Our ancestors had no smartphones or GPS to guide them through their journeys. Without the help of modern contraptions, they still managed to get around and survive. While they were limited in many ways, there were many prolific men and women who thought outside of the box and invented things that were way ahead of their time. Archaeologists studying lost and ancient civilizations have stumbled upon numerous items that made them question how it was possible. Here’s a collection of such things and inventions that were simply ahead of their time.
1. The Lycurgus Cup is a fascinating artifact that reveals knowledge of nanotechnology during prehistoric times.
The Lycurgus Cup is the only surviving complete example made from dichroic glass. One of the most amazing features of this cup is its ability to chance color when introduced to light. When subjected to light, the cup changes its color from opaque green to a glowing translucent red. Although the 1,600-year-old Roman chalice was acquired by the British Museum during the 1950’s, it wasn’t until the late 1900’s that scientists recognized its full potential.
Scientists studied broken pieces of the cups and found that the glasses comprised of ground up particles of gold and silver. They were mixed in such a way that the width of the cup was no more than 50 nanometers in diameter. Researchers and archaeologists both agree that the Romans knew exactly what they were doing. When light hits the cup, the electrons in the metal parts vibrated and depending on the observer’s position, the color of the cup changed. Depending on the light source and the type of fluid in the cup, the electrons behaved differently; resulting in different colors.
2. Legendary Viking crystal sunstones helped them navigate through the seas.
The Norse sagas mention a mysterious “sunstone” that helped the sailors navigate in the absence of the sun. It was long disputed that the existence of these stones were just myths since the so-called “sunstones” were never discovered at Viking archaeological sites. They can no longer be considered a myth since a special crystal was recently uncovered from a wreck. The 1592 sunken Elizabethan shipwreck near the Channel Islands, between England and France, was found to house a stone among other navigational tools.
A chemical analysis of the stone found it to be Icelandic Spar, or calcite crystal, believed to be the Vikings’ mineral of choice. The discovery, while highly significant, comes with a price. Due to the stone being deposited in the sea bed for centuries and its introduction to magnesium salts, it cannot be used for navigational purposes today. (source)
3. Yakhchāl, an ancient Persian cooler (ice pit) built to store ice.
Ancient people were more clever than most people assume them to be. 2,400-Year-Old Yakhchāls are examples of their ingenuity with the limited resources available during the period. In ancient Persia, Yakhchāl (meaning ice pit) was a type of ancient refrigerator that was built in the middle of the desert. It did not require electricity, coolants or elements, which are required by most refrigerators today.
Believe to be built by Persian engineers around 400 B.C., Yakhchāls were simple; making it affordable to the poor. The domed structures were made using clay, sand, ash and lime. There was also a hole dug on the surface of the dome, deep enough to keep the contents cooler than the surface temperature. The dome acted as an insulator, blocking the sun’s rays and heat. Water or ice was brought from nearby mountains and placed inside the structure so that the people of the town could use the contents for an extended period of time.
4. Hero’s steam engine, which was a water-filled metal ball with opposing bent tubes. It would spin under the force of steam ejected under pressure when heated.
Hero, also called Heron, was an inventor, scientist and engineer who lived in Alexandria. Heron was also known to teach science as well as publish several books. In one of his books, he described a device known as aeolipile, or “Hero’s Engine”. The aeolipile was basically a metal ball with opposing tubes that were slightly bent at the end. When heated, the metal ball would spin under the pressure of the steam being ejected. While the invention seems like it has no principle, scientists believe the technology was utilized to raise and lower curtains during the time. His ideas and the utilization of mechanical power is considered to be the earliest work in robotics.
5. Archimedes screw, a machine or a pump that is used for raising water up.
When Archimedes was in Alexandria, Egypt, he wrote about a contraption that could be used to lift water. Although it’s uncertain whether he himself invented it, historians attribute Archimedes for the machine. The Archimedes screw was simply a machine with a screw inside a fairly tight-fitting cylinder. The bottom end is dipped in water and the screw is spun manually by hand. As the screw spins, the water is scooped up all the way to the top where it is routed towards irrigation fields.
The device was first used in fields to supply water during ancient times but was later used for dewatering mines or other low-lying areas. Later on, it was powered by wind turbines. Today, the technology is still widely used around the world. For example, the auger in a snow blower or grain elevator is essentially an Archimedes screw.
6. The Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni in Malta has remarkable acoustic properties thousands of years before surround sound system was invented.
The underground cave system covering around 500m² on 3 levels was built between 3000-2500BC but was only discovered in 1902. Scientists have been studying the rooms and its extraordinary ability to manipulate sounds within the chambers. One of the rooms named the “Oracle Chamber” is of particular interest to scientists. The room with its ceilings intact is said to amplify voices dramatically, with certain frequencies resonating enough to be felt through the body. While the reason for creating such a structure is unknown, the knowledge of acoustics during ancient times puzzles scientists to this day.
7. The world’s first vending machine was invented in the first century C.E. by Heron of Alexandria to prevent temple denizens from taking more holy water than they had paid for.
It might be hard to believe that a device such as a vending machine could be invented thousands of years ago before all the technological advances. In fact, it is true and the first vending machine was invented for a rather unusual reason. Heron is credited with 80 amazing inventions and one being the holy water dispensing machine. He did not create the machine out of curiosity but rather as an effort to deter thieves.
Patrons of temples often had the habit of taking more holy water than they paid for. So, in order to combat this, Heron invented a machine that dispensed holy water blessed by the temples officials when coins were deposited. According to Gizmodo: “While the coin applied pressure on the lever, the holy water pours forth from an opened spout. Once the coin falls away, however, a counterweight is released by the movement of the lever and the water spout closes.” The simple design worked and limited people from taking any more than their fair share.
8. Romans found ingenious methods to mix concrete, making their 2,000 year old buildings more durable and eco-friendly than the buildings of today.
Today, concrete is made using water, aggregate (rock, sand, or gravel) and Portland cement. In fact, the world is developing so fast that more than 10 billion tons of concrete is produced every year to keep up with the demand. Romans also used concrete to build structures but their’s have been standing for thousands of years while structures built today start to decay within a few decades. How did the Romans achieve something that is not available today?
In order to learn and better understand the mixing composition, scientists mapped the crystalline structure. The study found that Romans created concrete using volcanic ash, lime and seawater. They also mixed volcanic rock as aggregate, causing a reaction and solidifying the material.
9. The Egyptian pyramids, some of the most incredible structures in the world, were in fact built using ramps which were later dismantled.
There are many theories as to how the pyramids in Egypt were built, with several claiming the involvement of UFO’s and fancy contraptions. Until now, there have only been theories and speculations about the masterpieces and their creation. French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin studied the pyramids and found compelling evidence that ramps were in fact used in the creation of the pyramids.
Initially, the base of the pyramids were constructed using a ramp. Then, the men and women used winding, spiral ramps on the inside walls of the pyramids to carry stones. As they climbed higher, they kept extending the ramp towards the top end. According to Houdin, who also made a 3D rendering of his find, the ramps still exist within the pyramids.
10. Hypocaust, which was basically a central heating system pioneered by the Greeks.
Today, most homes are centrally air conditioned or heated. Ancient Greeks did not have central heat as we do today but they did find a way to keep their homes warm. Known as hypocaust (which means “under burnt”), the method was used throughout ancient Rome in hot baths and public buildings. It was also found in the homes of the wealthy because of the expense that came with maintaining the system.
The hypocaust was created by making a structure under the floor of the building. During the construction, the floor of the house was raised up on pillars called pilae stacks. On top of the pillars was a layer of tile, which was then covered with a layer of concrete. Outside the house, laborers would light the furnace, which would send hot air into the space between the ground and floor of the building.
The hot air then heated the tiles, which in turn heated the concrete. Apart from that, the hot air was also routed through the walls, so it could be used to heat multiple floors of a building. The system, while simple, was only affordable by the rich since it needed someone at all times to maintain the right amount of heat for best comfort.