It’s a popular hubris that we live in an age of unprecedented technological innovation – that our ancestors lived in a time where there were fewer technological advances, blinded as they were by their primitive superstitions and lack of access to the resources we have today.
While we certainly live in an era of amazing technology, it’s not necessarily true that our level of innovation is unprecedented. The fact of the matter is that our ancestors were just as smart as we are (in fact, given the human brain size has been shrinking for centuries, they might have been smarter.) And as archaeologists uncover more about the past, they’ve also learned that many technologies we take for granted today were first developed centuries or even millennia ago, only to be lost.
Take, for example, plastic surgery. It’s something we think of as a relatively new technology, right? But in fact, plastic surgery was practiced in India centuries before the birth of Christ. It continued to be practiced for thousands of years, but wasn’t “discovered” in Europe until the 18th century, when British doctors learned about it from India.
Recently, there have been two recent engineering discoveries from Ancient Rome that have the potential to shake up some major areas of industry – discoveries that show we still have a lot to learn from our ancestors.
The first finding is rather astonishing. As noted earlier this month by Zeeya Merali, a 1,600 year old chalice known as the Lycurgus Cup have proved to be more than just a stunning work of art. It’s also an example of one of the earliest forms of nanotechnology.
The cup, as Merali notes, was actually a mystery for centuries. That’s because it appears green when lit from one angle, but red when lit from a different angle. It wasn’t until the 1990s, after decades of study in the 20th century, that it was determined how it was created. As it turns out, the glass itself was infused with particles of silver and gold that were only about 50 nanometers in diameter. The particular ratio of the mixture was definitely known, as other similar cups have been discovered.
In a paper from 2007, scientists who have studied the cup noted that “[e]ven using modern powerdriven tools, this type of vessel takes a great deal of time to complete.” But more than that, this technology might turn out to revolutionize the pharmaceutical industry.
That’s because researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, using the same techniques the Romans used, earlier this yeardeveloped a device that enables them detect DNA and proteins without having to chemically modify them first. That lowers the overall costs and helps resist errors that occur in the process. The team estimates that their device is about “100 times better sensitivity” than any other similar product.
In their paper, published in Advanced Optical Materials, the research teams says that “We envisage extensive use of the device for DNA microarrays, therapeutic antibody screening for drug discovery and pathogen detection in resource poor setting and a low cost, higher sensitive alternative to existing SPR/LSPR instruments.”
But the Ancient Romans aren’t content to only revolutionize medicine. Soon, you may be living or working on a building or road that’s built with the same materials that the Romans built their own with – materials that, when created, also produce fewer carbon emissions.
That’s thanks to the work of a research team at the University of California at Berkeley, which has studied the ways that Roman concrete has managed to endure for over 2,000 years in the same conditions that cause modern concrete to degrade after about 50 years.
The key to the durability of Roman concrete was its mixture of lime and volcanic ash, which produces a concrete that includes aluminum, something most modern cements lack. Modern cements also rely on limestone, but the Roman recipe calls for much less of it. That means that Roman concrete can be created at temperatures nearly a thousand degrees lower than modern cements. As a result, using Roman cement means not only a more durable material, but also one that can be produced with less fuel in less time – making it both more efficient and more environmentally sustainable.
That’s a good thing, considering that “manufacturing Portland cement accounts for seven percent of the carbon dioxide that industry puts into the air,” as lead researcher Paulo Monteiro noted in a statement. The research team’s chemical analysis of Roman concrete was recently published in the Journal of the American Ceramic Society, and more of their research will be published later this year.
These new applications of Ancient Roman technology have, I think, something powerful to teach us in the present day. Many of the problems that face civilization are as old as civilization itself. And as we look for innovative ways to deal with those problems, it’s a mistake to only look for guidance in new ideas. It may be that if we look backwards at what our ancestors did, we maWy find that they’ve already solved our problems for us. We just have to be humble enough to accept that.
The Art Of Survival: The Art Of Adire Gave This Textile Artist Global Fame, She Now Educates Generations Of Women In Nigeria
Textile artist Nike Davies-Okundaye worked as a construction laborer and carried water and firewood to survive. The art of adire gave her global fame and she is now educating generations of women in Nigeria.
There was no way Nike Davies-Okundaye could look the other way. For after all, she too had been a victim in her early teens.
Too many women were being pushed down the traditional path of marriage and child-rearing in her country.
Born in 1951 in Ogidi-Ijumu, a small village in western Nigeria known for its spectacular rock formations and traditional art industry, Davies-Okundaye resolved to fight this practice four decades ago.
“By the age of 13, they wanted to marry me off because my father had no money. I had to run away from home and join a traveling theater. I said I didn’t want to marry and wanted to pursue art,” recalls the internationally-renowned Lagos-based artist.
Not wanting to become one of six wives to a minister, Davies-Okundaye found her escape through adire, the name given to the Yoruba craft of tie-and-dye where indigo-dyed cloth is made using a variety of resist-dyeing techniques. Growing up in a predominantly art and craft household, Davies-Okundaye is a fifth-generation artist who decided to take the craft seriously due to poverty.
“I had no money to go to school and the first education parents give you is to teach you what they do. So, when I finished primary six and I had no support to go to secondary school, I said to myself, ‘let me master art so I can teach other women to also use their hand to make a living through their own artwork’.”
Davies-Okundaye was forced to work in the male-dominated construction sector, carrying concrete in pans to builders in order to save one shilling, just enough to buy a yard of fabric to create what she called wall-hanging art.
Her goal was to use the traditional wax-resist methods to design patterned fabric in a dazzling array of tints and hues. The adire design is the result of hand-painted work carried out mostly by women and through that, Davies-Okundaye saw a way to help women to become economically empowered. After all, her first break in life came as a result of that.
“There was no other job I was doing apart from adire. I was lucky the American government came to Nigeria to recruit an African who will teach African Americans how to make traditional textiles or crafts in the state. That is how I was lucky and got picked.”
Davies-Okundaye was the only woman in a class of 10 men who were flown to Maine in northeastern United States in 1974. That is where her whole outlook on life changed.
“Before I went to America, I used to carry three drums of water every day and carry firewood to be able to survive. It was like a breakthrough in my life when I reached America. I said ‘is this heaven?’ I was the only woman in the class and all the men were learning women’s looms and I kept telling them ‘this is for women’ and they said ‘yes, in America, what a man can do, a woman can also do’.”
This was in stark contrast to what she knew to be true in Nigeria at the time.
“If your husband is an artist, you are not allowed to do art. In the 1960s, if your husband has a PhD, you are not allowed to also have a PhD. You had to give room for your husband to be your boss.”
She decided to beat those age-old stereotypes.
As one of 15 wives to her then-husband at the time, Davies-Okundaye, with her newfound knowledge gained in America, started a revolution at home. She encouraged the other wives to create their own art business using adire.
“I said ‘if you learn this, you can earn a living by yourself and get your power because your money is your power’ and that is how they also started learning it. I didn’t stop sharing the knowledge there. I gathered girls on the streets who were selling kola nuts and peanuts and started training them. I said ‘if this textile can take me to America, let me teach other people’,” says Davies-Okundaye.
And that has been her calling ever since. Davies-Okundaye is the founder and director of four art centers, which offer free training to 150 young artists in Nigeria in visual, musical and performing arts.
One of the centers is the largest art gallery in West Africa comprising over 7,000 art works.
“They used to get the police to arrest me because they said I was trying to teach feminism in Nigeria because I went to America. They said I was going to corrupt our Nigerian women but I believe God sent me to liberate a lot of women who have the passion for what makes them happy but are afraid to do it because of what people will say. I say do what makes you happy always!”
Why This Photographer Looked Up During The Lockdown
Steven Benjamin chose to focus on the bird life in his garden in Cape Town to escape the confines of the lockdown.
During South Africa’s five-week shutdown (the country is still on Level 4 restrictions), Cape Town-born underwater photographer Steven Benjamin more used to sharks, whales and dolphins, used the period to look up instead – and indulge in bird-watching, another passion of his.
“Ever since the age of five or six, I have been interested in birds. I was dyslexic as a young child and I still have my first bird book where I ‘ticked’ backwards. I was trying to identify the birds that flew into my pre-school class and begged my mom to let me mark off what I’d seen, so birding has always been a passion,” says Benjamin, who also runs a seal-snorkeling business.
He has spent his life capturing South Africa’s marine world, and now, Benjamin had to redirect his focus to his Kalk Bay garden during the lockdown to photograph Cape Town’s resident birdlife.
He says photographing these feathered beauties is a way to bring joy during these uncertain times.
“They are so beautiful but incredibly difficult to photograph because they are shy and extremely fast. Photographing birds is a challenge but it creates a mental space to observe and admire nature.”
Soon after the lockdown started, Benjamin put white sugar in his bird feeder every morning and enjoyed the sight of local birds and documented them. He posted the images on Instagram and that garnered some online attention.
“The lockdown has made me relax and take the time to do things I would never have gotten around to doing. I settled on this project, which I work on every day. I’m always adding something new to the scene and there are always new birds and interactions happening. It’s made the days fly by,” he says.
During the lockdown, there was only one male Cape Sugar Bird that landed in his garden. This spectacular bird is unique to South Africa and mostly only found in the Western Cape. All of this will go into an exhibition Benjamin is working towards in Cape Town.
‘Our Home Became The Film Set, Blankets Became Props, Windows Became Locations’
A poem exclusively penned and performed in lockdown in the US for the readers of FORBES AFRICA, by Rwandan artist Malaika Uwamahoro.
Malaika Uwamahoro, an artist born in Rwanda, and a Theatre Studies BA graduate from Fordham University in New York City, has performed her own poetry on stages around the world including at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and at the African Union summits in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Kigali (Rwanda).
In 2014, she made her Off-Broadway debut at Signature Theatre in the world premiere of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho.
Currently resident in Portland, Maine, in the United States, she speaks to FORBES AFRICA about her life in lockdown, and about a poem she penned exclusively for the readers of the magazine: “To fight this pandemic, essential workers and medical doctors are doing their best on the frontlines to ensure everyone in need gets the necessary support and best care possible… Before we are all choked and out of breath just by thinking about this, I extend this poetry piece as an invitation to look inward.”
How did she come up with the poem, titled I Don’t Mind!, and its accompanying video?
“It was late in the night, my fiancé was fast asleep, and I thought to myself, ‘how do I really feel about all this, what are my true thoughts about this pandemic, what can I do’? I opened my notes and the words began to flow.”
A few days later, she shared the poem with her fiancé, Christian Kayiteshonga, a filmmaker.
“We had previously been pondering ways to make art in our home. This poem seemed like the perfect push to set us in our new path. Our home became the film set, using blankets and cake mix as props, windows and office space as locations, myself as the talent, him as the crew, and now you as the audience,” says Uwamahoro, who also performed for the ‘In the Spotlight’ segment at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit in Durban, South Africa, on March 6.
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