Did Ancient Civilizations Have Modern Technology? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
More than one hundred billion people have lived and died on Earth throughout its history, but is modern society REALLY the most advanced we've ever been?

We know that ancient civilizations achieved some incredible things - from the pyramids, to the Easter Island statues to Stonehenge - but we don't really know HOW they did it. Some say "ancient aliens", but perhaps there's a different reason for our ancestors' success...

Did Ancient Civilizations Have Modern Technology?

More than one hundred billion people have lived and died on Earth throughout its history, so it’s no wonder we often look to the past to try and better understand the present. But, with so many seemingly unexplained archaeological mysteries out there, and nuggets of apparently lost knowledge, it can be tricky to make sense of it all... In reality, though, ancient history might not be as far removed from us as we think.

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; did ancient civilizations have modern technology?

Pseudoarchaeology has ruled certain corners of popular science and history for decades, now. And few theories are as intriguing as the idea that the great societies of the past may have been built by extra-terrestrials. Everything from the Pyramids to the Nazca Lines to the Easter Island heads - much of the southern hemisphere, in fact - has had the “ancient aliens” narrative forced onto it by one pseudohistorian or another, many of whom don’t have a credible background in their subject at all. And yet, the fact remains that these astonishing structures do exist; they have been studied by scholars for thousands of years; and still no one’s really sure how they came about. The farfetched alien theory is actually quite a recent idea, and it’s just one of many other proposals as to “how ancient civilizations worked”. But what are the real explanations for how they came to be? And is it time we changed how we see them?

During the Renaissance, we had what were known as the six “simple machines”; six classic inventions that were easy to make but vital for countless other important mechanisms; the basis for most, if not all, technological advancements ever since. They were the lever, the wheel and axle, the pulley, the inclined plane, the wedge, and the screw. But, although this more “official” list only came about a few centuries ago, the ideas behind them actually date back to Ancient Greece and further - with many of these inventions having been around for centuries and millennia beforehand. Even today, screws, wheels, and levers keep the world turning, sometimes literally, and it’s impossible to overstate their importance. But to solve one of archaeology’s biggest mysteries, how the pyramids were built, we only need to look at these six machines.

The Pyramid of Khufu is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing; the rest – like the Colossus of Rhodes, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, or the Lighthouse of Alexandria – have been destroyed for thousands of years. But despite the pyramids being more than 4,500 years old and, for a long time, being the tallest man-made structures in the world, until very recently we didn’t know how the Ancient Egyptians managed to build them. In 2018, archaeologists working in an ancient quarry close to the pyramids site came across a ramp carved into the ground. It was lined by holes that could have once been used for a complex rope and pulley system, already employing two of our “simple machines” – the inclined plane and the pulley. Though the particular ramp found in 2018 isn’t thought to have directly supplied the pyramid builders, it does date back to around the same century that the pyramids were constructed in… meaning the Ancient Egyptians, in general, absolutely would have had access to technology like it. Interestingly, another probable misconception about the pyramids is that they were built by slaves. Increasingly, it’s believed that the laborers who worked for decades to build the Pyramid of Khufu were almost definitely not slaves. It would certainly have been hard and dangerous work, but there’s mounting evidence to suggest those involved were all paid workers willing to build this great and eternal monument to the Pharaoh.

One invention that we’re fairly sure the Egyptians didn’t have, however, something that would have made building pyramids much easier, was the construction crane. The first building cranes were used by the Greeks in the sixth century BC, at least 1,400 years after the pyramids were completed. But an earlier type of crane had been used for irrigation before then, to lift and move water in Ancient Mesopotamian societies as far back as around 3,000 BC. Across the long span of human history, agriculture has actually informed technological advancement like this far more significantly than the building of grand monuments ever has - with the invention of farming (from at least 10,000 BC) paving the way for most key developments. The distinct terraces used for growing crops in the Andes have been there for thousands of years, for example, and South American civilizations like the Mayans and the Incas employed aqueducts and used pressurized water, too. The aqueducts can still be seen in famous ruins like those at Machu Picchu – at a place that’s sometimes called the “Stairway of Fountains”.

Of course, the Romans also built advanced aqueducts all across their Empire, and it is true that a lot of civilization as we know it was perfected in Ancient Rome - but not necessarily born there. It’s thought that the earliest sewage and sanitation system, for example, was actually developed by the Indus Valley Civilization - a Bronze Age society across what’s now Pakistan, as well as parts of Afghanistan and India. They had private toilets connected to sewers at least 4,000 years ago; for comparison, the city of London didn’t have true sewers until 1866, and they were only widely installed after thousands of people had died of cholera from drinking the dirty water of the River Thames - which was itself, in those days, an open sewer.

So, it’s clear that key, cornerstone inventions date a long, long way back, and much of today’s technology effectively amounts to an “update” on ancient times. But, what’s most mind-boggling, is that archaeologists have also found ancient tech that defies scientific explanation today… like Damascus steel. While Damascus was once an integral city in the trade and manufacture of weapons, this unique metal was instantly recognisable the world over for its characteristic, wavy appearance. But more than simply looking good, these blades were also much stronger and more flexible than those made from any other material. The production of Damascus Steel stopped in the eighteenth century, though, and since then… well, we’ve been at a loss to work out precisely how it was originally forged.

Remarkably, upon closer inspection in recent years, it’s been found that Damascus steel blades contain carbon nanotubes; so this particular aspect of nanotechnology - that apparently new-fangled frontier for modern tech companies - was actually being used in the Middle East as long ago as the third century AD. And not only for Damascus Steel, either. Ancient nanotech has also been found in the Lycurgus Cup, a Roman chalice capable of changing colour with the light. As with Damascus steel, contemporary scientists just aren’t sure what the original technique used to make the cup was… How did state-of-the-art tech (today’s state-of-the-art tech) come to be in a sword or goblet from thousands of years ago?

That’s all well and good you might say, but what about computers? If there’s one technological achievement to define our generation then it’s that, right? Well, technically, from some perspectives, no. The first mechanical computer is actually older than both Damascus Steel and the Lycurgus Cup. The Antikythera mechanism was an Ancient Greek device thought to have been used to calculate the position of the moon and stars - and it belongs to the first century BC. Sure, it’s been a long journey between then and the machines of today, but the first stones in the groundwork for modern computing were laid in ancient times.

Hot on the tails of the first computer was the first programmable robot, built by the Greek mathematician Heron of Alexandria in - and yes, you’re hearing right - the first century AD. This robot was a strange mechanism that moved using ropes wound around strings - perhaps more “puppet-like” to modern minds. But, though primitive, many experts agree that Heron’s creation basically foretold how all robots would ultimately function - as programmable or guidable machines that could move or work of their own accord. And that wasn’t all that Heron (also known as Hero) contributed, either. He’s also credited as having built the first steam engine (nearly 2,000 years before trains were widespread), and the first vending machine - a contraption designed to distribute Holy Water.

Equally remarkable is the world’s oldest battery, the Baghdad Battery, a ceramic jar containing a copper tube and iron rod. Uncovered in Iraq in 1938, the device is thought to date back between the years 200 BC and 200 AD. Though it is still debated whether the artefact really was a battery in a practical sense, experiments have proven that it would have been able to produce a current.

Elsewhere in history, Ancient Mesopotamia gave us what’s widely considered the earliest existing work of literature, the “Epic of Gilgamesh”. But we also have the Mesopotamians to thank for the way we record time, as they popularised measuring some units in blocks of sixty; like having sixty seconds in a minute, sixty minutes in an hour, and three-hundred-and-sixty degrees in a circle – methods we obviously still use today, thousands of years later.

Meanwhile, at a much later point in history, the Vikings may have also had some mysterious time-and-place technology at their disposal, in the form of incredibly advanced sundials. Archaeological evidence suggests that they used what are now known as “sunstones” for navigation; special, clear, crystal-like stones which made it possible to chart the sun even when it was too cloudy for traditional methods. It’s only relatively recently that today’s researchers have been able to get their heads around how they work!

And, of course, to this day, the Four Great Inventions of China are still widely recognised and celebrated; the compass, gunpowder, papermaking and printing, all of which revolutionized society when they were developed between the third and eleventh centuries AD. Clearly all four of those fields have come on a lot over the past one thousand years or so, but it’s yet another reminder that most of what we have today - whether in simpler forms, or not - was actually around a long time ago.

Why, then, whenever a building or a story from the past feels in any way incomprehensible to us, should we so quickly rush to various pseudo-archaeological explanations? Rather than “ancient aliens”, perhaps it’d make more sense that civilizations long gone might’ve simply been skilled and equipped enough to achieve something as grand as the Pyramids, or Stonehenge, or the Easter Island Statues?

Ancient technology from across the globe is and was significantly more advanced than it usually gets credit for… with inventions typically associated with the Renaissance Period or even the Industrial Revolution often predating those times by thousands of years. And that’s how ancient civilizations had modern technology.