Conference Abstracts


  1. Deborah Steiner, The Sorcerers’ Apprentices: cauldrons, bellows and the furnace in the early Greek imaginary

My discussion takes as its starting point a very familiar scene in Iliad 18, Thetis’ visit to Hephaestus’ home, and the Homeric account of three objects featured in the episode: the cauldrons that the divine smith is completing, the bellows that help him in his metallurgical labours, and the furnace used to prepare the metal with which he will fashion Achilles’ shield. As I propose, each of these several artefacts as it appears in the textual, visual and archaeological records of archaic and early classical Greece offers a rich site for thinking about the porous boundaries between inert matter and sentient beings and variously articulates and stages the confusions, exchanges and transformations that occur when the two seemingly distinct ontological categories come into proximity. As the sources demonstrate, even as these seemingly inert, ‘dumb’ objects turn out to possess anthropomorphizing physical features and vivifying properties so those who interact with them, whether as viewers, users or activators of their powers, can themselves undergo forms of objectification, losing key elements of their signature animation. Treating tripod cauldrons, bellows and furnaces in turn, my discussion selects just a few examples of each from early images, texts and the archaeological evidence so as both to highlight features distinctive to the object and to suggest certain continuities between the artefacts. For tripod cauldrons, I chiefly focus on the interactions between their complex ornamentation – which juxtaposes animal, human and vegetal motifs and requires a variety of disparate techniques – and their ‘lively’ functions and explore the ways in which their manner of deployment and the responses they provoke are determined by the goods’ animate status. For bellows, I draw attention to features of their design, construction and constituent parts that unite anthropomorphic and/or nature-based and artificial elements and demonstrate how their morphology turns them into doubles for organs distinct to living beings and to the properties that these organs house. The furnace, whose structure and functions assimilate it to a human body (masculine in the Greek imaginary but feminine in other early cultures) and that also recalls the curiously hybrid herm, not only possesses vivifying properties apparent from the treatment it elicits but it also an active player in the homoerotic games that occur in the sites where the object appears.

  1. Richard Seaford, The Living Image: Mesopotamia and Archaic Greece

The power of a Mesopotamian deity in its temple may preclude an identity separate from its image. This facilitates the act of offering, e.g. of food brought to the temple to be eaten by the deity. In the one Homeric instance of an offering brought to a deity in a temple (Athena in Troy in Iliad 6), her image seems to move, to be alive. Similarly, the immortal gold and silver dogs guarding the doors of royal house in the fabulous land of Phaeacia (Odyssey 7) surely derive from reports of the living images of dogs guarding Assyrian entrances. But in the public space (political and commercial) and egalitarian animal sacrifice that will generate the Greek polis there is no place for an omnipotent image. The myth of Prometheus establishes both the communal consumption of the sacrificial meat and therefore also – this is of unrecognised importance – the withdrawal of the gods to the sky, gods who (in a narrative with Near-Eastern elements) in revenge leave with mortals a living artefact, an immortal image, Pandora. Also characteristic of the (monetised) polis is the development of the dualisms of (a) image (or symbol) and reality (pioneered in Herakleitos’ condemnation of the ignorance involved in praying to statues: B5), and (b) body and soul (also pioneered in Herakleitos). These dualisms tend to make a Greek living image (artefact) into an anomaly or thauma.

  1. Carol C. Mattusch, Dead or Alive? Giving Life to Bronze

Bronze took on new importance in the study of Classical sculpture after excavations began at Herculaneum during the 18th century. The discovery of sixty-five bronze sculptures in the Villa dei Papiri between 1750 and 1759 radically increased the numbers of Classical bronzes known to have survived, and brought the question of medium to the foreground in the study of ancient sculpture. And yet these new finds continued to be approached as marbles had been – from the perspectives of style, iconography, identity, and date. Even now, the process whereby a model in one medium can be exchanged for a finished work in another medium, which in turn can be transformed from solid to liquid and back again to solid has received relatively little attention. And yet, by the early fifth century BC bronze was the preferred medium for its strength, its elasticity, and its color. It is no surprise that statues of athletes in motion were in great demand. In spite of its great versatility, the medium required the same basic rules of every practitioner. At the same time, replication and variation were possible, metals were reusable, and production was speedy, requiring little skilled labor, with the result that costs were far less than those associated with the carving of marble.

  1. Maya Muratov, From “dolls” to puppets: mechanisms and purpose of articulated figurines in antiquity

Terracotta figurines with articulated or movable body parts represent a class common all over the Greek and Roman world during all periods. Such figurines existed in Greece from at least the 10th century BC, became widely popular in Cyprus from the 8th century BC onwards, and continued to be manufactured through Roman times over a vast territory from Spain to Mesopotamia. This paper addresses three categories of objects: articulated figurines commonly referred to as ‘dolls’ (and thus often hastily interpreted as playthings), figurines with one or two body parts that can be set in motion by pulling a string attached to them (so-called ‘interactive figures,’ for lack of a better term), and objects that might have been puppets used in actual performances. We will investigate not only technological aspects of the different kinds of the string-pulling mechanisms but will also explore the importance and possible significance of motion. 

  1. Jane Draycott, Living Dolls: Articulation, Animation, and Prostheses

Until recently, dolls were considered to have been educational toys, a means of teaching Roman girls how to envisage themselves as women, wives, and mothers. But in her 2012 article ‘Playing with Gender: Girls, Dolls and Adult Ideals in the Roman World’, Fanny Dolansky proposed a more nuanced interpretation focusing on the dolls’ emphasis on adornment, capacity for movement, and resemblance to imperial figures. In this paper, I shall build upon her argument, and focus upon the ways in which these dolls, with their articulated limbs and their capacity for movement, taught Roman girls about the posture and deportment appropriate for a Roman woman. While many ancient literary sources explain how elite Roman men were expected to move, and detail the consequences of deviating from what was expected, the information regarding elite Roman women and how they were expected to move, and the consequences of them deviating from what was expected, is harder to come by. And for women with physical impairments, the information is minimal. Starting with the myth of Pelops and continuing throughout classical antiquity, ivory was chosen as the material for prostheses, probably for the same reasons that it was chosen as the material for dolls, that is its resemblance to human flesh and the various ancient myths that detailed its quickening into human flesh. Both dolls and prostheses required sustained interaction to animate them. Just as girls had to learn how to manipulate their dolls, so amputees had to learn how to manipulate their prostheses if they were to relearn how to move their bodies in the manner considered appropriate by Roman society.

  1. Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis, Votive toys: animation and value

There is evidence for Graeco-Roman toy dedications in Hellenistic and imperial epigrams, and in the archaeological record. Toys include knucklebones, dolls, balls, rattles, spinning tops and tambourines. Typically these were dedicated to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood, in highly gendered ways. The paper explores the idea of the animation of these toys in two ways: (1) at the moment of dedication, through handling and hanging up, sometimes with kinetic and acoustic effects (e.g. suspended articulated dolls; rattles) (2) in their life pre-dedication in play. The latter is an explicit part of the epigrammatic discourse, and it is also present in the materiality of the objects through visible and tangible wearing which had occurred, both against the bodies of the children and of the environment. The evocation of such animation and in particular of the absent body of the child, emerges as a crucial aspect of the value of the votive dedication.

  1. Maria Gerolemou, Ἡφαιστότευκτα

Commentators have puzzled over the meaning of the Hephaestean moving artefacts in Homer and Hesiod (Pandora). The former were explained by scholars as examples of a narrative enactment of the subtlety of art, as products of divine and magical animation with a prophylactic function, as resulting from a kind of material agency inherent in matter itself and recently as cyborgs and automata on the basis that they were made and not born (the latter is specifically related to Hephaestus’ metal maidens and Pandora). This paper aims at re-reading the story of the Hephaestean moving artefacts in the Iliad and Hesiod, by focusing on the term automatos which generally describes natural forces that are incorporated or, better said, highlighted through analogies with technological processes and tools.

  1. Jean De Groot, Imitation and Life: Device in the fifth to fourth centuries BC

 My paper seeks to clarify how the mechanical operations of ancient technical practice made the threshold of difference low between movements produced artificially and the manifest behaviors of living things. One aspect of this question is the character of Greek empiricism, which was at once experiential and interpretive but without the metaphysical presupposition of early modern empiricism. Another aspect is the integration of the outstanding features of device—e.g., making the lesser power the greater or defying liquidity by suction—into domestic and agricultural life and medical practice. Whereas in the early modern period, reflection upon machine technology promoted a view of natural materials as inert and unresponsive (see Robert Boyle), early Greek reflection on the mechanical had not detected a discontinuity between mechanism and life. My paper addresses the ways of thinking that make a kinship of mechanism and life possible.

  1. Colin A. Webster, Aristotle and the Artifice of the Living Heart

Both Empedocles and Plato used tools [organa] to model certain inner corporeal parts, but it was Aristotle who first organized the entire body, arranging it around the concept of purpose-built tools, all functioning together to support and sustain life. But life, as they say, is complicated. For Aristotle in particular, animal existence involved maintaining internal heat, distributing nutrients through the vascular system and setting the body in motion, not to mention reproducing to preserve the species. To explicate how the body performs each of these tasks, Aristotle often incorporated technological comparisons into his accounts, including bellows, boiling pots, irrigation channels and automata. These explanations, outlined across multiple treatises, often privilege the heart, whether to treat it as the source point for blood, heat and motion. Much debate has arisen around whether Aristotle “mechanizes” these processes, mirroring technologies available to him, or whether he ascribes properties to living tissues and connate pneuma that could not be replicated by contemporary devices. This paper begins by reconstructing current knowledge about the devices that Aristotle mentions. Then, rather than focusing on a single corporeal system, it examines the heart as meeting point of multiple technical functions, examining its varying behaviors and configurations as it performs different tasks. In this, the paper argues that the conditions under which we answer the question of “mechanization” or “artificial life” shift for each technical domain, and that layered on top of one another, no device could perform these multiple tasks simultaneously.

  1. Gabriele Galluzzo, Automatic puppets, toy carts and robots. Aristotle’s metaphysics of artefacts and the question of automata

Aristotle draws a sharp distinction between artefacts and natural things in general, and artefacts and living beings in particular. Artefacts and natural/living things are distinguished on several grounds: their principle of motion, their coming to be, their internal unity, the relationship between their respective forms and matters, the very nature of their characteristic form and matter, etc. In a few passages from the Metaphysics (III.4, 994b4-20; VII.7, 1032a15-19; VII.17, 1042b28-31; VIII.3, 1043b14-23; XII.3), Aristotle goes as far as to claim that artefacts are not substances, or are so to a limited extent. In spite of this, Aristotle uses artefactual analogies throughout his corpus. At times, artefactual analogies are used to illustrate the very distinctions that underpin the divide between artefacts and natural/living beings. This paper considers a particularly complex class of artefacts, i.e. automata, with an eye to determining their place in Aristotle’s metaphysics. Automata are mentioned by Aristotle in a few significant passages, and always in relation to living beings. In GA II.1 (734b9 ff.), for instance, Aristotle uses automata as analogies to explain how the seed imparts and transmits motion. In MA 7 (701b2 ff.), the motion of animals is compared to that of automatic puppets and wind-up toy carts.  Finally, in the Politics (I.4, 1053b29-1054a1), Aristotle comes to imagine (and to dismiss as phantasy) robot-style, self-moving artefacts that could respond to orders and anticipate what to do, and so potentially replace slave labour. The questions the paper addresses include the following: what do automata tell us about Aristotle’s metaphysics of artefacts? Does the case of automata help us to understand Aristotle’s distinction between artefacts and natural/living beings or does it contribute to undermine it? The investigation will be conducted by looking at both recent studies on automata and technological animation and debates in the contemporary metaphysics of artefacts.

  1. Arthur Harris, Does Mechanics Violate the Principle of Non-Contradiction?

The pseudo-Aristotelian Mechanical Problems consists of a preface and 35 problems. The preface announces a bold explanatory programme: almost all mechanical motions are ultimately explicable in terms of the circle (848a11-14). This explanatory project is followed through in over half the subsequent problems. Its basis is the so-called ‘moving radius principle’ or ‘principle of concentric circles’ which is discussed at length in problem 1. However, in the preface, the author introduces the foundational role of the circle with another idea: it is reasonable that mechanical wonders should arise from the circle due to the compresence of opposites in the circle (847b15-848a10). The author lists three ways in which opposites are compresent: (1) the circle is constructed from what is moving and what is stationary (847b19-21); (2) the circumference is concave and convex (847b24-848a3); (3) circular motion involves simultaneous opposite motions (848a4-10). This striking passage has received little attention in recent studies of the Mechanical Problems. Yet it raises a number of questions. Does the author violate the principle of non-contradiction? And what role is left for this passage when problem 1’s account of the moving radius principle does the real explanatory work? I shall address these and related issues by considering the pairs of opposites named by the author against the backdrop of the treatment of circles in Greek philosophical traditions. I conclude that there is no good reason to believe a substantive philosophical thesis underlies the passage. Rather I argue that the puzzling and even playful line of thought is designed to provoke readers and prepare them for the analysis of circular motion in problem 1.

  1. SeungJung Kim, Visualising time: The Lysippan Kairos in the scientific landscape of the fourth century BCE

The Greeks had two words for time: the measurable, uniform time that is chronos, and the hard-to-grasp, opportune moment that is kairos. The only personified form of a time concept from the ancient Greek world is the celebrated sculpture of Kairos by Lysippos (late 4th century BCE), which has been argued as the sculptor’s own response to the Polykleitan Canon. The 3-D reconstruction of the statue showcases the technical tour de force of achieving gravitational balance on a single point, which I argue is a key expression of Lysippos’s trademark of akribeia (here thus translated as precision, rather than realism). This paper reflects upon the possibility of the Lysippan Kairos harboring mechanical elements, whether it was a rotating automaton or it carried a swiveling balance. Reviewing more recent ideas of fourth century BCE development of the mechanistic arts—those involving Archytas and Eudoxus, and time-measuring or time-telling devices that signal a more focused societal awareness of short-term temporality—the Lysippan Kairos is recontexualised as a visual expression of the fleeting concept of time, which is manifest both in the philosophical landscape of the fourth century BCE and as an essential part of the contemporary living experience.

  1. Isabel Ruffell, Trains and boats and planes: animating the ship in Greek culture

Processions involving ships are a feature of a number of festivals, not least the Athenian Anthesteria (or Dionysia) and Panathenaea, and the Dionysia at Smyrna. It is only a short step to have such ships progress from direct haulage to have the ships’ motion be mediated mechanically. This paper considers the evidence for such mechanical ships at the Panathenaea, their relationship to the traditional methods of locomotion of such devices, to the wider role of mechanical devices (including alleged automata) in other festival contexts, and to attested forms of naval machinery in a non-festive context. It will consider on the one hand the likely technological solutions to puzzles posed by enigmatic testimonia, not least drawing a ship up the Panathenaic Way, and on the other the motivation for technical animation of ships in these contexts. 

  1. Tatiana Bur, The importance of the construct in viewing religious automata

From festival processions and the tragic stage to temple dedications and divination techniques, ancient evidence attests to the technological animation of objects in a variety of religious contexts in the Graeco-Roman world. Our knowledge of such comes both from anecdotes scattered in ancient literature from as early as the fifth century BC, as well as from extant technical manuals dating into the Roman period. The present paper first reveals the body of evidence which testifies to the use of self-animated machines (automata) in religious contexts, and subsequently explores how the machine’s status as a manufactured object worked with its perceived powers of enchantment. Automata offer a particularly interesting case study for viewing the technologically animated in context given that in the automaton’s very existence there is an important negotiation between something that appears ‘natural’ or free from intervention on the one hand, but which, at the very same time, is fundamentally mechanical in essence. Far from suggesting, as has been done in the past, that a blind naivety on the ancient audience’s behalf rendered the animated technology ‘magical’, I argue for a nuanced understanding of how visible technē was a key factor in the success of the animation and thus the religious potency of the object. I contend that the ancient automaton’s status as a human construct—and specifically its ability to journey from the inanimate to the animate state and back again—was crucial to its conception as a religious object which navigated human and divine realms. The visibility of the mechanics and of the human hand at play was imperative for, rather than detrimental to, the viewing of ancient religious automata in context. 

  1. Courtney Ann Roby, Strange loops: experiment and program in Hero of Alexandria’s Automata

Hero’s Automata, appropriately enough for the topic he celebrates as the culminating subdiscipline of mechanics, follows a winding organizational scheme as complex as the structure of the machines themselves. Hero sometimes chooses to show the reader both more and less complicated versions of the same mechanism, rather than merely introducing the simplest or most reliable method he knows. The latter approach would be appropriate for an introductory text, whereas this structure is designed to show how Hero improves on the state of the art; in order to appreciate the argument the reader must be able to follow the more difficult version as well as the easy way. Whereas the structure imposed on Hero’s Pneumatica is largely a matter of progressing from simpler to more complex mechanical principles, his Automata follows a path that repeatedly loops back on itself, mirroring the looped interweavings of the cord whose windings control the automaton. This iterative structure emphasizes the discipline’s constant creative development. The looping iterations of the automaton’s development play out through the text itself through narratives of “experimental” activities of varying degrees of formality. In this paper, I will explore how Hero structures his narratives of experimental discovery– their personnel, the types of “proof” they provide, and where they fit within the automaton’s own cord-powered program – and situate them within the larger context of “experimental” work in ancient Greek mechanical craft.

  1. Ruth Bielfeldt, Carpe! The Unmaking and making of food-images in the Cena Trimalchionis

 In the Cena Trimalchionis, a wide array of servants and actors are involved in preparing and presenting lifelike, but largely inedible food images that show different techniques and undergo several phases of animation. In my talk, I will revisit the technological principles that govern image production in the Cena. As a starting point, I will focus on the creative image-making processes acted out not only by the living staff, but by mythical characters that are themselves made part of pictorial installations: Daedalus, Niobe, Cassandra, Marsyas, and Aias.

  1. Karen ní Mheallaigh, Mesomedes’ clock: technical animation and the choreography of the quotidian

In choral lyric, the chorus’ singing and dancing could mark times of the year that held special ritual significance (e.g. Alcman fr. 1 (on the most likely interpretation) and fr. 5; Pindar, Paean 9; Corinna fr. 690. 8–12 PMG). The tragic chorus, similarly, often drew attention to important transitions in time, such as the arrival of day or the fall of night (e.g. Euripides, Phaethon 63-70; Rhesus 527-37). The affinity between the circular choral dance and the revolving celestial bodies was so strongly felt that the image of the ‘star chorus’ took root in the context of Dionysiac worship, and from the fifth century BC onwards became widespread in Greek thought (e.g. [Plato] Epinomis 982e; Tim. 40c; Lucian On the dance 7). This paper explores the move from embodied to technical chronometry within the lyric genre, through detailed analysis of the eighth poem of Mesomedes (mid second century CE). Mesomedes’ poem praises the invention of the anaphoric clock, a device that records solar time (the Sun’s progress through the zodiac plus the hours of the day) through its complex moving parts. This machine, which is a showcase of technical animation, is described in more exacting detail by Vitruvius (9.8.4-14), but Mesomedes’ short poem offers us insight into its reception as a source of ideological richness and aesthetic pleasure. I will also explore the poem’s dialectic between (technological) copy and (natural) original, and how it hints at the emergence of a depersonalized, mechanical sense of time that is concomitant with the shift into technical chronometry. Mesomedes’ clock marks time that is devoid of special significance, and Mesomedes’ lyric moves with the machine: from ceremonial celebration to the choreography of the quotidian.

  1. Dunstan Lowe, Half Past Wonder: Automaton Clocks in Late Antique Folklore

Several major cities in the Eastern Roman Empire, and later the Islamic Empire, possessed monumental water-clocks adorned with moving figures and other special effects. Constantinople had several, notably that in Hagia Sophia; there was a celebrated example at Damascus, and Haroun Al-Rashid sent another to Charlemagne. Their design generally resembled the example in Gaza, which Procopius describes in detail. The main ‘pointer’ was usually a human figure, and the hours typically marked by other figures, appearing in doorways or dropping metal balls to give chimes. In this paper I make the case that two Western mediaeval folktales derive from Eastern automaton clocks. The first is “Rome’s Deliverance” (the Salvatio Romae), a talisman said to have forewarned against enemy attacks by pointing to a statue symbolizing the offending nation. First located on the Capitol in the eighth century AD, it was later placed in the Pantheon or Colosseum, and by the late twelfth century was listed among the magical contrivances of Virgilius Magus. Comparetti derives it from historical tales from ancient Rome, especially the “Capitoline geese”, but its form is reminiscent of late antique and early medieval automata, and in particular clocks. The second is a demonic pagan statue in Antioch, which entraps wicked Julian the Apostate in a Devil’s bargain. This tale first appears in the sixth-century Julian Romance, and was almost certainly inspired by the famous automaton clock which, as we know from a Chinese visitor, overlooked the city gate. In the East, the story survived until the twelfth century. But in the West it strayed from the original context, and became a story of an Emperor Julian in Rome, deceived by a pagan statue. This later adhered to a Roman monument, and through further unlikely twists eventually became the legend of the Bocca Della Verità, which bites off the hands of perjurers. “Rome’s Deliverance” and the Bocca Della Verità both became folktales when the wonder of ancient automata became mysterious and grew into fantasy. They should therefore be counted in the same category as the magical metal figures in mediaeval romances who throw balls or blow horns.

  1. Sonya Nevin, Animating Artefacts: The Panoply Vase Animation Project 

At the Panoply Vase Animation Project we make animations from the scenes which decorate ancient Greek vases. Static runners can run by, frozen hoplites can strike home, and the strings of lyres can sound. The animations are created to increase non-specialist enjoyment of and engagement with artefacts and ancient culture more broadly, with movement providing an effective means of increasing understanding of the original scenes and of retaining attention. In this paper I will explore the decisions that we face in creating the animations – turning implied movement into actual movement – and I will discuss some recent examples made within the ERC-funded Our Mythical Childhood and Locus Ludi projects.