The Lost Knowledge of the Ancients: Were Humans the First? Part 3: Science in Antiquity
The achievements by modern science are phenomenal. But with our background of spaceships, skyscrapers, wonder drugs, and atomic reactors we are apt to minimize the scientific accomplishments of the ancients. This is a mistake.
Dealing with Traffic Issues
The peoples of the past had many of the problems which confront us today and they sometimes solved them in almost the same manner. For example, ancient Romans would change some street arteries to one-way traffic during peak hours. The people of Pompeii also used arm waving traffic police to cope with rush hours.
Street signs with curious names were used in Babylon 2,500 years ago. One example was, the Street on which no Enemy may ever tread. At Nineveh, the following ‘no parking’ signs were also displayed: Royal Road- let no man obstruct it. The signs were certainly more efficient than ours because instead of parking fine tickets, chariot owners who disobeyed them got a death warrant.
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The ancient city of Antioch was the site of the first street lighting in history. And the Aztecs set a permanent colored strip directly into the paved road to divide the two lines of traffic. Our streets and highways usually only have painted lines to separate the lines of traffic.
Heron, an engineer of Alexandria, built a steam engine which embodied the principles of both turbine and jet propulsion. If it were not for the repeated burnings of the Alexandrian Library, we might have had a story about a steam-chariot in Egypt. At least we know that Heron also invented a speedometer registering the distance travelled by a vehicle.
City Planning and Heating
Excavations at Mohenjo Daro, Harappa, and Kalibanga in Pakistan and India have disclosed the surprising fact that a system of town-planning was in operation 4,500 years ago. The streets of these ancient cities were straight and had rectangular blocks. A superior water supply and water drainage system were also discovered.
Ruins of Mohenjo Daro. (CC BY SA 3.0)
These cities were built with kiln-fired bricks. Because of their strength, they were also used by the British in the construction of the railroad bed on the Karachi-Lahore line more than 100 years ago. It is also remarkable that bricks manufactured today in Mohenjo Daro are made according to prototypes from the ruins. This demonstrates that technology had reached a peak in the distant and unsuspected past of India and for some reason progressed no further. From then on everything was done in imitation of the old techniques.
Central or hot-water heating was invented by Bonnemain at the end of the 17th century and perfected by Duvoir. Yet 4,000 years before these European inventors, wealthy Koreans had Spring Rooms warmed by hot air which circulated in vents under the floors. Ancient Romans used heating of a similar kind. During the Middle Ages, the scientific devices of antiquity were forgotten and the people of Europe had to shiver for many a century.
A hypocaust (Latin hypocaustum) in the Roman Baths, Bath, UK. A hypocaust is an ancient Roman system of central heating. The word literally means "heat from below", from the Greek hypo meaning below or underneath, and kaiein, to burn or light a fire. (Ad Meskens/CC BY SA 3.0)
Decorative Features for Homes and Bodies
The prehistoric city of Catal Höyük in Turkey is over 9,500 years old. Pieces of carpet have been found in the ruins which were of so high quality that they compare favorably with the most beautiful ones woven today. No savant in the last century would have attributed such an age to these carpets.
The beautiful head of Sumerian Queen Shub-ad (Puabi) displayed in the British Museum shows that a long time ago people were very much like us. The lovely young lady wears an amazingly modern wig, large earrings, and necklace. The sophisticated girl who used cosmetics, a wig, and expensive jewelry died in a ritual suicide in 2,900 BC – 2,150 years before the traditional founding of Rome.
Head of Sumerian Queen Puabi. (The Commons)
Textiles from Tutankhamen’s tomb were made out of linen thread so thin that no modern machine or man can reconstruct them. Tutankhamen´s knife was also unique as it was made from meteorite iron.
Linen Kerchief from Tutankhamun's Embalming Cache. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
For some reason, the skill of jewelry making and architecture in ancient Egypt was more advanced in earlier periods. Among the pyramids in Egypt, the first structures are superior in workmanship. The wave of progress markedly starts downwards in Egypt after 1300 BC.
In 3100 BC, King Menes of Egypt carried out a vast engineering scheme of diverting the course of the Nile in order to build his capital, Memphis. No kingdom had ever attempted to execute such a gigantic project as this.
Artist's depiction of the white walls of the Great Temple of Ptah at Memphis. (Public Domain)
Ancient Interior Plumbing
Although porcelain flush-toilets are not necessarily a mark of high culture, they do prove the presence of developed technology and sanitation. Only 200 years ago, they were conspicuous by their complete absence. Yet, 4000 years ago private toilets with a central system of stone drains and ceramic pipes were common in the city of Knossos, Crete. The rooms of the Palace of Minos were also ventilated through air shafts. With its air-conditioned chambers, excellent bathrooms and toilets, the palace was not only modern but large – as large as Buckingham Palace in England.
Artist’s representation of the Palace at Knossos. (Mmoyaq/CC BY SA 3.0)
Pipes for hot and cold water have been found in tiled bathrooms at Chan Chan, the capital of the Chimu Empire in South America, which flourished in the 11th-15th centuries. Ancient epics of India describe similar scientific accomplishments by the early people of the land of the Gagnes.
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The ancient ruins of Chan Chan. (Véronique Debord-Lazaro/CC BY SA 2.0)
These achievements by the people of antiquity were not surpassed in later centuries. In the Dark Ages mankind experienced a fall in scientific progress and it is only during the last 300 years that science began to pick up again.
Achievements in Transport
The first cart and first boat were built by the Sumerians in the 4th millennium BC. The next big leap in transportation came only in 1802, when the steam vessel was constructed, and the first train followed in 1825. This acceleration in technology and transport climaxed with the invention of the airplane in 1903 and the first manned flight in a spaceship in 1961.
A depiction of an onager-drawn cart on the Sumerian "battle standard of Ur." (Public Domain)
After the voyage of Apollo 8 to the moon, the New York Times gave the real credit for this historic feat to men of many countries and centuries before – Eculid, Archimedes, Newton, Kepler, Copernicus, and many others.
It is wise to see our achievements in this light because behind our atomic scientists stands Democritus. Our aviation and astronautics engineers also had a predecessor in antiquity – Heron with his jet. Behind our cyberneticists hover Daedalus with his automatons and robots. The source of modern science lies far away in time.
Democritus (by Hendrick ter Brugghen). (Public Domain)
Top Image: The Flammarion engraving. Source: imgur
By Sam Boström