7 Puzzling Technological Wonders from the Ancient World

The reason stories about advanced ancient technology gone bad are so appealing is because of the genuine mysteries presented by our distant past. There seems to be an almost universal suspicion that things were once much better. This attitude is embedded in myths of the Golden Age, tales of Atlantis, and other lost paradises.

Blub, blub, blub

It has all happened before and will happen again

The existence of such fabulous times and places are still unproven – Atlantis alone has been placed everywhere between Greenland to Antarctica and beyond by various theorists. There have been a lot of dubious claims, but a few genuine technological achievements of antiquity are truly hard for scientists to explain. A few of these may hint that Atlantis or the Golden Age is more than myth. Perhaps some exotic civilization with a global reach really did exist in times long forgotten. Here is some of the best evidence of high technology we have lost somewhere along the way:

1. Pre-Ice Age World Maps

The most recently made of these anomalies might actually contain the oldest information. Made in 1513 by a famous Ottoman admiral and cartographer, the Piri Reis map first attracted attention by its own claim to incorporate data from Columbus’ then-recent discoveries along with ancient sources. And sure enough the map of the Atlantic from Spain southwards shows newly found islands in the Caribbean. However, it also shows the coastline of South America, which was not known then, and also Antarctica, not seen until 1820.

It gets weirder. The coastline of the southernmost continent, it was claimed by Professor Charles Hapgood in 1966 in Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings, was not the present one, but as it was as late as 15,000 years ago before Antarctica was covered with ice. Moreover, the US Air Force determined that the base projection of the map was from a location thousands of miles directly above the Great Pyramid of Egypt.

Professor Hapgood considered the Piri Reis map – and other early modern maps with anomalous geographical information – as survivals from some unknown ancient civilization that once mapped the entire planet by air or space.

No, you can't see your house here.

Google Maps for the 15th Century

2. A Greek computer

At the turn of the Twentieth Century, a number of green lumps of corroded bronze were recovered from the wreck of a treasure ship off Antikythera Island in the Aegean. The “Antikythera mechanism” turned out to be the several fused masses of gears from nothing less than a portable mechanical astronomical computer. Dated to the early first century, nothing anywhere near as complex would appear again in Europe until mechanical clocks were invented thirteen hundred years later.

This unique, totally unexpected find has been compared to running into pieces of a Ferrari or a jet engine in a old blacksmith’s shop. It is thought the device was a marvel of high Athenian technology intended for Julius Caesar that was lost on its way to Rome.

Dates could be inputted and progressed by turning a hand crank or knob. The device calculated the positions of Sun and Moon, the lunar phase, point in several eclipse cycles, the Olympic date, and possibly planetary alignments as well on several dials on both front and back panels. There were even instructions conveniently engraved on doors of the mechanism. But it was only by means of x-rays and mechanical reconstructions that its functions have been revealed. There are still new capabilities being discovered. Check out the cool video of a modern reproduction in operation.

Actual and reconstructed

Image how your laptop will look in 2000 years.

3. Mayan calendars

This has received a huge amount of notoriety due to the bogus “Mayan apocalypse.” But the hype is based on a popular recognition of the extreme accuracy of the Mayan calendar. Somehow supposedly created by a people living in a jungle who did not even use the wheel, the Mayan calendars (they used 3 different ones actually) is an intricate system of cycles within cycles intermeshing like gears. They are not only based on the regular periodic motions of the Sun and Moon but those of Venus also. Moreover, they can function flawlessly for millions of years in either direction with incredible accuracy.

In fact they are almost too precise. Most other time-telling systems can only be used to roughly estimate ancient astronomical phenomena by comparing observations because of the fuzzy match between calendars and astronomy. But the Mayan system presents the opposite problem by offering too many possible dates.

The Mayan calendar was only invented in the first or second Centuries. Most curiously, whoever did so may have somehow known of the Western calendar. Along one edge of the tombstone of the Mayan ruler Pacal – famously claimed by Erich von Däniken to show an ancient astronaut flying a rocket ship – are a row of seven glyphs.

These represent the planets in the correct order of the days of the week. This arrangement of Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn, derives from subtle principles of Western time-telling. It matches nothing else, and the week was not used by the Mayans or any New World people. How did the sculptors know?

Tick tock

The Mayan Calendar – interlocking gears within gears.
Pretty good for people who didn’t even use the wheel.

4. The Baghdad battery

In 1940, a German archeologist found a terracotta pot covered in tar that had been excavated several years previously. Wilhelm König noticed that it contained a copper cylinder and a corroded iron nail. He realized that all it needed was the addition of an acidic electrolyte such as vinegar or lemon juice to create an electrical battery, and the tar would provide excellent insulation, too.

This galvanic cell, if that’s what it is, might date as early as the third century. If so, Mesopotamians may have invented the electric pile at least a thousand years before Volta. Experiments have shown that the device could indeed have been used for electroplating small items or providing electrical shocks for religious purposes. The only problem is that nothing electroplated, nor for that matter, any wires or electrical equipment from that period have ever been found.

Nothing weird here – just an alien charging his batteries

5. Ancient telescopes

The oldest lens in the world found in context is in the British Museum. Called the “Ninevah lens,” this 3,000 year old faceted piece of rock crystal was discovered in the palace of Sargon II. Older lenses in the Louvre and Cairo Museum date as much as 4,500 years ago. Better ones have been found in Crete, and the Roman authors Pliny and Seneca refer to one used by an engraver in Pompeii. Given the fine carvings on gems from antiquity, it is highly likely lenses weren’t just considered jewelry or employed as eyes in statuary, but often used as proper magnifying glasses.

Heinrich Schliemann discovered a hoard of 48 rock crystal lenses in Troy. These disappeared with all the treasures of Troy during World War II. Other hoards have been found in Crete, Turkey, Carthage, and supposedly a pair used as spectacles were once excavated from the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy as well.

The Vikings, six hundred years before the invention of the telescope, had elliptical lenses created on a lathe. Like their best steel, they were probably imported from Eastern Europe or beyond.

 

The future looks cloudy

Ornament, magnifying lens, or part of a Viking telescope?

But could any of them been used in telescopes?

It is possible. Babylonian texts of two and a half millennia ago describe Saturn as having ears like a jug and a few of its moons as well as those of Jupiter that were first seen by Galileo, were also known. Without a telescope, this would be impossible even by the keenest-sighted priest.

6. The Great Pyramid

Despite the mountains of hype that have piled up about it, the only surviving monument left of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World really is a puzzler. Placed in the center of the Old World at the point where the lines of latitude and longitude cross the most land area, the Great Pyramid’s alignments to the cardinal directions are astoundingly accurate. Some enthusiasts claim its dimensions encode information about the Earth’s size, mathematical constants, and even foretell the future.

The Great Pyramid has been speculated as being everything from a beacon for landing spacecraft to a royal disaster shelter to a gigantic water pump. But mainstream Egyptologists have always insisted that the Great Pyramid was a royal tomb, just a tomb, and nothing but a tomb. The funny thing about it and the slightly smaller piles nearby is that no traces of any bodies, coffins, or grave goods have ever been found in them. Not only that, there are no inscriptions on any of them, unlike later, smaller pyramids used as tombs which were covered all over with them.

Other interesting features include evidence of high-tech machining discovered by an engineer named Christopher Dunn. There are marks of such tools in the so-called royal sarcophagus, a single-piece granite box with perfectly square-cut corners inside and out. The Great Pyramid’s placement with the other two big pyramids may mimic the stars of Orion’s Belt. There are mysterious sealed internal shafts that seem to indicate stellar alignments with the Belt stars from the time it was believed to have been built some four thousand years ago, but also from when some theorize it was first laid out twelve thousand years ago.

There are clear indications of extreme antiquity of the nearby Great Sphinx too. The stone of the beast, its enclosure, and associated temple all bear significant signs water erosion, which would make them at least twelve thousand years old also. The human head of the Sphinx is ridiculously too small for the body, suggesting that originally the critter bore the head of a lion that had to be re-carved at least once.

We still do not know just how the pyramids were built. Every attempt to try to even move a few stones with ancient techniques for demonstration purposes has failed miserably. Even with all our modern machines we probably could not build it today. It simply would take too long and be too expensive.

Why is this sphinx smiling?

Ancient and irreplaceable

The Great Pyramid is made of two million smooth-faced stones weighing at least two tons each, set so close that a credit card can’t fit between them. We are to believe that this marvel of engineering was erected during the off-season in the space of a single king’s reign by a bunch of farmers using stone hammers, copper chisels, ropes and logs. Yet, scholars say with a straight face, this giant stone mountain was piled up in honor of a pharaoh who did not even bother to have his name carved anywhere on it.

7. Global Measurements

Many systems of measurement exist whose origins are lost in the dim mists of prehistory. The division of the circle into 360 degrees, the day with 24 hours and so forth, all come from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. But even the modern English and metric systems may have roots far deeper than we have been led to believe.

In Scotland and Northern Europe are circles of standing stones. When surveying them in the first half of the last century, Professor Alexander Thom was astonished to discover that despite their different layouts they all seemed to be based on the same unit of measure. This he termed the “megalithic yard,” a length of 2.72 feet. This unit varied little from one site to the next, and other units could be derived from it. There was so little difference in the dimensions between one location and another that he believed the yard could not have been made by cutting sticks to the same length at one place. Instead, the megalithic yard had to be derived from observing the sky at each site. And you can even do it yourself.

What Thom proposed was an ancient universal standard based on invariable physical properties of the Earth just like the modern metric system. Since that time, more and more similarities of different systems of weights and measures have been noticed. The English imperial inch, for example, was found to be virtually identical to the Great Pyramid’s smallest unit, the “pyramid inch” of 1.00106 inches.

In Civilization One, Christopher Knight and Alan Butler extend Thom’s concepts. They discovered a second measuring system based in Sumeria dealing with volume based on the sphere. They found signs that both the metric and our English system ultimately derived from this, and are thus more closely related and ancient than we believe. The derivation of the meter had as little to do with the French Revolution as the yard had with the length of the arm of an English king.

It’s not a co-incidence then, for example, that a liter is almost the same as a quart. What this all points to is a civilization unknown to us with planetary reach and knowledge at least as great as our own, whether Atlantis or something else.

And it was thiiiiiiiiiiiiis big

Some ancient astronomical theories are more appealing than others.

What it means, however, is that we may not be a young civilization reaching for the stars but a race of amnesiacs struggling to recover our lost birthright. And that puts stories about ancient machines and lost knowledge in a wholly different light.

Fun is better.

About the Author

Jay Nelson

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