Oldest Technologies Scientists Still Can't Explain

Ancient flamethrowers, eternal swords and computers older than Jesus? Let's take a look at some old technology the scientists still can't explain.

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We tend to think of our ancestors as less smart versions of ourselves; after all, they didn’t invent smartphones, or the internet, or toilet. But our ancestors were much smarter than many of us give them credit for, and some things they created have baffled scientists for centuries!

From structures only giants could have built, to a computer that pre-dates the age of Jesus, let's investigate some of the oldest technologies that even scientists can’t explain!

Antikythera Mechanism: Ancient Computer

Do you know what the very first computer looked like? You’re probably thinking back to the time of boxy monitors, and wired mice that had rubber balls in them! But computers existed hundreds of years before then.

Analog computers were pre-digital devices that used the variation of an element and matched it up on a model to help solve a problem. Think of a slide rule, for example, which allows the user to do quick multiplication and division. That’s a computer!

However, the very first of those computers was way more impressive than a mere math device and it was created more than 2000 years ago! It is the Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient Greek computer which could predict everything from the exact movements of the planets to the dates of each Olympic games! It’s the oldest example of an analog computer ever discovered, made around the 2nd century BCE!

Antikythera Mechanism

Remnants of that big bronze device were found inside a shipwreck off the coast of Antikythera, now we know where it got the name from. From 1901 onwards, it’s been subjected to all sorts of tests, and scientists have desperately tried to figure out how it all worked.

From what scientists do know, it’s made up of over 80 fragments, possibly more, which fit together to create 37 gears and two dial systems that they believe were made to track the Moon and the Sun. The dials each have pins that follow their own spiral groove, like a needle on a record player.

It’s assumed those were used to foresee each lunar and solar eclipse decades in advance, the kind of thing we now rely on Google to tell us! All of those fragments once came together to create a mechanism that looked something like the image below.

Antikythera Mechanism Reconstructed Front Panel

As you can see from the image, the sheer amount of work that was needed to create it, the accuracy to which it measured, and calculating the constants to predict those events without digital aid is hard for scientists to fathom even to this day! While digital computers are much more advanced now, at least the Greeks didn’t have to worry about forgetting their passwords all the time!

The Lycurgus Cup

It’s no secret that the Romans were great inventors: they were the originators of paved roads, concrete buildings, aqueducts, plumbing, and even the Julian Calendar. Without them, western society wouldn’t be anywhere near as advanced as it is today! But one invention from that era has left scientists stumped: the Lycurgus cup.

Ancient Nanotechnology Lycurgus Cup red and green changing colours

It’s a 4th century cup made from glass, and it’s completely captivating, not because it looks pretty, but because the Romans designed it to turn completely different colors depending on the light! If the cup is lit from behind, the front of it will turn a deep shade of red. But light it up from the front, and its color will magically become green.

It took the Romans much more than magic to produce that effect, however. They invented a type of glass, called dichroic glass, which means "two-colors" in Greek. They did that by grinding down gold and silver until they dissolved into a liquid, producing a colloid. But inside those metals are nanoparticles.

Nanoparticles are matter so small you can’t see them with the human eye, they’re 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair! Inside the nanoparticles are electrons, which vibrate when light hits the cup, changing the color of the refracted light depending on the observer’s position.

How dichroic glass changes color lycurgus cup

So, it’s those super tiny particles within the glass that creates the stunning two-tone effect. But the thing is, scientists don’t know how they managed to master such an advanced technique! Especially since the romans didn’t have access to anything like microscopes, and nanotechnology was only discovered in the 1970s.

For all we know, the Romans might have discovered it first, and then perfected its use, without even knowing it! Though that seems unlikely. Some believe the discovery of the nanotechnology was just a happy coincidence.

Ollantaytambo

Have you ever wondered what a city of giants would look like? Everything would be so big it would be impossible for a tiny little human to live there! But if you could visit a town occupied by giants, it would probably look something like Ollantaytambo!

Ollantaytambo Incan Site in Peru

That Incan site in Peru was likely built back in the mid-15th century, and boy has it puzzled scientists. Among the many gigantic structures that make up Ollantaytambo, the valley’s ginormous steps are the most shocking. With each step reaching up to 13 ft, and with there being 150 steps in all, there’s no way they were made to be climbed by puny human legs!

Scientists have trouble explaining how the Incans managed to create steps so much taller than themselves. Unlike today, they didn’t have forklifts and cranes to build larger than life structures, so they’ve had to work out what they did use. The most likely answer is that they had a system of ropes and pulleys to lift huge rocks over their heads, but there’s no way of knowing for sure.

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Some researchers believe that the steps aren’t real steps at all, though! They may have been part of a palace complex for the emperor Pachacuti; the Incan ruler credited with rebuilding the entire village. Others think they may have been garden terraces, used to grow fruits and veg like modern greenhouses.

Giant city or not, it’s one of the most mind boggling, impossible looking constructions in history. Nowadays it’s taken on a new lease of life as a tourist playground, and its multiple stone buildings tower over every single visitor! Its secrets, however, are still hidden somewhere deep within the rocks.

Baghdad Battery

From a glance, the object in the image below look like old junk. And you might be thinking, what’s so smart about a ceramic pot containing a tube of copper and a rod of iron? In fact, that is the making of world changing energy source!

Baghdad Battery

It was discovered in 1936, but it’s so much older than that. The artifacts, discovered in Baghdad, Iraq, have been dated between 200 and 600 AD, when the Roman Empire ruled the land. Tests on the iron and copper cylinders reveal that a liquid was once inside the jar, such as wine or vinegar.

Using an acidic liquid like that allows electrons to pass from the copper tube to the iron rod when these two metals are connected. That is because metals are made of charged particles, called ions. When dissolved in liquid, those ions are able to move about freely, which then produces electricity.

The real question, however, is how on earth they managed to figure that out! Well, as with any scientific theory, some scholars wanted to debunk the battery idea. But in 1978, the experiment was put to the test, with a replica Baghdad battery and some grape juice.

Baghdad Battery produced small volts of electricity

Once constructed, scientists actually managed to produce small amounts of electricity. It was confirmed, the battery could generate 1 to 2 volts of electricity. That kind of power could have been used for electroplating, where metals are coated with materials like gold and silver via an electric charge. That could have been used to upgrade boring old grey metals into luxury items.

Some believe it was also used for electrotherapy, where your aches and pains were treated using electricity to cure tense muscles. But to this day, scientists continue to debate its true purpose, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure!

Iron Pillar Of Delhi

It’s extremely annoying when something rusts beyond repair, anyone who’s ever tried to ride a bike with a rusted chain knows that very well. But, surprisingly, there was some kind of technology that could protect metal from rust!

In the 5th century in Delhi, India, an iron pillar was constructed to honor the Hindu God Vishnu. Reaching 23 ft 8 inches in height and weighing 6.5 tons in total, the pole has stood for over 1,600 years and yet, it has never rusted.

Iron Pillar, Ashoka pillar of Delhi

That is incredibly strange, because when iron is exposed to air and water, a chemical reaction occurs called oxidization, which creates Iron Oxide, aka rust. However, despite being erected in the open, and exposed to the extreme heat and humidity of the area, that pillar has been completely resistant to such corrosion!

Scientists believe there must have been a great deal of care taken when extracting and processing the metal, which resulted in a layer of Misawite coating the pillar. That is a compound mix of iron, oxygen and hydrogen, the resulting alloy of which does not rust.

How exactly they did that, though, no one’s sure, because its existence was only predicted in 1970, at which point no one had actually seen it, or realized the ancient pole was coated in it! Scientists are still racking their brains trying to figure out how that technology was developed, with companies spending top dollar to find ways of creating Misawite themselves!

And yet, 1600 years ago, people of the time forged a metal that would not rust with comparatively rudimentary knowledge and tools. That just goes to show how incredibly complex and ingenious the art of metallurgy is.

Sacsayhuamán

Sacsayhuamán, is a Peruvian citadel of truly monstrous proportions. Somehow, the ancient Incans were powering up that hill with giant boulders in tow, all to build a humungous structure. The mountain itself is about half the height of Mount Everest, with the base of the ancient citadel found at over 12,000 ft!

Sacsayhuamán Peruvian Citadel

The longest of the three remaining walls is over 1,300 ft long and 20 ft tall, with the largest blocks varying from a hefty 141 to 220 tons! It feels impossible picturing human hands constructing that monolithic fortress, let alone moving each mega block into place, but it’s definitely there.

How it was built though, no one knows. Built back sometime in the 15th century, the Incans used dry stone to construct the citadel, placing each of the rocks together so perfectly there was no need to bind them with mortar. They’re fused together so tightly that even after 600 years they’re still stable.

The rock solid formation has even helped the ruins survive the deadliest of earthquakes! The gaps between the rocks are so tight, not even a single piece of paper or the point of a pin can fit through where the stones meet!

Sacsayhuamans tightly packed rocks

Its construction would have required precision and planning beyond anything the modern world has ever seen! It wouldn’t have been light work, either, with even the smallest blocks roughly weighing more than a blue whale! How they managed to stack them so perfectly without cranes or heavy lifting equipment remains a complete mystery.

Damascus Knife

Over a thousand years ago, in Syria’s capital city of Damascus, the local blacksmiths there were known as legendary weapon makers. Not because they made the biggest weapons, or even the most advanced in fact, their fame came down to simple swords.

At that time, iron was used for most simple, short, bladed weapons as the metal was strong and tough, but the blades were prone to breaking as iron doesn’t have a high elastic limit. They would add carbon to try and make blades more flexible, but too much carbon made the metal brittle and prone to shattering.

However, the blacksmiths of Damascus sourced Iron ore with the perfect carbon content, known as Wootz Steel, which gave the swords that all important high elastic index. Those Wootz ingots were expertly forged into long Damascus blades, which became renowned for being tough but flexible, resistant to shattering, and were easily identifiable from the distinctive patterns of banding found along them.

Damascus Blade Wootz Steel

Their reputation inspired legends, with swords of Damascus steel fabled to be able to slice cleanly through rifle barrels, tree trunks, and even rocks! Initially, scientists dismissed that legend.

However, on closer inspection of Damascus steel relics in 2006, Scientists discovered carbon nanotubes in one of the blades. That meant the blade was superplastic, able to deform well beyond its usual breaking point, while being super hard at the exact same time!

Tragically, though, in the 1700s, the method of making Wootz Steel was tragically lost. Scientists have been left baffled ever since by exactly how such an incredible metal was created at the time, and while you can buy similar pattern layered Damascus steel today, real Damascus steel hasn’t been crafted in over 300 years!

Sword of Goujian

Damascus Blades aren’t the only weapons that have left scientists scratching their heads. Over in China, the discovery of the Sword of Goujian has had an equally baffling effect! The 22 inch long blade and 3.3 inch hilt of that tin bronze sword was discovered in an ancient tomb back in 1965 and from its appearance, you’d never guess it was more than 2,400 years old!

Created sometime between 771 to 476 BCE, the sword has barely tarnished with age, a feature that hasn’t been observed in many other artifacts from that period. The sword itself was believed to have been created for Goujian, one of the last kings of the long lost state of Yue.

The Sword of Goujian, Bronze sword used by King Goujian of Yue

Despite being buried in damp conditions for more than 2 millennia, the sword is sharp, with tests affirming that it still has the structural integrity to cut cleanly through a stack of paper. But how has that defied the test of time? Put simply, scientists aren’t sure.

They believe it may be something to do with the chemical composition of the sword itself, with the blade formed predominantly of copper, but the edges containing more tin content which makes them harder and more able to keep a sharp edge.

The sword was also found in a near air tight scabbard, but swords found in similar situations have still historically suffered at least some degree of minor tarnish. But the Goujian sword is, in a word, perfect.

Greek Fire

A fire that gets out of control can be incredibly dangerous, which is exactly why the Byzantine Empire harnessed fire power for war! According to historical records and illustrations, Greek fire was an incendiary weapon utilized by the Byzantine Empire around 670 CE, one that was able to burn ships even as they were surrounded by water!

Greek Fire by the Byzantine Empire

The weapon was powerful enough to set the very water ablaze. So far very little is known about the death, delivery device itself, as records around it are incomplete, it could have been as big as a building or smaller than a car! But the power of that invention came from the fuel used to feed such a destructive fire.

Historians have never found the exact ingredients, meaning we’d never be able to recreate it again. That’s probably a good thing for us, but for the Byzantines, it was an essential part of their weapons arsenal.

Greek Fire Secret Weapon

It's likely that petrol or naphtha, which is another highly flammable liquid, was mixed together with sulphur or pitch. Pitch itself is made from petroleum and coal tar; a very powerful substance that repels water, making it capable of forming a coat on the water’s surface that was able to burn and offer their enemies no respite.

While scientists generally agree that the Byzantines used pressurized nozzles to aim that deadly liquid at their foes, they have no idea how they lit that deadly mixture, or how they were able to put it out again! Thanks to that all powerful chemical makeup, once ignited, they would have needed sand or vinegar to stop its spread.

Hand Siphon for Greek Fire

Ancient Stone Cutting

The ancient roman era is known for its beautiful sculptures, with busts, statues and reliefs carved out in immaculate detail in order to preserve a scene or person from history. However, one carving in particular really intrigues the historical and scientific communities: the column drum in the image below.

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Not for how round it is, or what building it was meant for, but for the incisions which can be seen lined up perfectly along it. Those deep cuts could only have been made by four separate saw blades separated by a few inches, all perfectly aligned. Their consistency, and the power needed to achieve that can only have come from a machine.

But Ancient Rome existed between the 8th century BCE to 476 CE, more than a thousand years before modern sawing machinery was invented! So how was that even possible? A relief carved into the sarcophagus of a long dead miller might hold the answer.

In it, a mechanical contraption can be seen, seemingly powered by a large water wheel, which in turn powered a stone sawing device! Reconstructions of such a contraption have been put together to look something like the image below:

Roman sawmill, stone sawmill

And while it seems like some sort of complex Rude Goldberg machine, the science behind it appears to make sense! Water drives the wheel which has a cog extended on a pole attached to it.

As the wheel turns, the cog, slotted to fit into a second cog, turns in tandem. That cog powers two separate wheels on either side of the cog’s housing, each attached to a saw suspended within a frame over a stone block, which drive forward and back in line with the rotation of the wheels. It sounds complex at first, but when matched up with those relief designs, it’s genius!

The ancient romans really developed stone cutting saws! But why leave 4 identical lines over one column drum, in the first image we investigated? It might be that the drum was just a test. While the exact reason why is lost to history, there can be no doubt of the brilliance and ingenuity behind it!

Stonehenge

Situated in an empty field in Wiltshire, England, that famous ring of rocks has been standing some 13 ft high since the Neolithic period, believed to have taken hundreds of years to erect, between 3000 and 1500 BCE.

But it wasn’t a simple case of digging those stones out of the ground and standing them up, though those rocks were moved from one place to the other, then stacked high like building blocks. But how was that technology available so long ago?

stonehenge uneven stones

Based on their geological make up, it’s believed they must have been transported from several hundred miles away, likely from one quarry in the Marlborough Downs and another in the Preseli Hills. Then, once they arrived, they must have hauled them over their heads, each weighing over 2 tons, and planned a very specific formation.

However, at the time, the most advanced neolithic tools were still limited to just spears and wheels. So how on earth did they manage such a feat? Experts assume that the several hundred, if not thousands, of people involved dug large holes, the stones were hauled into position, and then dragged upright into the hole with the use of an A frame.

Timber platforms are then believed to have been used to raise the horizontal stones onto the others, exactly how though still isn’t known. It sounds simple, but for people working with rudimentary tools 5000 years ago, it just seems impossible!

Nazca Lines

Can you draw a perfect circle freehand? Most people can’t even manage a straight line freehand! So, imagine the technology and strategy that it took to draw this in the image below.

Nazca Lines in Peruvian Desert

That’s a near perfectly circular pattern drawn roughly to the size of a football field! Those are just some of the Nazca lines; a collection of geoglyphs, so called because they’re symbols carved into the ground, etched permanently into the Peruvian desert.

The combined length of all the lines reaches over an astonishing 800 miles, which, for some perspective, is over 14,000 football pitches long. While scientists know they were created by making shallow incisions in the sand leaving the dirt beneath exposed, the real question is, how did their creators do that with such accuracy?

The Incans carved those shapes out on huge, completely flat plains between 500 BCE and 500 AD. And while it’s fairly easy for us to make out all of the different shapes and animals by getting up high with helicopters and drones, unless they could fly, there was no way they could have fully seen what they were drawing!

Experts believe they would’ve traced their giant glyphs using nothing but guesswork, optimism, and perhaps some guidance from the stars. But they’re too good to be a guesswork, so there must have been some ancient technology or long lost strategy that helped them along the way.

geoglyphs designs nazca lines

There’s also no way of knowing why they were made, either! They could have been symbols used to ask their gods and goddesses for help. Or they could have formed an astronomical calendar to keep track of the days and nights. To put it simply, scientists don’t know what they are. One thing we do know, though, is that the Incans made sure we’d never lose sight of them!

If you were amazed at these oldest technologies that scientists can't explain, you might also want to read about ancient engineering secrets! Thanks for reading.

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