and technologically advanced. This is not to cast aspersions on rural members of a society, for Neolithic societies, if by that we mean early agriculturalists and herders, used just as much technology as their Bronze or Iron Age urban-dwelling brethren. They simply used different technologies.

The very terms we employ to describe the broad phases of the human past in Eurasia — Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age — are inherently technology-based. What the so-called three-age system (devised by Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (1786–1865) c.1818 as a means of organising the collection in the Oldnordisk Museum in Copenhagen) failed to capture was the simultaneity of different technological systems. It is now clear, however, thanks to absolute methods of dating like radiocarbon, that hunters, gatherers and farmers, using what might be termed Stone Age technologies, lived side by side with town and city dwellers making use of technologies that might be more commonly ascribed to the Bronze or Iron Age. It is also clear that, in some areas, bronze tools and weapons continued in use for centuries after some neighbouring regions had moved from bronze to iron for most of their needs, while other contemporary communities – hunters, gatherers, fishermen, farmers — may have continued to use flaked stone tools that, taken out of context and without reliable means for their dating, could easily be mistaken for objects of Palaeolithic type from the Stone Age, thousands of years older.

What we see, therefore, is abundant evidence of the contextually dependent adoption of technology in ancient Near Eastern societies. Communities living in proximity to each other may have used very different sorts of technology, giving the appearance that one was still in the Stone Age while another was more ‘advanced’. The broad-brush approach, like Thomsen’s three-age system, led to a layer cake image of unidirectional technology uptake that is far too simplistic. The explosion of archaeological exploration in the Near East since the Second World War has resulted in the acquisition of a wealth of data from what were once considered marginal or peripheral zones. In reality, the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century focus on high-profile ‘centres’ of civilisation has given way to a much more truthful, accurate picture of life throughout the multiplicity of environmental zones that characterise the region. This picture shows us that humankind did not move in lockstep up an imaginary ladder of technological evolution. Technologies were adopted according to differing needs. Whether it was the proximity of abundant copper sources and the technical efficacy of bronze tools that caused the retention of bronze technology in the Persian Gulf, while contemporary communities in Assyria and Anatolia adopted iron, or the military imperative of Hittite and Egyptian armies that fuelled evolution in chariotry, technology was an independent variable in human existence that reflected the needs of the individuals, groups and communities employing it. What scholars have often labelled ‘conservatism’ with reference to technology — making a moral judgement upon those who seemingly shunned new technology out of a kind of ignorant or perverse unwillingness to change — can be shown to reflect a deep understanding of exactly what a given technology does and why it is implemented. Change and innovation in ancient technology are abundantly attested and so, too, is continuity. Technological praxis, learned experience and centuries-long tradition are all entwined in strategies of technological deployment in ancient societies that we, as modern students of those societies, must seek to understand, not to judge.


Daniel T Potts