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Ancient builders’ skills live on at Science and Tech Museum

April 20, 2018
Tom Spears, Ottawa Citizen

Research on a centuries-old collection of builders’ instruments from the Mediterranean world has brought the Canada Science and Technology Museum a national award from the Canadian Museums Association.

The levels, compasses and more come from the eastern Mediterranean countries which once formed the heart of the Ottoman Empire.

And curator David Pantalony says they embody a shared tradition of applied mathematics across Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

“They are simple tools and they look even routine and mundane compared to some that you see (in museums) such as the big fancy astrolabes,” he said.

“But they did very sophisticated things because they were part of a network of training and practice and skills that went into building some pretty incredible projects.”

The collection of about 130 pieces came from the late George Petrovic, a Serbian architect who immigrated to Canada and taught at McGill University. (Modern-day Serbia was once part of the Ottoman Empire.)

He collected them for his doctoral thesis on the history of architecture and instrumentation in Belgrade, and continued to build the collection through his lifetime. They date as far back as the twelfth century, but Pantalony said most are from the fourteenth to nineteenth.

Petrovic gave them to the museum in 1980. The collection includes plumb bobs (weights hung on a line to show what is vertical), builders’ rules, and levels.

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