Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Books: Ancient Wonders Volume 53 Number 1, January/February 2000
by Mark Rose

The number seven has always been popular for ennumerating things, from Pillars of Wisdom, to Deadly Sins, to Snow White's Dwarfs. One of the oldest of such lists is the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the subject of two recent books. Herodotus, whose fifth-century B.C. History includes all sorts of stray cultural and geographic information, is seen as a forebear for the observation and description of Wonders. He spends some time discussing the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza, for example, and the massive city wall of Babylon:

On top of the wall, along the edges, they built houses of a single room facing one another. A space was left between these houses big enough for a four-horse chariot to drive through. There were a hundred gates set in the circuit of the wall, all of bronze likewise the post and lintels.

Herodotus' descriptions are, however, are presented passing and not in catalog form. The earliest thing that comes close to being a list of the Seven Wonders is a short poem attributed to Antipater of Sidon, a writer of epigrams who flourished about 120 B.C.:

I have gazed on the walls of impregnable Babylon, along which chariots may race, and on the Zeus by the banks of the Alphaeus. I have seen the Hanging Gardens and the Colossus of Helios, the great man-made mountains of the lofty pyramids, and the gigantic tomb of Maussolos. But when I saw the sacred house of Artemis that towers to the clouds, the others were placed in the shade, for the sun himself has never looked upon its equal outside Olympus.

Over time the list of Wonders became regularized, with the final members being the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Pharos at Alexandria.

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, edited by Peter Clayton, an Egyptologist and former British Museum Publications managing editor, and Martin Price, a classical archaeologist and deputy keeper in the department of coins and medals at the British Museum. Together with four other scholars, they cover the canonical Seven Wonders on a chapter-by-chapter basis. An introduction covers the history of such lists of wonders, and an epilogue discusses some "forgotten" wonders, those that made the list at one time or another only to be displaced, like the city walls of Babylon.

The essays on each Wonder are authoritative and readable. If you are interested in the canonical seven, this is the book for you. First published in 1988, The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, is nearly out of print in its third (1995) paperback printing. Routledge is considering reprinting it once again; meanwhile it is widely available on the used book market (my search on yielded dozens of copies for sale by bookdealers in the United States, Canada, and abroad).

For some readers, the canonical list of Seven Wonders--drawn from Greece, the eastern Mediterranean world, and Mesopotamia--is too parochial, virtually an artifact itself. The world is a much larger place than when Herodotus and Antipater wrote, and there are monuments in Asia, Africa, and the Americas the equal of the original seven. Faced with the problem of too many Wonders, Chris Scarre, editor of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, came up with a quick fix: put a zero after the seven. Hence the new book, The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World: The Great Monuments and How They Were Built.

The book, written by Scarre and 15 other scholars, consists of an introductory section that covers the original Seven Wonders and then sections with titles like "Tombs & Cemeteries," "Temples & Shrines," etc. Individual entries for various Wonders are within these sections. The entries for each monument follow a simple format: the date and place of the monument, a quotation about it, and a two- to six-page description of it and how it was built (typically with a color photo, one or two black-and-whites, and a plan or reconstruction drawing. With its straightforward structure, the book is undoubtedly a convenient resource for quick reference about the 70 monuments included in it.

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
Peter Clayton and Martin Price, editors
New York: Routledge, 1995
$8.00 to $15.00 (used); 178 pages
ISBN 0-415-05036-7
The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World
Christopher Scarre, editor
New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999
$40.00; 304 pages
ISBN ISBN 0-500-05096-1

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Mark Rose is managing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America