Advanced Past Technology We Can't Replicate Today

Let’s take a look at some amazing lost ancient technology that we still can’t replicate!


In today’s modern world, we live with technological advances that would’ve seemed like sorcery only 100 years ago. Yet, despite all our cellphones and smart cars, there are still things from the past that leave us with more questions than answers. Let’s take a look at some lost ancient technology that we still can’t recreate today!

Wave Piloting With Stick Charts

Technology wasn’t always touch screens, buttons and LEDs. ‘Technology’ is a broad term, encapsulating anything that transfers our knowledge and observations into practical uses. Past tech could be as simple as preservation chemicals, plant-based medicine, or even a tangle of sticks!

The fascinating navigation technology of wave piloting is just that: an ancient art, known only to natives of the Marshall Islands, using little more than bound sticks and honed instincts. Developed over 2,000 years ago, these odd devices allowed ancient Marshallese seafarers to navigate with surprising accuracy on long journeys without needing to see their destination islands.

Wave Piloting navigational chart stick chart Rebbelib

But without compasses, or even the use of stars or the sun as guidance, how did wave piloting work? Wave piloting technology was made possible through stick charts called Rebbelib, and a person’s learned sensitivity to the ocean. To learn this art, the Marshallese would sail between islands blindfolded, using subtle changes in the wind and waves to guide them.

Once a pilot was sufficiently sensitive to the ocean, the Rebbelib would guide them for long voyages between islands. The Rebbelib featured a series of curved bamboo sticks and cowrie shells tied together like a map. The shells marked roughly where the islands were and the sticks represented wind patterns and ocean currents.

Rebbelib navigation stick chart marshall islands

None of these maps were made to scale, nor were they intended to be, making their use as a navigational tool all the more impressive and mysterious. Wave piloting depended entirely on the user’s sensitivity to the ocean, preexisting mental maps, and an ability to interpret the mysterious visual language of the navigation stick chart. This means, of course, that the maps are unreadable to anyone except a trained wave pilot.

The incredible methods are still an enigma to Western science, but efforts to learn the historic secrets of the few existing Marshallese have been launched. Harvard particle physicist John Huth, alongside other intrigued scientists, wishes to utilize the scientific method to study the astounding accuracy of this intuitive, indigenous navigation system.

Any knowledge on the part of the remaining islanders, as yet, remains a rarely-shared local secret, and one that’s seemingly growing further from revelation.

Wave Piloting Marshall Islanders sailing

The United States used the area around the Marshall Islands in the 1950s for nuclear testing, displacing many islanders. Rising sea levels caused many other people to abandon their homes, with conditions worsening daily. Because of all this, any hopes of outsiders understanding the art of wave piloting are quickly disappearing.

With only a handful of people remaining with any knowledge of the ways of the wave pilots, and Marshallese populations dwindling, future understanding and replication of this amazing technology looks increasingly unlikely.

Silphium, The Ancient Miracle Plant

Widely loved by Europeans of classical antiquity for its astounding array of uses, silphium was a unique plant that still puzzles scientists today. Described in Ancient Greek and Roman accounts as having clusters of yellow flowers and stubby leaves, the plant’s appearance was fairly unassuming.

Prairie burdock Silphium terebirthinaceum

But its disappearance is what prevents scientists from replicating its amazing effects. Silphium was extremely prevalent in ancient Greece and Rome, used in the crafting of dinner plates, medications, perfumes and more. Even Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician, praised its uses for relieving inflammation.

The plant, thought to be related to the giant fennel we see today, is also thought to have been one of the first contraceptive and abortive medicines that actually worked. When needed, those promiscuous ancient Europeans could head down to the market and pick up their silphium supplies, ready to party.

In fact, silphium’s popularity and association with romance can be observed in many ancient resources, including poems and silver coins depicting the silphium seed. This has led to speculation that the silphium seed was the inspiration for the ‘love heart’ symbol we see today.

Ancient silver coin depicting a seed or fruit of silphium

Unfortunately, widespread use of this plant eventually led to its demise, although there is some debate about how exactly it went extinct. Some scientists assert that overharvesting or overgrazing is to blame. Others argue it may be because silphium couldn’t be farmed, making it unviable and unsustainable as a resource.

Nonetheless, all that remains are descriptions and drawings of it. Today, we have broader access to birth control but very few of these are herbal in nature. A natural birth control substance like silphium, which apparently worked well, had few side effects, and didn’t seriously mess with women’s hormones, so it could easily benefit women’s healthcare today.

Girolamo Segato's Petrification

Five years before his death in 1836, an Italian named Girolamo Segato discovered how to petrify animals and human bodies. Petrification is the process through which the organic materials that make up living things are replaced by minerals, turning organic matter into fossils.

While this can take millions of years to occur naturally, Segato’s process of petrification is the only known technique for artificially, quickly petrifying human bodies. The secrets behind the process were lost with Segato’s death, as public discouragement reportedly led him to burn his notes.

S. croce, tomba di girolamo segato, ritratto come medusa pietrificatore (scuola di l. bartolini)

What we do know is that Segato’s process of petrification involved removing as much water as possible from a body. This lack of water would help the body mineralize, making it dry and durable. His mysterious mixture of minerals would presumably fill pores and vessels, essentially fossilizing much of the body.

In the process, all the textures, colors and features of the body remained surprisingly intact. Segato successfully used this technology on a human head, a chest, and many smaller chunks of human bodies.

Girolamo Segato petrified samples

Segato even created a scagliola tabletop for the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand III, after mastering his process. When the Duke found out what the decorative tabletop was made of, he wasn’t pleased, to say the least.

Word soon spread about Segato’s capability, and many assumed he used ancient magic, which he had reportedly learned during a visit to Egypt. While the ‘magic’ debate is still open, he did study Egyptian mummification during his trip. While there are distinct differences between Egyptian mummies and Segato’s petrified ‘artifacts’, future research on Egypt may reveal the source of Segato’s inspiration.

Of course, that’s if we want to know how to petrify people. People at the time were, understandably, disgusted, and consequently Segato went largely unrecognized for his strides in technology and science.

Lycurgus Cup And Roman Nanotechnology

The Lycurgus Cup is a fascinating piece of Roman art from the 4th century A.D., known for its unusual color-changing capabilities. The cup appears green from frontal lighting, and red if lit from behind, making it a technological marvel of its time.

Ancient Nanotechnology Lycurgus Cup red and green changing colours

Perplexing scientists for many years, the Lycurgus Cup is now considered an example of ancient Roman nanotechnology. It sounds crazy, but it’s true! The cup’s ability to change colors lies in the 50-nanometer-wide silver and gold particles within the glass. To give you an idea of how small that is, a strand of human hair is approximately 100,000 nanometers wide!

It’s uncertain whether the particles were somehow ground up and added to the glass mix, were added accidentally as residue on tools, or something else entirely. It’s a mystery that’s yet to be solved. Accident or not, there’s some sophisticated science at play in the cup’s mesmerizing effect.

When light hits the particles in the cup, some of it is absorbed, while some are reflected. The angle at which the light hits the cup changes the ratio between these two factors, altering the wavelengths of the light that passes through. This causes the color of the cup to change, depending on the position of the light source.

Watch on YouTube

Despite our modern advancements in nanotechnology, we still can’t replicate this enigmatic Roman cup. We could hypothetically create similar versions using modern methods, but it wouldn’t be easy, and it certainly wouldn’t be the same as using the authentic, unsolved Roman method.

Stradivarius Violins

In the late 1600s, Italian artisan Antonio Stradivari built violins that still enchant musicians today. Their tone and craftsmanship are so valued that they sell for tens of millions at auction, with one fetching almost $16 million in 2011.

Many musicians assert that these violins are superior to any modern instrument, and that no attempt can replicate Stradivari’s pieces. Due to this, there’s much speculation on what makes Stradivari’s so technologically superior.

Antonio Stradivari violin

Scientists from Columbia University suggest that the climate during the 17th century may be responsible for the Stradivarius tone. The notably cooler climate during Stradivari’s years of operation resulted in trees with thicker wood. Supporters argue that the strong acoustics of Stradivarius violins are a natural result of those temperatures, making replication nearly impossible without perfect weather conditions.

Others disagree, suggesting that the secret lies in the chemical treatment of the wood, or a secret varnish, the recipes for which were known only to Stradivari. Another popular explanation urges that the minute differences in the shapes of Stradivari violins play a role in the sound difference.

An altered shape, and the structure of the front and back plates, may be Stradivari’s secret. Yet, measure-for-measure recreations still don’t offer the same sound. Whether it’s a matter of instrument experts hearing a difference that doesn’t really exist, or some secret chemical or geometrical formula, replicating a Stradivarius doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.

Extrait carnet Stradivarius

Ancient Roman Flexible Glass

Our awareness of this enigmatic technology comes from the historic works of an ancient scholar named Isidore of Seville, in addition to the accounts of Pliny the Elder, Cassius Dio and Petronius.

According to Isidore, during the reign of the emperor Tiberius, an unnamed artisan invented a unique kind of glass. Allegedly, this glass was flexible and wouldn’t shatter if dropped. The artisan presented his invention to Petronius, in the form of a glass bowl, and threw it on the ground before the emperor.

The glass struck the ground but didn’t shatter. The artisan then took out a hammer and beat out the newly-formed dent in the glass, returning it to shape.

lost ancient roman invention of flexible glass

Petronius swiftly executed the artisan, fearing this new material would destabilize the value of gold and silver. According to those ancient historians, he erased its existence entirely. In recent years, flexible glass has been highly sought after for all kinds of technological devices.

Companies like Corning have even succeeded, creating thin sheets of flexible glass, known as ‘willow glass’. Despite this, we still have not replicated the Roman legend entirely. We’ve yet to create glass that can be shaped with a hammer, or thick enough to function as a bowl.

Shatter-Proof willow glass flexible

If this tale is true, the inventor may have created a material that even modern tech can’t fully match. Alternatively, he may even have invented an early form of plastic. Whatever the case was, we’ll likely never know, as the Roman glass artifacts that remain are frustratingly smashable.

The Mysterious Battery Of The Oxford Electric Bell

Dead batteries are certainly annoying, but the ultimate solution may lie in a very unexpected place. The Oxford Electric Bell, which has been ringing since 1840, holds the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most durable battery in the world.

Switched on just 40 years after Alessandro Volta’s invention of the first true battery, the Oxford Bell’s battery has been powering the bell for over 180 years straight.

Oxford Electric Bell

It’s a relatively simple mechanism, using alternating electrostatic force to push a metal ball back and forth between two bells. Scientists and researchers are fascinated by this battery, but unfortunately can’t take a look inside. Opening it up would end the experiment, and researchers are keen to see how long it will run before meddling with it.

They do know, however, that it’s a dry pile battery. These feature various materials such as silver, sulfur and zinc layered on top of each other to produce an electrical current. The mystery lies in exactly what metals the instrument-manufacturing firm Watkin and Hill chose for this particular dry pile when they constructed it.

We do know that Sulfur was used as an outer coating, but that’s about it. Despite today’s scientific advancements, none of our batteries even come close to the usage handled by the Oxford Bell which has already rung over 10 billion times.

Oxford Bell sulfur outer coating

If you were fascinated by these ancient lost technologies we can't replicate today, you might want to read this article about artifacts that might prove past advanced civilizations existed. Thanks for reading!

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