The two towers: looking at time in Athens and Oxford

From the window of the Anachronism and Antiquity project office we can see the eighteenth-century Radcliffe Observatory, one of the more remarkable buildings of Oxford’s architectural heritage.

The Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford

From the window of the Anachronism and Antiquity project office we can see the eighteenth-century Radcliffe Observatory, one of the more remarkable buildings of Oxford’s architectural heritage. The eight-sided tower and its sculptures of the winds consciously evoke Athens’ octagonal Tower of the Winds, a Hellenistic structure that has survived largely intact, albeit stripped of its equipment. The original purpose of both buildings, and the instruments they housed, was to assist in measurement, whether through the mechanisms of water clocks and sundials (Athens) or through telescopes and other instruments enabling observations of astronomical phenomena (Oxford).

Looking from the window of our less distinguished post-war office building, we can see the eighteenth century tower as a link between present and past, suggesting both the desire for cultural continuity between antiquity and the modern world, and, through its adaptation of the original, differences and disruptions between the two, that one cannot recreate the past without change. The change in scale and disrupted proportions of the newer building exemplify the shifts in emphasis and understanding that mark historical inquiry, as the object of observation is distorted by changes in focus and interest, and what was small (as the original Athenian tower is) may become large (as the Observatory is) in its reception and recreation.

The Radcliffe Observatory’s obsolescence as a place of scientific activity is also a reminder that perspectives and paradigms are subject to shifts and changes; most of its equipment is now housed in a museum. One of our questions is whether such shifts took place within ancient historiography, and how the consciousness of different temporalities affected historical and political analysis.

While some have argued that the concept of anachronism is a modern one and unknown to ancient writers, we are finding examples of the sophisticated manipulation of time and temporality in ancient texts, and indeed in ancient commentary on objects and practices that seemed ancient to them. The Athenian Tower of the Winds in the Agora reminds us that time and its measurement were a concern of both ancient science and engineering and of everyday life. The presence of the figures of the eight winds on both buildings connects timeless myth with the conscious and scientific measurement of time and space.

Engagement with antiquity can assert novelty as well as an antiquarian respect for cultural authority. The Radcliffe Observatory’s architect James Wyatt, in modelling his observatory on an Athenian building, was responding to the latest contemporary fashion. The details of the older tower’s structure and its sculptures had recently been featured in Stuart and Revett’s Antiquities of Athens, first published in 1762. Wyatt produced a great many solid neo-classical buildings in Oxford and elsewhere (including a Pantheon in London’s Oxford St), but was no stranger to architectural fashion and experiment. The altered proportions and scale of the Radcliffe Observatory, compared with its ancient original, perhaps hint at the extremes he would demonstrate in later buildings such as the Gothic Revival Fonthill Abbey, with its magnificent but short-lived tower.

Uncovering the complexity of ancient engagement with time, temporality and history, will be at the heart of our research activities over the next three years. We can take inspiration from Wyatt’s re-use of the past, and the collaborative efforts of Atlas and Heracles, holding up the world on the top of the tower.

Author: Carol Atack

Researcher in ancient Greek political thought and history, and its contemporary reception. Post-doctoral researcher on Anachronism and Antiquity project, Faculty of Classics, University of Oxford.

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