Ancient Greeks: Science and Wisdom

For Ancient Greeks, the natural world was a source of wonder and inspiration. Philosophers pondered sundry subjects, seeking the secrets of the night sky or what makes for a satisfying tune. Such questing curiosity inspired technological advances that we are only fully appreciating today, as Jane Desborough and Matthew Howles told CWA Editor Matthew Symonds.


Ancient Greek philosophers believed they could count on the muses to dispense wisdom. This group of goddesses, usually thought to number nine, were beseeched for aid on a wide spectrum of subjects. Clio, for example, was versed in history, while Euterpe was the muse to sound out about flute playing, and Urania held the secrets to astronomy. Those seeking their favour – and the creativity that flowed from it – had the option of visiting shrines dedicated to them, with a famous cult centre established in the Vale of the Muses below Mount Helicon. This place of worship held statues of historical notables in the arts and was known as a ‘Mouseion’, from which we get the modern word ‘museum’. Given this link between ancient shrines that put the past on show, and modern institutions where visitors can find inspiration aplenty, it could not be more apt that an exhibition dedicated to Ancient Greek curiosity about the natural world has opened at the Science Museum, London (see ‘Further information’ box).

LEFT Amphora (storage jar) depicting a ship, made in Athens, about 520-510 BC, attributed to an anonymous artist in the Circle of the Lysippides Painter. IMAGE: © Reiss-Englehorn-Museen Mannheim (Germany), Photo: Carolin Breckle. On loan from the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen Mannheim
Amphora (storage jar) depicting a ship, made in Athens, about 520-510 BC, attributed to an anonymous artist in the Circle of the Lysippides Painter. IMAGE: © Reiss-Englehorn-Museen Mannheim (Germany), Photo: Carolin Breckle. On loan from the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen Mannheim.

Observers could be forgiven for concluding that the muses were in a particularly forthcoming mood during the Greek era. There were stunning advances in a host of subjects, including philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, healthcare, and classification of the animal kingdom. We can still follow these developments in copies of manuscripts that have survived from the ancient world, while examples of Greek technology also crop up in their art. This can range from the obvious, such as ships sailing across painted vases, to far more subtle manifestations of Greek thinking. Statues of athletes, for instance, could showcase idealised proportions for the human body. These would be calculated from the measurements of the smallest part of the little finger, which allowed the size of the hand to be determined. That could be scaled up in turn, ultimately creating a mathematically pleasing distillation of the human form. When it comes to assessing the tools, instruments, and vehicles made possible by Greek thinking, though, opportunities are mixed. While archaeology has provided examples of surgical kit, many mysteries abound about the true capabilities of Greek ships and mechanical computing devices such as the Antikythera Mechanism. Here, we examine three subjects among those explored in the Science Museum exhibition, where researchers are using modern scientific techniques worthy of the Ancient Greeks to shed new light on the achievements of their era.

Winds of change

The maritime accomplishments of Ancient Greek sailors and explorers have fascinated audiences both ancient and modern. It was around 630 BC that the first Greek, Kolaios of Samos, is known to have reached the Atlantic. That traders followed hot on his heels is suggested by the presence of high-status late-7th- and 6th-century Greek goods at sites in the vicinity of the southern Spanish coast. Curiosity about the source of some of the goods flowing in the other direction, from northern Europe to Greece, seemingly inspired a fabulous voyage by Pytheas of Massalia in around 320 BC. He took an interest in both tin and amber while embarking on a journey that involved a circumnavigation of Britain, an apparent trip to Jutland, and conceivably also a landing in southern Iceland. While the exploits of Pytheas remained the exception, there is ample evidence for the role of Greek ships in exchanging both goods and ideas around the Mediterranean. Not only can objects be found far from their place of manufacture, but the cargos of wrecked vessels still lie clustered on the seabed. When it comes to Greek technology, the most famous such wreck must be that off the island of Antikythera, where a ship foundered in about 70-50 BC. It was carrying a wealth of desirable goods, including what was for many years a unique example of an ancient geared calculating mechanism.

Statue of the Oil Pourer, an athlete preparing for competition, 125-175 AD. IMAGE: © 2000 Musée du Louvre, Christian Larrieu. On loan from Paris, Musée du Louvre, Départment des Antiquités, Grecques, Étrusques et Romaines.

‘We have a statue of Hermes from the National Archaeological Museum in Athens that was recovered from the Antikythera wreck around 1901,’ says Jane Desborough, lead curator of the exhibition. ‘He was found along with lots of other statues, as well as amphorae, and it is believed that the ship was travelling from one of the Greek settlements, perhaps Rhodes, towards Italy. I love this statue of Hermes, not only because he seems particularly appropriate as a trade product and a messenger god, but also due to its striking appearance. Although most of the body was heavily eroded while it lay exposed on the seabed, the contours of Hermes’ face were perfectly preserved, because they lay immersed in silt.’

‘When it comes to the vessels transporting these goods, we have a 6th-century BCE amphora from the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museums in Mannheim showing the story of Dionysus and the pirates, who unwittingly kidnapped the god while he was masquerading as a human. Ships of this sort could be used by both merchants and pirates – there wasn’t a distinction between the vessels they used. By contrast, warships had a different design, so we really wanted an image of a trading-style vessel. Appropriately enough, the amphora itself may have been a traded object, with the reference to Dionysus reflecting how this was a means to spread culture as well as goods. Wine would once have been stored in and then served from the amphora, and we know this was a very popular Greek product. One place where it found particular favour was among the rulers of groups living around the Black Sea, which has turned out to be fortunate when it comes to trying to get a sense of what these ships were really like.’

A statue of Hermes discovered on the Antikythera shipwreck. Much of the body has been heavily eroded while it lay on the seabed, but the face was preserved in silt. IMAGE: Photo by M Symonds, statue lent by Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports – National Archaeological Museum, Athens

One of the problems with wrecks like that off Antikythera is that most of the timber elements have normally long since perished. So, while it is possible to get a sense of some of the goods being traded, for a long time artistic representations were the best available guide to the finer points of ship design. Because of that, a discovery made in late 2017 by the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project, led by Jon Adams from the University of Southampton, was the source of considerable excitement. The team used sophisticated deep-water camera systems to scour the seabed, and found an Ancient Greek merchant ship at a depth of over 2km. At that level, the water is oxygen free, meaning the timbers were preserved from wood-boring marine animals. Even so, the level of preservation is extraordinary, with elements like the rowing benches, rudder, and mast still present. Radiocarbon dating a sample of the ship dated the vessel to roughly 400 BC, making it the oldest and most intact Greek wreck ever located.

In a film on display in the exhibition, Jon Adams and Sophie Cannon explain how the University of Southampton is undertaking phase 2 of their research on the shipwreck. They took thousands of images of the wreck, to create a 3D digital model using photogrammetry. Because this provided the hull lines of the vessel, it was possible to make a physical scale model of the ship, which was tested in a water tank to see how efficient it was. Waves could be replicated in the tank, while modern software developed to design yachts was used to calculate the kind of speeds that could be reached with the sails. This showed that the hull design helped Greek sailors travel further and faster, with the ship potentially reaching speeds of 8 to 10 knots, which is half the speed of modern cargo ships. At the same time, the slender hull did leave the vessel vulnerable to capsizing when the wind changed direction, which might be exactly what happened in the Black Sea.

Mathematical music

Another rare wooden survival that features in the exhibition is an aulos or double pipe, on loan from the Musée du Louvre, Paris, which probably dates from 332 BC to 395 AD and was a popular wind instrument in antiquity. ‘This is one of the most complete surviving examples of an aulos,’ says Matthew Howles, Assistant Curator of Exhibitions. ‘We think it was found in Greco-Roman Egypt. Wooden auloi were probably quite common in the ancient world, but most surviving examples are more high-end versions made of bone or metal. We can roughly date this one because earlier and later examples have different characteristics. Roman versions, for example, have quite complicated mechanisms, a bit like those on a modern flute, which allow a wider range of notes to be played. By contrast, earlier ones tend to be a bit simpler, with fewer tone holes. One thing that is nice about this example is that it has a lot of versatility. It has many more tone holes – and therefore a wider range of available notes – than earlier, simpler auloi. This also gives you the flexibility to easily change the tuning of the instrument, using plugs to block different holes in whatever configuration required.’

Bell-krater wine-vessel depicting an aulete (aulos player), made in Athens, 430-420 BC, by an anonymous artist known as the Kadmos Painter. IMAGE: © Benaki Museum, Athens. On loan from the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture.

‘Along with the lyre, the aulos is the most important instrument of Ancient Greece and it often appears in art. Music was an absolutely fundamental part of Greek life at all levels. Some surviving auloi were clearly intended to be loud, and could be used in ritual processions or to accompany competing athletes. The example in our exhibition was a bit quieter, and perhaps used for musical education or at small community gatherings – for example formal drinking parties like the symposium. Despite this, a long-standing problem has been working out what exactly it sounded like. This is because the reed mouthpiece is so fragile that it does not survive. We worked with Stefan Hagel, a professor at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna, who has done a lot of work with aulos reconstruction.’

ABOVE Gold earrings (about 350-100 BC) decorated with Muses playing lyres. IMAGE: © Benaki Museum, Athens. On loan from the Benaki Museum, Athens.
Gold earrings (about 350-100 BC) decorated with Muses playing lyres. IMAGE: © Benaki Museum, Athens. On loan from the Benaki Museum, Athens.

In a video, Stefan Hagel describes developing software that can reconstruct missing components by creating a virtual 3D model of the instrument, and then calculating thousands of possible variations. This allows him to estimate how big the reeds would be, which provides a sense of the tuning of the instrument, and also allows him to create and play an accurate replica. The result is music that manages to feel simultaneously alien and hauntingly familiar.

‘Ancient Greeks were also very interested in the relationship between mathematics and music,’ says Matthew. ‘We talk a lot about Pythagoras, but he was just one of several philosophers debating how mathematics could be applied to music. It’s quite complicated, but he believed that mathematical rules defined the beautiful-sounding qualities of music. In very simple terms, Pythagoras and his followers demonstrated that you can think of musical notes and the relationships between them as mathematical ratios. Once you do that, you can create a system of talking about music through numbers and equations. For Pythagoras, the beauty of music lay in those mathematical relationships: essentially, if the mathematics looks beautiful, the music will sound beautiful. That theory didn’t always play out in practice, though, and others thought it was more to do with how we hear music and appreciate it on its own terms.’

Changing gears

Missing components have also bedevilled the study of geared calculating machines created in the Ancient Greek world. In recent years, the surviving fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism have been re-examined using cutting-edge X-ray technology. The results have revealed the inner workings of the mechanism in unprecedented detail and shown how an ingenious arrangement of gear trains could be used to calculate future astronomical events, such as the position of the planets, the phase of the moon, and possible eclipses (see CWA 108).

This Byzantine sundial-calendar is the second oldest known geared mechanical calendar in the world. On the front plate (TOP LEFT), the inscribed list of 16 cities or provinces and their latitudes can be made out around the central hole for the gnomon. Surviving gears can be seen behind the front plate (ABOVE LEFT and ABOVE RIGHT).
This Byzantine sundial-calendar is the second oldest known geared mechanical calendar in the world. On the front plate, the inscribed list of 16 cities or provinces and their latitudes can be made out around the central hole for the gnomon. IMAGE: Photos by M Symonds, the device is part of the Science Museum Group Collection.
Surviving gears can be seen behind the front plate (ABOVE and BELOW). IMAGES: Photos by M Symonds, the device is part of the Science Museum Group Collection.

For the best part of a century, the Antikythera Mechanism stood alone as a unique example of an ancient mechanical computing device. The next surviving detailed information about geared mechanisms occurred in a technical treatise from the Islamic world, which can be dated to over a thousand years after the Antikythera ship was wrecked in around 70-50 BC. Then, in 1983, the Science Museum acquired a most unusual portable Byzantine sundial-calendar. ‘This is now the second oldest geared mechanical calendar after the Antikythera Mechanism,’ says Jane. ‘The donor had acquired the device from the Lebanon, but that’s all we know in terms of its history. Sadly, much of the gearing has not survived over time, so we don’t have the fixings that once held them in place, but we do still have several gear wheels and a ratchet, as well as the front plate of the sundial. That is inscribed with key locations from the ancient world, including Constantinople, Athens, and Rome. It also gives their latitudes, so that you could make the adjustments to the sundial necessary to use it in those different locations. Sadly, the gnomon element that would cast a shadow is missing, but naturally that would allow users to tell the time, while the device also acted as a calendar, by calculating the positions of the sun and moon, and the lunar phases. Intriguingly, it does seem to be a descendent from the famous – and much more complex – Antikythera Mechanism, indicating that the basic technology survived through into the Byzantine era.’

Silver celestial globe depicting 48 constellations, 300-100 BC. IMAGE: © Nicolas and Alexis Kugel Collection, Photo: Guillaume Benoit. On loan from the Nicolas and Alexis Kugel Collection.

The inscribed list of 16 cities or provinces on the sundial proved instrumental to dating the device when it arrived at the museum in 1983. J Field and M Wright examined the remaining elements, and noted that with the exception of Rome, all of the locations would be within the Byzantine empire for some or all of the period from roughly AD 479-565. Indeed, the number of locations in or near Egypt prompted the suggestion that the sundial was well suited for use by sailors plying the Nile or the neighbouring coastline. Is it really plausible, though, that such technology was being used for essentially workaday purposes? Field and Wright certainly favoured it being a gadget intended for an educated layman, rather than an elite astronomer. They pointed to the absence of luxurious embellishments, while the indifferent workmanship apparent from cutting the gear teeth suggests manufacturing them was a familiar chore. Either way, the owners of such Byzantine devices had cause to be grateful for the Ancient Greek advances that enabled them.

Age of enquiry

RIGHT Gold headdress, (about 350-100 BC) adorned with an image of Athena, Goddess of Wisdom.
Gold headdress, (about 350-100 BC) adorned with an image of Athena, Goddess of Wisdom. IMAGE: © Benaki Museum, Athens. On loan from Benaki Museum, Athens.

Thanks to modern scientific techniques we can, then, gain fresh insights into the startling accomplishments of Ancient Greek thinkers. From ships’ hulls to music and geared mechanical devices, we find an era when a ferocious curiosity about the natural world translated into breathtaking technological advances. While the Ancient Greeks might have attributed these developments to the indiscretions of muses, we can celebrate them as an extraordinary outpouring of intellectual achievement.


The exhibition Ancient Greeks: Science and Wisdom will run at the Science Museum, London, until 5 June 2022.

Although entry to both the museum and exhibition is free, tickets for both should be booked in advance. See

CWA is grateful to Jane Desborough and Matthew Howles.