Today, an old Greek mummy tells us about the
Renaissance. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
You've surely asked
yourself, "If I could go back and visit another
age, which one would I choose?" You may well have
chosen the Renaissance -- that glorious age of high
culture and beauty!
The Renaissance is tied to classical Greece through
the ancient Greek idea that the world is shaped to
its human occupants. That idea was far from early
medieval thinking. Medieval interest in Greek
literature had been growing since scholars
rediscovered it around 1200. When printed books
made that literature generally available after
1456, that interest turned into a passion.
In the medieval world, female values had been
strong. God wore the female face of the Virgin
Mary. Then classical Greek ideas gained momentum.
Greek women hadn't even been allowed at public
meetings. Except for a few thinkers like Pythagoras
and Plato, the principle of male dominance had been
Now science writer John Noble Wilford tells about
new work by archaeologist Joan Connelly. She's been
studying the 524-foot frieze from the Parthenon in
Athens. It shows a formal procession. We'd thought
that procession was part of a regular Athens
festival. But Connelly finds too much wrong with
that idea. It would've been sacrilege to decorate a
temple with current affairs.
The penny finally dropped when Connelly got her
hands on some long-lost pages of a Euripides play.
The papyrus pages were found in 1962, wrapped
around a mummy. The play tells the story of Queen
Praxithea, who sacrificed her daughters to save
Connelly realized that that same story had also
been wrapped about the Parthenon -- as a
centerpiece of Hellenic thinking. That freize
didn't represent a festival at all. It was a
ceremony of human sacrifice. Just as boys went to
war, girls went to sacrifice -- all for the good of
the city-state, Wilford reminds us.
Greece was the cradle of modern Western culture,
philosophy, even democracy. But Greece also
practiced slavery, and it gave women no place at
all. Late medieval scholars rediscovered those
virtues and vices. They replaced the concept of
corporate submission to God with the power of the
We call that shift the Renaissance. It gave us
astonishing individual accomplishments. But, almost
subconsciously, we also took up the attitudes of an
ancient age. Slavery had died out in the Middle
Ages. Now it came back. So did witch-burning.
Archaeology is an odd business. A fragment of
missing text turns up in a tomb. We start
rethinking old virtues. And suddenly -- our view of
the past has changed.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds