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Technology and Nature in the Development of Ancient Greek Cities

II Natural Environment

The siting of the earlier settlements was very dependent on the natural environment. They needed fresh water, a defensible location and accessible local sources of food and raw materials. The centrality of water transport in trade meant that cities were built near harbours.

Some writers, including Crouch (quoted in Chant & Goodman, p 71) and Burns (in Chant, pp 36-41), saw the need to obtain a fresh water supply as having defined the shape of the cities.

"The physical and to some extent the social development of the Greek cities was inextricably bound up with the hydrogeography and the resulting technology. The early city typically developed at the foot of a calcerous massif that provided the two essentials: a defensible site for the acropolis and a source of water at its base." (Burns in Chant, p 40).

Greek karst geology is distinguished by an impermeable rock layer overlaid by a permeable limestone cap, leading to a general shortage of surface water. Water seeps through the permeable layer and collects at the base of the limestone, where springs can be found. Settlements grew up by such sources or tunnels were dug into the rock to obtain water, where sources were inaccessible. From this perspective, similar to Wittfogels' (discussed by Chant & Goodman, pp 17-19 and by Carter, H, in Chant, p8), techniques and tools needed to access water and provide drainage were the central technologies shaping Greek cities.

However, a city needs more than a water supply. (Food is crucial. Aristotle also identified the need to maintain public health and provide a location from which to conduct civil and defence activities (in Chant, p 79).) The argument is basically technologically determinist; it tends to underplay the role of social relations in shaping control of technology. For example, access to water was not equal within the Greek city, as Burns acknowledged (ibid, p 40). The perspective neglects other factors, such as economics, ideas, beliefs, politics and military imperatives.

The natural environment imposed other constraints. For instance, the challenges of building on rock, especially within the constraints of a grid system, required development in construction technology. (Chant & Goodman, p 70). Building walled cities on rock tends to limit potential expansion. However, Athens grew massively within the constraints of its location. Its political and military dominance allowed it to draw resources to sustain a population ten times as large as its natural limits (ibid, p 77).

In conclusion, much of technology the Greek city represented a response to the natural environment and particularly the need for water. Technologies for providing water, such as the aqueduct to Pergamon and the tunnel through the mountain at Samos, showed technological development addressing the problem of ensuring water supplies and drainage. This was not the only spur to technological change. One must also consider how social and political relations and defence considerations determined how the natural environment was adapted.




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