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Smelling and Smelting: Learning with the Senses in Theory and Practice

Valeria V. Sergueenkova

Assistant Professor, University of Cincinnati, Department of Classics

The “material turn” in histories of technology and the emphasis away from invention in favor of “innovation-in-use” (Edgerton 1999; 2006; cf. Latour 1986) have had a salutary effect on scholarship on ancient science and technology. Recent work in the field now more readily explores epigraphical and archaeological evidence along with literary texts and focuses on the interactions between science and technology, increasingly recognizing that specialized knowledge was not exclusively transmitted in textual form of by (Cuomo 2007; 2008; Greene 2008a; 2008b). Even scholars specifically interested in technical literature now concede that, rather than straightforward instruction, a primary function of such texts is the social construction of the knowledge presented in them.

A path-breaking demonstration of the potential of these new approaches to the study of science and technology in Classical Antiquity was a paper by T. E. Rihll and J. V. Tucker (2002) comparing the practical knowledge of craftsmen employed at the Laurion silver mines and the theoretical knowledge of Athenian philosophers interested in materials. They argued that in this case, practical knowledge not only preceded theoretical knowledge, but in fact influenced the theories by figures such as Aristotle and Theophrastus. Rihll and Tucker concluded by sketching the way forward and offering working definitions for the two types of knowledge contrasting (among other things) the form and the method  of transmission of the two kinds of knowledge. Unlike theoretical knowledge which was transmitted in written forms and taught in more or less formal lectures, practical knowledge was “often not written down because it simply is not communicable by the written word; it is knowledge which can be passed on only by 'being there' and being tutored by one who already possesses the knowledge: observing, listening, smelling, tasting, and feeling (with the hand either directly or via some implement) phenomena associated with different materials and their transformation.” (298).

Taking a cue from the recent “sensual turn” (or “revolution”; Howes 2005) in cultural studies this paper seeks to bring Rihll and Tucker’s insights further by investigating the status of practical knowledge in relation to theoretical knowledge specifically in cases where sensorial expertise is invoked. I focus on evidence related to metallurgy, especially in relation to mining and the smelting of ore as well as in the intriguing  cases of Roman-period connoisseurship of precious antiquities such as the much-prized Corinthian bronze statues. Petronius (50.7) and Martial (9.59) refer to experts who were trained to identify authentic from fake Corinthian bronzes by smelling them and the Aristotelian On Marvelous Things Heard (49) mentions individuals who were able to detect the smell of a type of copper that was used in the manufacture of the drinking cups of the Persian king Darius. Ancient accounts of mining operations by Diodorus Siculus (3.12-14), Pliny the Elder (NH 33) and Galen (12.239-241 K) all testify to the wide range of sensorial expertise required at various stages of the production processes. How was such sensorial expertise acquired and what was its status in relation to the theoretical interests of those who reported it? Theophrastus’ On Odors, for instance, provides abundant and intriguing evidence for the way perfumers’ experience and expertise developed and interacted with the theoretical pretensions of a philosopher interested in understanding nature. Not surprisingly, medicine, a field directly involved in bodily interaction, was especially interested sensorial cues (on the role of the senses in medical training see Nutton 1993). This paper focuses on the famous analogies with technological processes in the embryological treatises in the Hippocratic Corpus (esp. the analogy with iron smelting explaining the formation of bladder stones at Morb IV.55) to argue that the technical expertise of practitioners of specific crafts and trades was intimately connected to the production of theoretical knowledge. Ultimately, I argue that despite well-known ancient critiques of sensory evidence, utilitarian knowledge and banausic practices, the theoretical knowledge of philosophers of nature was entangled with the corporeal world of practical reality.

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Techne and Training: New Perspectives on Ancient Scientific and Technical Education

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