Home Technology 35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
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Do you think that computers are a modern invention? What about sound chambers that can amplify what someone says by 100 times or more, or calendars that can be recalibrated from one year to the next? Nanotechnology, cataract surgery, steel that is flexible yet can cut through a handkerchief in midair, or a flying machine equipped with a manual for traveling long distances?

All of these inventions sound modern, but they are actually ancient. And they absolutely befuddle modern researchers. We don’t know the function of many of these ancient inventions, how they were made, or how ancient peoples, lacking modern technology, could have made them. For now, much is left to speculation.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
The Antikythera mechanism may have been a proto-computer. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

1. The Mother Of Ancient High Technology Was The Antikythera Device

In 1900, divers exploring a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera discovered a mysterious device that appeared to be the world’s very first computer. It was a metal disk with a complex system of gears and appeared to be over 2,000 years old.

Researchers have spent decades trying to uncover the mysteries of the Antikythera device, but they cannot determine its function or how to use it. It may have been connected to the zodiac and phases of the moon, along with lunar and solar eclipses. But we really just don’t know.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
This ancient calendar was over 50 meters long. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

2. The First Calendar May Be 10,000 Years Old

A 2004 excavation in Aberdeenshire, led by the National Trust for Scotland, unearthed a calendar that probably belonged to a Stone Age people 10,000 years ago. The calendar is a 50-meter-long parchment that shows the phases of the moon as well as solar months.

The entire parchment depicts a one-year period of solar and lunar cycles, but it was detailed enough that users could recalibrate the lunar and solar calendars each year. The calendar used 10-day weeks, roughly three per month, to align with the phases of the moon.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
The Lycurgus Cup changes color, due to ancient nanotechnology. Photo Credit: British Museum

3. The Romans Had Nanotechnology

In the 1950s, the British Museum in London acquired a 1600-year-old Roman chalice, known as the Lycurgus Cup, that appeared to change colors, depending on the light. If it was lit from behind, it was jade green. But if it was lit from in front, it was a deep, blood red. Researchers at the British Museum were stumped as to the cause of this phenomenon.

In the 1990s, researchers studying broken fragments from the cup found that the answer lay in an ancient use of nanotechnology. The Roman craftsmen who had built the cup had ground down gold particles until they were only 50 nanometers across, less than one one-thousandth the size of a grain of salt. The precision of the work indicates that by the time the cup was made, the Romans were masters of nanotechnology.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
The aeolipile was the first steam engine. Photo Credit: Javier Jaime/Shutterstock

4. An Ancient Greek Invented The Steam Engine

The aeolipile was named after Aiolos, the ancient Greek god of the winds. It was invented by Heron Alexandrinus, also known as the Hero of Alexandria. The aeolipile contained a sphere and nozzles that would shoot out steam.

The steam emitted by the nozzles created the torque necessary for the sphere to spin on its axis. At a certain point, the sphere would come to rotate at a stable speed, with a maximum speed of 1500 rotations per minute. The steam engine was re-invented in 1577 by the Arab polymath Taqu al-Din.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
The Baghdad battery could generate two volts of electricity. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

5. The First Earthquake Detector May Be 2000 Years Old

In ancient China, a polymath named Zhang Heng designed a giant metal vessel, about six feet across, that could be used to detect earthquakes. It had eight dragons snaking down the outside of it, and in each of their mouths was a bronze marble. An earthquake would loosen the balls, and the dragons would drop them into the receiving mouths of bronze toads.

While this seismoscope was unable to predict earthquakes, Chinese observers who used it were able to glean information that was remarkably accurate. They could detect earthquakes as far away as Vietnam and gathered data similar to what modern-day geologists look for.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
Roman concrete was more durable and long-lasting than its modern counterpart. Photo Credit: Berkeley Lab

6. The Ancient Romans Made Better Concrete Than We Do

Concrete was used extensively by the ancient Romans in their building projects, and it was both superior in quality and in environmental impact to what we use today. To create their concrete, they mixed lime with a volcanic rock before adding seawater. The salty water triggered a chemical reaction that made the substance incredibly sturdy.

Analyses of the chemical and molecular make-up of the ancient concrete revealed that it incorporated minerals that could be used to create modern high-performance concrete. Whereas modern concrete is designed to last for 50 years, ancient Roman concrete has lasted for more than 2000 years, often underwater.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
Is this part of the oldest telescope in the world? Photo Credit: British Museum

7. The Oldest Telescope May Be Three Millennia Old

Move over, Galileo. In 1850, archaeologists digging in ancient Assyrian ruins – in modern-day Iraq – unearthed a 3000-year-old lens made of rock crystal. In the time since its discovery, researchers have attempted to explain its function.

Perhaps it was a magnifying glass, with a resolution of 3x. Perhaps it was a burning glass that could focus the rays of the sun so as to start a fire. But some researchers believe that the Nimrod lens was actually part of an ancient telescope. This could possibly explain the Assyrians’ advanced astronomical knowledge, along with Galileo’s own assertion that the ancients had to have also had telescopes.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
Iceland spar, possibly the Icelandic medieval sunstone used to locate the sun. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

8. A Magical Gem Was Used In Navigation

The ancient Norse described a magical gem that was able to determine the sun’s position, even when it was obscured, and enable sailors to precisely navigate the high seas. While stories about such a gem may seem to be akin to Thor’s hammer, a 2013 discovery revealed that they were true.

The mythical sunstone was made of calcite, a crystal that could determine the location of the sun, even behind clouds. Its secret lay in its ability to double-refract sunlight, which enabled navigation with a high degree of accuracy. To the ancients using the stone, it may have truly appeared to be magic.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
Ancient metalworking was, in many ways, better than what we create today. Photo Credit: American Chemical Society

9. The Ancients Were Better At Metal Coatings Than We Are

We use metal coatings today to cover everything from DVDs to statues to solar cells and electronic equipment. But the use of metal coatings is by no means modern, and some discoveries indicate that the ancients had much better techniques than we do.

Lacking advanced knowledge of the chemical and physical knowledge of metals, ancient metallurgists were able to beat metals into incredibly thin sheets before applying them onto statues, jewelry, and other items. They even used mercury as an adhesive to make sure that the ultra-thin metal gilding stayed in place.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
The Baghdad battery could generate two volts of electricity. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

10. The First Battery May Be 2000 Years Old

The “Baghdad Battery” was discovered in 1936 in a Paleolithic village outside of the modern-day city of Baghdad in Iraq. There were actually multiple batteries, each consisting of a clay pot with a copper cylinder running the length of it. Inside the copper, the cylinder was an iron rod, held in place with asphalt.

In 1938, one of the researchers who performed the excavation posited that the strange clay pots were actually ancient batteries. This theory was proven to be true when experiments about a decade later revealed that, when filled with an electrolyte fluid, the pots generated two volts of electricity. But we have no idea what these ancient batteries powered.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
Greek fire was probably an early form of napalm. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

11. The Ancient Greek Navy May Had Proto-Napalm Bombs

Napalm was one of the most horrifying substances that American forces used during the Vietnam War. Images of villages on fire and children running naked through the streets to escape its fury turned people back in the States violently against the war.

But napalm may have been used by the Greeks in the infamous “Greek fire” that destroyed ships. Experiments have shown that naphtha – made from a light crude oil – mixed with pine resin can destroy a wooden ship in seconds, perfectly in keeping with the anecdotal evidence that we have of the incendiary Greek fire.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
A page from the Voynich Manuscript. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

12. We Still Can’t Decipher The Voynich Manuscript

In 1912, Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish-American collector and antique bookseller, acquired a strange manuscript that has baffled all who have attempted to study it. The Voynich Manuscript as it is known is a book from the fifteenth century that is written in an indecipherable code and covered in hand-drawn pictures.

Many of the illustrations seem to be of plants, leading researchers to believe that the book is possibly an early text on pharmacology that was written in code to obscure its recipes from the prying eyes of the church. But many of the images are downright bizarre, and the code with which the text is written has stumped the most ardent code breakers.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
We don’t know the recipe for Damascus steel. Photo Credit: Yuriy Golub/Shutterstock

13. Nothing Beats Damascus Steel, And We Don’t Know What It Really Is

During the Crusades, European warriors who returned from fighting Muslim armies in the Middle East carried with them stories of the unbeatable weapons that the Muslim soldiers used. The swords made of so-called Damascus steel might have been lightsabers for the damage that they were able to cause.

The problem is that we have no idea how Damascus steel was made or what it was even composed of. It may have been made by smelting iron with plant matter, which would have given it the flexibility seen in the anecdotal accounts. But we don’t know what that plant matter may have been or the process that the blacksmiths used to create Damascus steel.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
Ancient Ulfbehrt swords. Photo Credit: Reddit

14. Viking Swords Were Made With Technology The Norse Didn’t Have

According to Viking law, all free men were mandated to have on them a weapon and be prepared for war 24/7. One of the oldest Viking swords discovered dates from about 750 AD, and the Ulfberht swords, in particular, raise many questions. The first question is how they were made, considering that the technology didn’t exist for 800 more years.

In 2014, a Viking sword was discovered that bore an Arabic inscription, lending credence to the idea that the Viking swords may have actually been made with Damascus steel. But how did they get the recipe, and how did the Vikings and Arabs engage in trade with each other when an entire continent and the Mediterranean separated them?

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
The Iron Pillar of Delhi remains a mystery. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

15. A 1600-Year-Old Iron Column In Delhi Won’t Rust

The Iron Pillar of Delhi is a six-ton, 24-foot-tall iron column that is 1600 years old. Despite its age, there is no rust on it. Some scientists believe that the mild, arid climate of Delhi is why the pillar refuses to rust. Others believe that the metal alloy that the ancient engineers managed to create is responsible for the pristine state of the iron.

That alloy contains substantial levels of phosphorus and is devoid of both sulfur and manganese. But even if the column’s resistance to rust is the result of climate, what all of the scientists agree on is that it is a remarkable piece of ancient engineering.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
These Roman dodecahedra have been found all over Europe. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

16. Roman Dodecahedra Have Been Found All Over Europe

Europe seems to be littered with ancient bronze dodecahedra that date back to the Roman Empire. They have knobs on all of the points and seem to be the perfect ancient paperweight. As with so many other ancient artifacts, we have no idea what the function of these dodecahedra was.

They range in size from four to 11 centimeters across and have a hole on every side. Some have theorized that they are children’s toys, while others suggest that they are nothing more than ancient candle holders. They may have even been used to determine people’s ring sizes. We just don’t know.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
The Phaistos disc was either a typewriter or an ancient prayer. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

17. The Phaistos Disk May Have Been An Ancient Typewriter

In 1908, excavations at the Minoan “Old Palace” in Crete led to the discovery of a fire-baked clay disc that was covered with ancient symbols. The 242 inscriptions occur in a spiral pattern, and the disk was likely forged by hand.

Researchers don’t really know what the function of the Phaistos disk was, but some suggest that it is a type of proto-alphabet, composed of syllabary rather than letters. This has led some to suggest that it actually served as an ancient typewriter, but others believe that the inscriptions may be an ancient prayer.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
These stone balls weigh as much as 16 tons. Photo Credit: Inspired By Maps/Shutterstock

18. We Don’t Know Why The Olmec Made Giant Stone Balls

The Olmecs were an ancient people in Central America that left behind some bizarre artifacts for modern scientists to decipher. One of those is a collection of giant stone balls that were probably created between 200BC and 800 AD.

The largest of the balls weigh as much as 16 tons, and they are made of an igneous rock called granodiorite. We know how they were made – probably by casting giant iron molds – but we have no idea why such vast resources and energy was expended in creating them. Or what function they actually served.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
The ancients came up with an atomic theory that is remarkably similar to the modern one. Photo Credit: zizou7/Shutterstock

19. Ancient Greeks And Indians Both Developed Atomic Theory

John Dalton is credited with coming up with the idea of atoms in the nineteenth century. But philosophers in both Greece and India both came up with ideas referred to as atomism, basically proto-theories about the atom, at about the same time. And they did so more than 2500 years ago!

Acharya Kanad was an Indian scientist who theorized that a grain of rice in his hand could be broken down to a point at which it could no longer be broken down any further. Simultaneously, Greek natural philosophers posited that there was such a thing as the atom, meaning something so small that it could no longer be cut.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
An ancient Indian scientist calculated the Earth’s rotation around the sun. Photo Credit: Macrovector/Shutterstock

20. How Did An Ancient Indian Scientist Calculate The Earth’s Rotation?

Bhāskarāchārya was an Indian astronomer and mathematician who lived in the twelfth century CE. He was the director of an astronomical observatory in India when he made precise calculations that showed that the earth takes just over 365 days to orbit the sun.

Surprisingly, he made his discovery hundreds of years before Western astronomers. Had astronomers in Europe taken their cue from this Indian scientist who lived while they were mired in the Middle Ages, they would have been able to learn much more. But the question remains as to how he was able to make such precise calculations without modern technology.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
The Codex Gigas is a massive volume. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

21. A Medieval Manuscript May Have Been Written In A Single Day

The Codex Gigas is a massive tome from the thirteenth century that is so big that it requires two people in order to lift it. The writer used 160 animal skins to complete the work, but even more remarkable is that it was completed in a very short amount of time.

The legend says that in order for a disgraced monk to save his own life from the wrath of the church, he promised that he would write down all the knowledge in the world in one day. To fulfill his promise, he made a deal with the devil so that he could write the Codex Gigas in just 24 hours. While it may not contain all of the world’s knowledge or have been written in one day, it is remarkable in scope and does seem to have been written by one person in a very short amount of time.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
Stone pathway in the Japanese Atlantis. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

22. Japan’s Atlantis Is Over Five Millennia Old

Off the coast of Japan, near Yonaguni Jima, lies an underwater city that researchers believe is over 5000 years old. When it was first discovered in 1995, scientists believed that it was just a collection of underwater rocks. It has since then been revealed to be an entire sunken city.

Researchers believe that the city was inhabited by the ancient Jomons, a Japanese hunter-gatherer people. The city is remarkably complex for its time, boasting carved stairways, vaulting towers, streets, and a stone entryway. It probably became submerged rather than falling into the sea, as Plato’s Atlantis is rumored to have, but it is impressive nonetheless.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
Draw of a Vertical Section of a Vimana described on Ramayan. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

23. Ancient Indian Flying Machines Still Boggle The Mind

A book written in India in 400 BCE describes in detail flying machines known as vimanas. The author, Maharshi Bhardwaj, described how to steer them, what pilots did to prepare for long flights, how the ships were propelled through the air, how pilots protected the ships from storms, and even how to switch the machines to solar energy.

The drawings and descriptions of vimanas still have researchers completely stumped. Some insist that aliens had to have given the prototypes to the ancient Indians, while others believe the ancient flying machines have to be a hoax. Others think there is a perfectly logical explanation, though we don’t know what it is.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
The Sumerian King List is a rectangular cube. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

24. An Ancient List Of Kings Includes Stories Of The Great Flood

The Sumerian King List is a list of ancient rulers of what is now Iraq. Included in the list are mythological rulers alongside other, human ones that historians believe may have actually been part of dynasties in the area.

But what adds an extra degree of intrigue to the list is that it also includes mythological events, including some of the tales of the demi-god hero Gilgamesh, as well as the Old Testament story of the Great Flood. Some researchers look at this list as evidence that the Old Testament stories are true. But the true nature of the Sumerian King List remains a mystery.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
Isaac Newton was not the first person to discover gravity. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

25. Somehow, Ancient Hindu Astronomers Discovered Newton’s Law

1200 years before the famous Lucasian professor at Cambridge watched an apple fall down instead of up from a tree, Hindu astronomers looked to the heavens and came to the same conclusion. One such astronomer was known as Bhaskaracharya, and he discovered that the same force that drew objects in towards the earth kept the planets in orbit.

In his words, “Objects fall on the earth due to a force of attraction by the earth. Therefore, the earth, planets, constellations, moon, and sun are held in orbit due to this attraction.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
Nuclear explosions may be as old as civilization. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

26. The Ancients May Have Even Had Nuclear Weapons

One of the surprising twists on ancient inventions that absolutely baffle modern researchers is the idea that the Mahabharata tells stories that seem to indicate the use of nuclear weapons. Not only that but in Rajasthan, India, there was an abnormally high level of cancer and birth defects among the ancient people there.

The simplest explanation is that nuclear explosions caused birth defects and cancer. But how does one go about explaining ancient peoples possessing nuclear weapons? Well, they did have the atomic theory. Who is to say that they didn’t know how to split atoms?

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
Rock with Rongo Rongo writing. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

27. The Ancient Easter Island Script Bears No Resemblance To Other Cultures

The massive moai statues that cover the surface of Easter Island are not the only mystery that enshrouds the Polynesian people that occupied it. They also had a script known as Rongo Rongo, a system that used symbols rather than letters and was likely a form of proto-writing.

But an interpretation of Rongo Rongo remains as elusive as ever, at least in part to the fact that it is nothing like the writing styles of other nearby cultures. Or any other cultures, for that matter! The symbols seem to be based mostly on religious motifs, but we have no idea what the writing says.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
The Tollund Man is in almost pristine condition, despite being over 5,000 years old. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

28. Ancient Executions Happened All Across Nordic Europe

The so-called Tollund Man is a remarkably well-preserved corpse that was discovered in Denmark in 1950. It dates back to the third century BCE, making him pre-date the Iron Age. He is one of many corpses that have been found that were likewise well-preserved in the bogs of Nordic Europe.

What makes the corpses so mysterious is that they seem to have been executed and then thrown into a bog. Apparently, the practice was common all across Nordic Europe, despite social and biological differences amongst many of the corpses. No one knows why so many bodies were disposed of in the same way.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
The Hellenikon Pyramid in Greece is far older than the more famous ones in Egypt. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

29. The Hellenikon Pyramid May Have Been An Ancient Burial Site

But there is no evidence indicating that it was a tomb. The pyramid was built in ancient Greece in about 2720 BCE, long before the famous pyramids of Giza in Egypt. Researchers believe that there may have been a battle nearby, and the fallen were commemorated through the pyramid.

But the Hellenikon pyramid seems to be even more mysterious than its more famous counterparts at Giza. While the ancient Egyptians left behind plenty of clues as to the nature of their pyramids, researchers exploring the Hellenikon can’t find much of anything.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
View of the walls of the old citadel Sacsayhuman located above the city of Cusco in Peru. Photo Credit: alessandro pinto/Shutterstock

30. Pre-Incan Peruvians Built A Massive Fortress

On the outskirts of Cuzco, the ancient Incan city in Peru is a fortress made of boulders that are over 200 tons. The boulders are so perfectly fitted together that at some places, you can’t even fit a piece of paper between them.

Researchers are baffled at how these ancient engineers managed such a high level of precision. Some posit that the use of heat or a liquid made from plants made the boulders more malleable, while others suggest that the complex we see today was originally a complex made of wood.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
The Sajama Lines are the largest archaeological site in the world. Photo Credit: SpotImage/Google/DMapas

31. The Largest Archaeological Site In The World Is A Mystery

The Sajama lines crisscross the western part of Bolivia to form the largest archaeological site in the world, one that is over 8700 square miles in area. The thousands of lines were etched into the earth, likely by the ancient peoples of Bolivia who may have had a religious purpose for creating the lines.

The lines are about three to 10 feet wide each and connect to each other at different points. The exact function or purpose of the lines is as mysterious as ever, but the presence of a nearby volcano indicates that they may have had something to do with volcano activity that became connected to the local religion.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
Sushruta was an ancient Indian surgeon. Photo Credit: Twitter

32. Ancient Doctors Successfully Perform Surgeries That Are Considered Challenging Today

Imagine a doctor two and a half millennia ago performing everything from intricate cataract surgeries to Caesarean sections to rhinoplasty. Enter Sushruta, an ancient Indian physician, and surgeon who is said to have so successfully applied a prosthetic that the person was able to go into battle!

These surgeries are largely considered to be modern, yet they have successfully performed 2600 years ago. He recorded his accomplishments in a book called Sushruta Samhita, which includes over 120 surgical instruments and 300 surgical procedures. He would likely fit in quite well with modern surgeons.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
The Hypogeum was a giant underground structure. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

33. An Ancient Chamber Magnifies Sound By 100 Times

In 1902, archaeologists stumbled upon the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni. It is a massive underground structure, located on the island of Malta, and is made of limestone bricks. It was probably constructed around 2500 BCE and initially served as a sanctuary, although it was later turned into a necropolis.

Inside the hypogeum is the so-called oracle chamber, a place where the sound is amplified by as much as 100 times throughout the entire room. There is no indication as to whether ancient engineers were intentional, aware of methods that could cause such sound amplification, or if the feature was an accident.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
The ruins at Gobekli Tepe are of an ancient temple. Photo Credit: Ahmet Cigsar/Shutterstock

34. The World’s Oldest Temple Predates Stonehenge By 6000 Years

Gobekli Tepe is a site in Turkey that was discovered in 2008. It is the oldest-known temple in the world and dates back 13,000 years to 11,000 BCE. The site is mysterious for many reasons, one being that it is engineered to a high level of precision but was built long before metal tools, or even pottery, had been invented.

Also mysterious are the animal heads that top the pillars that line the temple. Researchers have no idea what the animal heads are supposed to mean or what function the temple served, although it does seem to have a religious purpose. But was it connected to the stars or other celestial bodies? We really don’t know.

35 Ancient Inventions That Science Still Can’t Explain
The painting is known as White Shaman Rock. Photo Credit: Witte Museum

35. The Huichol Native Americans Made Mysterious Cave Paintings

One of the largest cave paintings is a 24-foot white depiction of a ghost-like creature, which is commonly known as “White Shaman Rock.” It is located in Texas’ Lower Pecos Canyon in the southwestern corner of the state. The best explanation that researchers have as to its meaning is that it is of a shaman providing access into the spirit world.

The painters probably used peyote, a hallucinogenic drug common to Native Americans. In fact, the White Shaman Rock likely depicts a peyote ritual by the Huichol people, who are believed to have created it. No one is entirely certain of the role that the paintings played among the people and culture of the tribe.