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Oriental Metrology and the Politics of Antiquity in Nineteenth-Century Survey Sciences

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 July 2017

Simon Schaffer*
University of Cambridge E-mail:


Metrological techniques to establish shared quantitative measures have often been seen as signs of rational modernization. The cases considered here show instead the close relation of such techniques with antiquarian and revivalist programs under imperial regimes. Enterprises in survey sciences in Egypt in the wake of the French invasion of 1798 and in India during the East India Company's revenue surveys involved the promotion of a new kind of oriental metrology designed to represent colonizers’ measures as restorations of ancient values to be applied to current systems of survey and measurement. Surveyors’ practice and hardware help clarify the significance of the complex historical and political functions of scientific standards. The balance of the paper discusses the survey work of later nineteenth-century indigenous Egyptian astronomers at a conjuncture of major economic and political dislocation to explore the various versions of antiquity at stake in these metrological programs.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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