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Most astonishing ancient technologies that still amaze - myth or reality?

Most astonishing ancient technologies that still amaze - myth or reality? The ancient people created incredible objects (photo: Pixabay)

Ancient civilizations created and utilized astonishing technologies and engineering solutions that continue to be a source of fascination and study for modern scientists.

RBC-Ukraine tells about the most astonishing ancient technologies that still amaze with their uniqueness.

Sources used in the material's preparation: Big Think, Wikipedia.

Roman concrete

One of the earliest mentions of Roman concrete dates back to 25 BCE. In the manuscript "Ten Books on Architecture" the Roman architect, military engineer, and civil engineer Vitruvius recommends using volcanic ash from the city of Pozzuoli near Naples, known as "pozzolana," during construction. If the structure is to be placed underwater, he advises mixing it with lime in a ratio of 3:1 (or 2:1).

At the time this manuscript was written, Roman concrete was still considered a novelty and was not used extensively. However, everything changed in 64 CE when a fire destroyed two-thirds of the imperial capital. During its reconstruction, Emperor Nero's Building Code was enacted, which required, among other things, the construction of stronger foundations within the city. This transition marked the adoption of what we now call Roman concrete.

Contemporaries argue that many of the architectural projects of Ancient Rome would have been impossible without it. Known as opus caementicium, Roman concrete (in the words of Pliny the Elder) bound together rock fragments into a "single stone mass" and made them "impervious to waves and every day grew stronger."

picture showing the concrete underside of a large dome

The Pantheon is an example of Roman concrete construction (photo: Wikipedia)

Greek fire

Greek fire was a flammable mixture used for military purposes in medieval times.

It is believed that Greek fire was first used by the Byzantines. In 674, when the Muslim fleet of the Umayyad Caliphate attempted to besiege Constantinople, their ships were engulfed in flames. At first, the Muslims were not alarmed, as fire was often used in naval warfare at the time and could easily be extinguished with cloth or water.

However, it was later revealed.

ed that this was no ordinary fire. It couldn't be extinguished by conventional means. Even after the entire fleet had burned, the flames continued to engulf the sea itself.

There are no definitive records about the exact composition of Greek fire, but researchers speculate that it could have included ingredients like petroleum, sulfur, or gunpowder.

Scientists have been unable to replicate the unique pump or high-pressure device used to project Greek fire over long distances toward the enemy during naval battles. This is because the specific design and technology of the pump have not been documented or preserved in historical records, making it challenging to recreate the exact mechanisms used for projecting the fire.


Greek fire was a tremendously powerful weapon (photo: Wikipedia)

Damascus steel

Weapons made from Damascus steel originated in the Middle East around the 9th century. These swords were renowned for their distinctive appearance and exceptional durability, being significantly stronger and sharper than their European counterparts.

It is interesting to note that the city of Damascus is not mentioned in historical records as a central hub for the development of blacksmithing. However, it was home to the largest market for trading cold weapons.

Furthermore, the name "Damascus steel" is derived from an Arabic word meaning "water," which describes the distinctive wavy pattern on their surface. This pattern emerged during the unique forging process, where small ingots of crucible steel (from India, Sri Lanka, or Iran) were melted with charcoal and cooled at an incredibly slow rate.

The demand for Damascus steel remained high for centuries until firearms replaced swords in armed conflicts. By the year 1850, the secrets of the production process of this steel were completely lost (the technology for producing Indian wootz steel also remains incompletely reproduced to this day).


Enlarged image of a 13th-century Damascus steel sword (photo: Wikipedia)

Ancient Chinese seismoscope

The world's first seismoscope was created in China in 132 AD by the scientist and inventor Zhang Heng, who was the chief astronomer at the imperial court at the time. Researchers believe that this device was capable of predicting earthquakes with the precision of modern instruments.

Historical records have preserved an accurate description of its appearance and how it functioned, but the internal construction of this ancient invention remains a mystery to this day.

Scientists have made multiple attempts to replicate a model of such a device, putting forward various theories regarding the principles of its operation.

Some suggest that ground vibrations and underground shifts forced a special pendulum, placed inside the copper vessel, to sway. In doing so, it would strike a lever system, which "opened" the tube in the mouth of one of the eight dragons mounted on the outside. Since each dragon's mouth "held" a bronze ball, when the tube opened, the ball would drop and fall into the open mouth of a frog located below (of which there were also eight).

The direction of the earthquake corresponded to the location of a particular dragon (each of the eight animals "represented" one of the directions – north, south, west, east, northeast, northwest, southeast, and southwest).

It is believed that when the bronze ball fell into the frog's mouth, it produced a loud ringing sound (some historical accounts describe it as being capable of waking all the residents of the imperial palace).

The first alarm signal from the device was recorded in the year 138 when an earthquake occurred to the west of the capital (although some remained skeptical about the invention until the end).


Modern replica of an ancient seismoscope (photo: Wikipedia)

Antikythera "cosmic" mechanism

The Antikythera mechanism is an ancient mechanical analog computing device (dating back to approximately 70-80 BCE) designed, presumably, to calculate the positions of celestial bodies.
It was discovered in 1901 in the Aegean Sea, between the Greek island of Crete and the Peloponnese Peninsula (near the island of Antikythera), at a depth of 43-60 meters amid the wreckage of a sunken ancient Roman ship. At that time, divers recovered a bronze statue of a youth and numerous other artifacts.

In 1902, archaeologist Valerios Stais discovered several bronze gears among the retrieved items, attached to pieces of limestone. However, the artifact remained unstudied until 1951 when English historian Derek John de Solla Price took an interest in it and first determined that the mechanism was a unique ancient calculating device.

The device was incomplete and in poor condition, but according to some researchers, it consisted of 37 bronze gears that were stored in a wooden box.

Today, most scientists agree that the device is very similar to the so-called Orrery model, a mechanical model of the Solar System that calculates and tracks celestial time. Although the first Orrery model was constructed only in 1704, nearly one and a half millennia later.

Tomographic scanning of the mechanism revealed its incredible complexity. Researchers who attempted to reproduce the Antikythera Mechanism in 2021 recognized it as a "work of genius that combines cycles from Babylonian astronomy, mathematics from Plato's Academy, and ancient Greek astronomical theories."

The mechanism likely had the capability to calculate the ecliptic longitudes of the Moon and Sun, lunar phases, synodic phases of planets, Olympic cycles, and more.


The initial discovery was indeed puzzling (photo: Wikipedia)

Baghdad "battery"

The so-called Baghdad "battery" is a Mesopotamian artifact. It was found in Iraq near the place that was once the capital of the Parthian Empire and later the Sassanian Empire.

The archaeological find referred to as the Baghdad "battery" consists of a ceramic pot, a copper tube, and an iron rod. After extensive research, scientists concluded that these objects were once connected together and formed a single device.

Externally, it was a terracotta jar (approximately 14 cm in height and 8 cm in width), narrow at the bottom and widest at about two-thirds of its height.

In the upper part of the vessel, there is a hole with a diameter of 3 cm. The jar is broken in this area, so it was likely slightly taller originally. Around the broken edge, there are remnants of natural asphalt, indicating that the upper part of the jar was sealed initially.

Inside the jar, there was a hollow tube made from a thin sheet of copper, rolled into a cylinder, measuring 9.5 cm in length and 2.5 cm in width. A round copper plate sealed its bottom, secured with lead-tin solder along the side seam. Inside the tube, there was a rusted iron rod, approximately 8 cm long. It didn't reach the bottom of the tube and protruded above its upper end, extending about 1 cm from the asphalt seal on the jar.

Initially, Wilhelm Konig, the director of Iraq's Department of Antiquities, speculated that the "battery" could have been used as a galvanic cell (a chemical power source) for applying silver or gold plating to metal objects through a process known as electroplating.

Later, scientists proposed another theory: the Baghdad "battery" might have been used as a local analgesic, alleviating pain in a person's body by delivering an electric charge.

Some researchers even suggested that the artifact could have been used to simulate religious miracles ("batteries" might have been connected to a metal statue, and when worshippers touched it, they felt an electric shock, interpreted as the power of a deity).

In reality, neither the exact time of creation of this discovery nor its precise purpose is known with certainty.


Here are the items found by archaeologists (illustration: Wikipedia)