Last weekend I was in Portland, Oregon for my daughter’s wedding. I’m happy to say that everything went wonderfully—even the weather—and I am more than pleased with my new son-in-law and his family. I welcome them with open arms.
Of course, while in Portland I had to make a pilgrimage to Powell’s Books being the media freak I am. My first day in town, I met with my sister and brother -in-law (also in town for the wedding) and we allotted a short period of time there before heading out for dinner.
It wasn’t enough time so I went back the next day as it was only a few blocks from my hotel.
By the end of the second trip, I had accumulated quite a few books, all of which related to this project and the early history of humankind so I could continue my research regarding our history with measures. I was bemoaning how heavy everything was going to be in my luggage when the cashier pointed out that for a flat rate (about $14, as I recall) Powell’s would ship everything to my house. That was the last thing I needed to hear (too tempting) so during my third trip there in as many days, I hauled back the books I’d already bought and acquired a few more. (Hey, great selection and a lot of used books—a bargain in my “book.”)
I had everything shipped to the house (it all arrived two days ago) with the exception of one book that I decided to take with me despite its heft (at around 1.63 kg or around 3.5 pounds).
That book was The Seventy Great Inventions of the Ancient World, edited by Brian M. Fagan.
Why am I telling you this? Uncovering that history of our measures has been quite challenging. I already had a book called The Archaeology of Measurement: Comprehending Heaven, Earth and Time in Ancient Societies, edited by Iain Morley and Colin Renfrew (along with countless other books for my research) but it didn’t contain the information I needed.
The farther you go back in time you go, the sketchier the dates get, which has been causing me problems.
I’ve been working under the hypothesis that routine measures likely arose once people transitioned from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and it made sense to erect permanent or semipermanent buildings. I’ve already illustrated, even one person building a small, grass-type hut immediately needed a measure to make a perfectly round circle for the outer wall. It then stands to reason that multiple people, building a more permanent structure over days, weeks, months or years, would have to have had some agreed upon length or, surely, uneven walls would not have withstood anything very well.
Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:G%C3%B6bekli_Tepe,_Urfa.jpg
The trouble is, the earliest cities of which we’re aware (Jericho in Palestine at around 9,000 BCE and Göbekli Tepe in Turkey at about 10,000 BCE) were already quite complex (see photo).
Smaller settlements prior to those were likely built near rivers and lakes for access to both water and the foodstuffs living in the water (fish, etc.). However, as the last ice age ended, water levels around the world rose by roughly 100 meters (300 feet) and those locations would likely be made of more perishable materials (wood vs. stone) and are under water if any evidence of them still exists at all.
Thus, my dilemma reconstructing our measurement history for the book I’m writing to go with the documentary.
Given that early dates for various things are all over the place, depending on the source, I’ve decided that based the vast number of contributors and how the book is laid out; Seventy Great Inventions will form the basis of my historical dates as I lay out that part of the story.
In future, if someone wants to take exception with my hypotheses, they can argue with me (though I’ll likely have evidence to back up my assertions) but if they want to argue dates, they can argue with the book’s authors.
I’ll continue to do research through other sources, of course, but Seventy Great Inventions will be my “go to” for dates.
Or at least that’s what I envision for right now.
Projects this large and complex can test one’s resources but so far, so good.
Thanks for reading this far!
Sounds like an excellent trip to Portland all the way around! If I’m ever in that city, Powell’s Books will be on my list of places to visit. A book lover’s paradise, for sure.
Interesting article. But I fail to see the need to add USC in parentheses. Also, as for the mass of the book, I’d be curious as to what value you would get if you put it on a mass balance. How many kilograms is it really?