Measurer of All Things: John Greaves (1602-1652), the Great Pyramid, and Early Modern Metrology
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Journal of the History of Ideas 63.4 (2002) 555-575



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Measurer of All Things:
John Greaves (1602-1652), the Great Pyramid, and Early Modern Metrology

Zur Shalev

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Writing from Istanbul to Peter Turner, one of his colleagues at Merton College, Oxford, John Greaves was deeply worried:

Onley I wonder that in so long time since I left England I should neither have received my brasse quadrant which I left to be finished for my journey thither, nor any notice of it [...]. I agreed with mr. Allen upon price and the time that he should finish it, if he hath failed me he hath done me the greatest injury that can be. 1

A great injury indeed, because Greaves's journey to Italy and the Levant was all about measuring—luckily the instrument did reach him at some later stage. The thirty-six-year-old Professor of Geometry at Gresham College was taking the measurements of countless monuments and objects in the locations he visited. In Rome he measured, among many other ancient structures, Cestius' Pyramid and St. Peter's basilica. In Lucca, deeply impressed, he counted his paces around the beautiful city walls. In Siena he observed together with a "Mathematical Professor" one of the Sidera Medicea using "a glass." In Egypt he even hurt his eyes gazing at the sun, looking for sunspots and measuring its diameter. 2 His measuring mission, however, culminated in the fixing of the [End Page 555] latitudes of Istanbul, Rhodes, and Alexandria. As Bishop Juxton wrote before the trip to Greaves's employers at Gresham College (apparently using Greaves's own promotional language):

This worke I find by the best astronomers, especially by Ticho Brache [ sic ] and Kepler, hath beene much desired as tending to the advancement of that science, and I hope it wil be an honour to that nation and prove ours if we first observe it. 3

A mathematician-Orientalist, commanding the ancient and modern astronomical and geographical literature of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian authors, Greaves was arguably the best qualified European at the period to perform the task. That he miscalculated the latitude of Rhodes is of less consequence for his present-day readers. 4 However, one of the most obscure and therefore telling of his measurement activities was the survey of the Pyramids of Giza, which resulted in the Pyramidographia (1646). 5 This remarkable learned treatise and travel account hybrid, which is at the focus of the present study, gives us a glimpse into the rich and complex world of scientific antiquarians.

Greaves is most conveniently remembered today as an Orientalist. While we must be thankful to Edward Said for broadening the meaning of Orient-alism—from an academic discipline, accumulating objective knowledge of the East, into a much wider cultural discourse, his emphasis on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and on the European colonial mindset is less useful for making historical sense of what early modern Orientalists were doing—physically and culturally. We can understand Greaves's "Oriental" enterprise in its [End Page 556] depth and variety only within long established European traditions of scholarship and keeping the intellectual concerns of his time in mind. 6

But beyond articulating for us the nature of early Orientalism, the Pyramidographia, as well as Greaves's entire scientific career, situated in their wider European context, provide a fine entry point into a foreign world of learned practices and methods. It teaches us how well into the seventeenth century astronomy and philology, observation and bookishness, could coalesce in one figure, in one enterprise. 7 We still lack a modern biography of Greaves, a complex protagonist of a complex period, and even a full evaluation of his intellectual work. While this paper surely cannot compensate for that, I do attempt here a brief exposition of Greaves's Pyramidographia. 8

Modern historians of archaeology and Egyptology, preoccupied mostly with the disciplines' progress and development of scientific standards, have noted the Pyramidographia in passing and praised its precise language and rigorous research...