Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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from the trenches
DVD: "Engineering an Empire" Volume 60 Number 3, May/June 2007
by Erin Hayes


Heron, an engineer in Ptolemaic Alexandria first harnessed the power of steam with his aeolipile, 1,600 years before the Industrial Revolution. Remarkable buildings and inventions like Heron's are the subject of the TV series "Engineering an Empire" (first season on DVD, The History Channel, $49.95) which examines feats of engineering that seem to transcend the technological know-how of their time.

Computer animation aids in imagining the unimaginable, such as the still unexcavated tomb of the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, with its fabled rivers of mercury and pearl-studded ceiling. But uninspired reenactments and actor-turned-art-historian Peter Weller's Robocop-style commentary weighs down an otherwise interesting series. Many of the innovations the series explores were effective tools of empire-building, such as the Aztec irrigation canals at Tenochtitlán, and the Greek trireme ships used to defeat the Persians at Salamis, but some, like the aeolipile, held potential not fully realized for centuries. The sheer ingenuity of ancient engineers ultimately makes the series fascinating.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America