Digital Experimental Archaeology: Hero of Alexandria and his Automata in CAD

Talk: Duncan Keenan-Jones (Glasgow), “Digital Experimental Archaeology: Hero of Alexandria and his Automata in CAD”.


Date: Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Time: starting at 17:00 c.t. (i.e. 17:15)

Venue: TOPOI Building Dahlem, Hittorfstraße 18 D-14195 Berlin (map)


…καὶ γὰρ εὐκόπως καὶ ἀκινδύνως καὶ ξένως παρὰ τὰ πρὸ ἡμῶν ἀωαγεγραμμένα κατακεχωρίκαμεν, ὡς ἔστι δῆλον τοῖς πεπειραμένοις τῶν πρότερον ἀωαγεγραμμένων.

…for I have recorded methods which are feasible, riskless and innovative compared to those described by our ancestors, as is clear to anyone who has tested the earlier devices. (Hero, On the making of the Automata 20.1, translation F. Grillo).

A key claim made by Hero of Alexandria in his work Περί αὐτοματοποιητικῆς (On the making of the Automata, hereafter Automata) is that he has improved upon previously described automata, making them more feasible and more easily reproduced in practice. A three-year, FUNDER-funded project is testing Hero’s devices and his claims. Working from a fresh analysis of the Greek text, the two automata described by Hero are being built, initially in the computer-aided design (CAD) package SolidWorks, and then in the physical world. A primary objective is to determine to what extent the Automata is a technical treatise, exaggeration/self-aggrandisement and/or a jeu d’esprit.

This paper will present results from the digital construction of the mobile automaton, the more challenging of the two. This is essentially a mobile shrine of Dionysos that performed rituals such as sacrifices and libations. The creation of a 3D digital model has been found to be a useful tool in the analysis of ancient technologies and the texts describing them. This paper outlines several case studies where specific passages of Hero’s text have been illuminated through the need to locate the mechanisms Hero describes within 3D digital space, and this 3D construction is compared to the use of 2D diagrams in the surviving manuscripts of the Automata and by modern scholars. In addition, the outputs of the model provide realistic quantitative data on which to base simulations of the operation of the automaton. For example, fluid dynamic simulations of the piping system supplying the liquids for the libations –incorporating the physical constraints identified during 3D modelling – suggest that the storage tanks specified by Hero are too small and should be located elsewhere than Hero specifies. This finding – to be further investigated in the physical model – raises the possibility that Hero had not built or tested this mechanism himself, and may explain the location of the tank in manuscript diagrams.