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Candied Corpses, And 87 Other Ancient Innovations

Who knew Alexander the Great was such a sweet guy? Before the Macedonian conqueror passed away, he left detailed funeral instructions, including -- among other things -- that he be embalmed in honey through a process known as "mellification."

This is just one of the tidbits included in classical historian Vicki Leon's new book, How to Mellify a Corpse: And Other Human Stories of Ancient Science & Superstition. Leon chronicles 88 tales of Greek genius and Roman know-how, exploring the many remedies, precautions and inventions classical people dreamed up in order to make life a little easier.

As it turns out, some of those remedies have serious staying power. Take mellification, for example: "It preserves tissue very well, and in fact has some particular uses and benefits for burn victims," Leon tells NPR's Liane Hansen.

The ancients came up with countless ways to use honey -- Leon says that the Egyptians had at least 900 remedies involving the sticky stuff. And since Greeks and Romans had no qualms with stealing the recipes of their neighbors to the south, "they had a number of them as well."

These included the method of using "mad honey" to vanquish enemies. As Leon explains, "When bees gather nectar for honey, if they happen to be in an area where there are laurel and rhododendron, the nectar -- the honey -- is somewhat toxic." This "mad honey" has an intoxicating effect on anyone unfortunate enough to ingest it.

Several Greek armies, she says, were felled after mistakenly chowing down on the mad honey that enemies had planted in their paths.

'Mac Of The Millennium'

Greek innovation, of course, wasn't all honey-related. In her book, Leon writes about what she calls the "Mac of the Millennium": an analog computer crafted by ancient Greeks in the second century B.C.E. "When it was first discovered," says Leon, "it just looked like a corroded lump of bronze and something else." Archaeologists had no idea what the object was meant to do.

Now, though, the mystery has been solved. The structure -- called Antikythera, after the island on which it was found -- "has all these layers of intricately meshed gears, and the point of it was to mimic the movements of the planets and the stars and the sun," says Leon.

The cycles Antikythera measured are movements still monitored by astronomers, such as the Saros cycle, which predicts both solar and lunar eclipses, which were "a big deal in the ancient world," Leon says.

Historian Vicki Leon has also written several nonfiction books for children, including <em>A Raft of Sea Otters</em> and three titles in the <em>Outrageous Women </em>series.
Historian Vicki Leon has also written several nonfiction books for children, including A Raft of Sea Otters and three titles in the Outrageous Women series.

'The First Surround Sound'

Leon also discusses Greek amphitheaters, which were designed so that even patrons sitting in the last rows could hear what was being said onstage. Creating such good acoustics began with finding the proper site for a stage -- Leon says the Greeks favored hillsides so that they could more easily achieve a bowl shape for their theaters. "They also took into consideration how the winds blew," she adds.

But the innovations didn't end there. Leon describes how researchers recently studied the open air theater at Epidavros and found that its smooth stone seats are topped with marble and "corrugated on the vertical."

That corrugation is much more than an aesthetic choice. "The corrugation acted as a kind of baffle for the sound," explains Leon, "and it blocked the low-frequency sounds, like the crowd murmurs and so on. And it transmitted the higher frequency sounds -- specifically, the voices of the chorus and the actors."

Leon hopes that her book will "illuminate those unsung men and women of long ago -- in this case, the men and women of science who also believed, in some cases very firmly, in any number of superstitions." People, in other words, who greatly resemble their 21st-century counterparts.

"I believe that we are a great deal more like them than we probably want to believe or know," she says, "and that's one of the reasons I adore this kind of research."

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NPR Staff