What the Ancients Did For Us

BBC Two (ended 2005)


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Episode Guide


  • Season 1
    • The Britons
      The Britons
      Episode 9
      A lot of people still think that we were just woad-covered savages before the Romans came along. Well, we weren't - firstly we weren't covered in woad but dressed in a rather elegant new-fangled invention - trousers; more importantly we were organized, spiritual, technologically advanced Brits with European business connections – all without towns and cities or being able to read and write!

      This programme shows the evolution of the people of Britain from Stone Age hunters to Iron Age warriors. From early people who used animal bone picks to dig mines to a society skilled in the use of metallurgy, bronze, iron and gold. From a nomadic existence to a society organized into tribes with their own coinage and identities. From farmers using simple wooden ploughs to ferocious warriors driving thousands of chariots and repulsing the invading Roman army of Julius Caesar.moreless
    • The Greeks
      The Greeks
      Episode 8
      The ancient Greek civilisation flourished for about a thousand years, not as a unified country but rather as a loose association of city states, both on the mainland of Greece and elsewhere around the Mediterranean. The philosopher Plato described the states as being like a series of frogs sitting around a pond. Although the Greeks drew on the ideas of various earlier civilisations, they were the people who, more than any other, handed down to us the foundations of our democracy, our notions of ethics and justice, our science, our mathematics and our music.

      But it mustn't be forgotten that the Greeks were a warlike lot and in order to pursue their territorial ambitions they invented some deadly weapons – for instant take the bow and arrow. Aware of its limitations and short range they mechanized it like a giant cross bow. It was loaded by bearing down on it with your whole body weight and it became known as the Belly Bow. The Greeks also invented the catapult and designed monster machines that could throw huge pieces of ammunition crushing their hapless opponents. Archimedes is reputed to have built a solar powered death ray which could set ablaze any enemy ships that came in range. In wartime communications between allies is vital so they came up with telegraphy and later semaphore.

      To keep their troops in the peak of fitness they invented the Olympic games of 776 BC and built wonderful stadiums to hold them in. To keep the sport fair they also invented the starting gate which was based on a torsion mechanism. To keep things fair in politics they encouraged democracy and invented Jury Allotment Machines - a clever device designed to select people for jury service which aimed to cut out the possibility of corruption. When it came to having fun they gave us drama, acting, stage sets, literature and built wonderful outdoor theatres. They also invented the first Robots to amuse and baffle the audiences, and to raise their spirits they listened to the Water Organ, a machine that claims the first known use of compressed air.

      But perhaps their most amazing invention is the first known computer. This was a small box stuffed with cogs and moving parts all skilfully made and by turning a handle it would display the movements of planets to an astonishing degree of accuracy -in fact it was a planetarium.moreless
    • The Egyptians
      The Egyptians
      Episode 7
      Egypt became a unified country five thousand years ago and - until the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332 BC - remained a fiercely independent land with its own very distinctive art, religion and culture. Egypt was the superpower of its day and her kings were treated as demigods throughout the Mediterranean world – but what did they do for us?

      It goes without saying they gave us mummies and mummification, and one of the great wonders of the ancient world – the pyramids. On a more practical level they invented the sewn plank boat, a method of boat construction using wooden pegs and fibre rope - no nails. Huge boats were built using this technique, the most famous one belonging to King Khufu, the builder of the great pyramid in 2500 BC. The recent discovery of a Bronze Age boat in Britain reveals that this method of construction had found its way here and could have influenced our own boat builders.

      Trying to control the flood water of the Nile, the Egyptians built the first dam, a huge undertaking which unfortunately didn't survive a severe flash flood.

      Technology and tool-making are high up on the list of Egyptian inventiveness. To speed up the smelting of bronze they invented the foot bellows and devised the multiple headed drill – a drill that could cut through at least three beads at the same time.

      As a spin-off from their bead and jewelry making, the Egyptians came up with faience, an attractive glazing material made from quartzite; they quickly put it to use for pottery and tile making. The Egyptians adored decoration and although they didn't invent glass-making they developed the technique to produce highly colourful glass objects; these were highly prized by the wealthy.

      With royalty in mind they gave us the wig, make-up and wonderful clothing, and to keep all this safe they came up with the first lock. To pass the time of day they invented fishing as a hobby and the folding stool to sit on whilst waiting for that bite.

      And last but not least the Egyptians liked to keep meticulous records and invented paper from the papyrus plant. It's a wonderful material with long fibres and can also be used for basketry, sandals and rope.moreless
    • The Mesopotamians
      There has always been a great debate as to who kicked off civilization: was it the Egyptians, the Greeks or the Romans? Well, actually, none of them did. Human history began in the great alluvial plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, with its rich and immensely fertile soil: a land known as Mesopotamia. The people that dwelled here eight thousand years ago had learned to irrigate the land with canals and ditches, and were keen farmers. From this came plenty, which relieved man of the need to fight for survival. The Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian civilisations flourished here in an area stretching from modern Turkey, to western Syria, and Iraq.

      But what did they do for us? For a start, they invented writing, with the oldest book, the epic of 'Gilgamesh', written around 4,500 years ago. They also gave us the first written laws - apparently to restrain 'drunkenness' in the population; a side effect of another of their innovations, beer.

      They invented brick, which they produced in millions to build the first cities and their 'Ziggurat' temples. In warfare they gave us the first professional army and invented the tank or siege engine, and it was here that the wheel was invented; and then the chariot in 4,000 BC.

      They observed the movement of the stars, and created the Zodiac, thereby being responsible for both astrology and astronomy.

      The list goes on – the reed boat and the sail, glass blowing... They even came up with the electric battery, although no one is quite sure what they did with it.moreless
    • The Indians
      The Indians
      Episode 5
      India is one of the oldest and richest civilizations in the world. It is home to the world's first planned cities, where every house had its own bathroom and toilet five thousand years ago. The Ancient Indians have not only given us yoga, meditation and complementary medicines, but they have furthered our knowledge of science, maths - and invented Chaturanga, which became the game of chess.

      According to Albert Einstein, they "taught us how to count", as they invented the numbers 1-9 and 'zero', without which there would be no computers or digital age. Unfairly we call this system of counting Arabic numbers - a misplaced credit.

      Two thousand years ago the Indians pioneered plastic surgery, reconstructing the noses and ears on the faces of people who had been disfigured through punishment or warfare. They performed eye operations such as cataract removal and invented inoculation to protect their population from Smallpox, saving thousands of lives.

      To create images of their gods they invented a technique of casting bronze called 'Lost Wax', a five-millennia old process still in use today. India was one of the first civilizations to successfully extract Iron from ore and they quickly learnt how to cast huge structures with it - some of them surviving. Their metallurgists went on to invent steel which they called Wotz. It would take the British until the 19th century to come up with the same substance.

      In 1790 the Indians defeated the British Army in the battle of Pollilur with a secret invention – the rocket. The British eventually stole the idea and used it against Napoleon's fleet.

      But perhaps the most important invention the Indians have given us is cotton. 3500 years ago whilst we were lumbering around in animal skins and itchy wool they were cultivating a plant and weaving it into a material that would revolutionise Britain. They also pioneered the printing and dyeing of cotton in a staggering array of colours and invented the spinning wheel - something Europe wouldn't catch up with until the Middle Ages. The mechanization of this simple device by Hargreaves and Arkwright led to the industrial revolution and turned Britain into a superpower.moreless
    • The Romans
      The Romans
      Episode 4
      The city of Rome was founded on the banks of the Tiber in 753 BC and for a thousand years the western world was ruled from within its walls. To support this vast Empire the Romans created complex infrastructure and used the techniques of mass production, centuries before the industrial revolution. In this programme Adam Hart-Davis will find out how the Romans managed to do so much, so long ago and discover just what the Romans did for us.

      For a start they created the first professional, salaried army and invented fearsome war machines. To move around the Empire they constructed thousands of miles of roads – and we find out what it actually takes to build one of these.

      They built amphitheaters and race tracks and in the process brought gladiatorial games and equine sport to every corner of their empire.

      They pioneered the mass production of glass and double glazing, and created enormous aqueducts that fed water from distant sources into the heart of their cities and bath houses, created clever heating systems, and flushing toilets. They produced vast quantities of marble veneer to clad their cities and recent evidence suggests they cut the stone using multiple bladed water-powered saws. To move such heavy material they constructed cranes and invented the first ball-bearings.

      But perhaps their one invention that has had the biggest impact on the modern world more than anything else is concrete, they used it everywhere from houses to bridges, (it would set hard under water), and without it they couldn't have built the Pantheon and its vast domed roof – unsurpassed in size until the 19th century.moreless
    • The Aztecs, Maya and Incas
      These three peoples lived in a vast area of modern-day Central and South America which incorporates coastal strips, hot and steamy jungles, savannah grassland and cold windy highlands. Though they spoke different languages, they had broadly similar cultures and they worshipped many of the same gods (although they gave them different names). They all used digging sticks, ate maize and beans, respected the number 13 and practiced human sacrifice. Interestingly, although they developed the wheel as a toy, for some reason they didn't adapt it for other purposes.

      The Aztecs built their settlement in a swamp in what is now Mexico City and when the Spanish arrived they thought it more spectacular than Venice. The Aztecs were fantastic warriors but they were also excellent farmers: because they had stumbled on hydroponics, their floating fields produced an abundance of nutrients in the food they were growing.

      The Mayas built some of the tallest buildings of the ancient world – without the use of the wheel, or even horses. The pyramid El Castillo in Chichen Itza is the Mayan calendar, literally set in stone. Each staircase has 91 steps which, when added to the single step at the main entrance to the temple, totals 365 steps. At sunset on the spring equinox, the great serpents' heads at the foot of the main staircase are joined to their tails by a "body" of shadow. They developed a very accurate calendar that could predict solar and lunar eclipses, transits of Venus and - most importantly - the coming of the rains and the time to plant.

      These people - known collectively as Mesoamericans - have been processing rubber and latex for over 3500 years (imagine a world without rubber or chewing gum) and they also invented the rubber ball and used it in their deadly ball game where the losing team would be sacrificed.

      As an alternative to iron these inventive people made their knives, spears and arrow heads from Obsidian, an extremely sharp stone. Nowadays, surgeons use Obsidian instead of steel scalpels.

      They understood the healing power of the rainforest and its plants - amazingly three quarters of all our medicine comes from plants - and in their hands, the wild yam formed the basis of world's first birth control pill. They understood quinine and many European settlers preferred to attend the local Aztec healer rather than their own doctor.

      More than half the foods we eat originated in the New World, including potatoes, tomatoes, maize, coffee and turkey. But there was one thing that the Aztecs loved above all: chocolate. To them, the cacao bean was so precious they used it as their currency.

      Because the Incas lived in the mountains of South America and had to cross very deep ravines they invented the world's first suspension bridges espite not having hemp or sisal ropes. They made their bridges out of twisted fibres of long stemmed grass, another amazing feat of ingenuity from an inspired region.moreless
    • The Chinese
      The Chinese
      Episode 2
      China is the fastest growing economy on earth. One in four of every person on the planet is Chinese, and Shanghai is six times the size of London, offering a home to twenty million people. But while China is developing rapidly now, the Chinese civilization is one of the oldest surviving in the world.

      The ancient Chinese thought they were at the centre of universe. Cut off from the rest of the world for centuries the Chinese developed a unique culture, and made many technological, scientific and artistic advances long before the West.

      Programme two of What The Ancients Did For Us explores this amazing country and the inventions of these ingenious people. The people who gave us the world's first fast food including what we call pasta - the noodle. To pay for this delicacy, they came up with paper money, printing with moveable type and a unified system of weights and measures. To move all their goods they invented canals, and the unique segmented arched bridge. To protect their new borders they discovered gunpowder, exploding bombs, paper armour, flamethrowers and the kite. To advance their culture they made the first seismograph and highly efficient double action piston bellow. For pure beauty they gave spun silk, created the firework and lacquer - the world's first plastic. And, finally, for fun they gave us the beautiful game – football.moreless
    • The Islamic World
      The rise of Islam is one of the most important events in world history. In the 7th century, Mohammed's intention was to unite the divided Arabs through a new religion. A century after his death, he'd succeeded in producing a medieval superpower. The Arabs and Moors had spread through Spain towards the Pyrenees. Cordoba became renowned as one of the greatest and wealthiest cities in Europe. Moorish cities such as Toledo and Seville were famed for their new culture and universities.

      The first What The Ancients Did For Us programme explores the Muslim contribution to the western world - in art, architecture, astronomy, medicine, science, and learning.

      The early Muslims are credited with inventing distillation and could distil just about anything - from alcohol to perfume. Hygiene is very important in the Muslim world so they invented and manufactured soap - centuries before the West - and hundreds of bathhouses were built throughout Muslim cities. They understood the fundamentals of light and how we see, and gave us the camera obscura. They invented algebra and worked out the angle of the tilt of the earth. They built the first windmill, pioneered the concept of the crank rod, and designed the first ever torpedo. Muslim creativity also led to the invention of a unique instrument called the astrolabe – it could find the direction of Mecca, tell the time and, with the help of the stars, navigate you across deserts and oceans. But perhaps most important of all they pursued the cause of knowledge, translating and preserving the works of the ancients and building the world's largest libraries – their 'houses of wisdom'.moreless
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