History is littered with the remains of civilizations and cultures long vanquished and forgotten. With their collapse, many ancient discoveries of science and technology were lost with them, never to be seen again.
On some occasions, either through miracles of preservation or sheer luck, some of this knowledge from the ancients has survived the ravages of time to be 'rediscovered' by later generations. In some circumstances, it happened a millennia later.
The following 12 plus bonus are great examples of once lost-knowledge that survived to be discovered later. They range from medical techniques once thought to be the exclusive development of the 20th Century to the very mechanics of the solar system.
This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.
1. The Telescope May Have First Been Invented in Assyria
A mysterious lens, called the Nimrud Lens, was unearthed by Sir John Laylard in Nimrud, Iraq during excavations in 1850. The lens is actually made from natural rock crystal and showed signs of being ground and shaped to a roughly oval form.
Examinations of the lens showed that it had cal point about 11 centimeters from the flat side, and a focal length of about 12 centimeters - giving the lens an approximate magnification of about 3 x. If, as might have been the case, this was combined with another lens, the magnification could be amplified.
Since 1850, its use has been hotly debated by scientists and historians. Was it a magnifying glass? Perhaps it was used to start fires? Could it, just perhaps, have actually formed part of an early telescope?
The later might seem like a bit of a leap of faith but the Assyrians are known as great astronomers. An Italian Professor, Giovanni Pettinato, certainly believes it might just have been possible.
Whatever the truth, if it is part of a telescope, the technology would be lost to the ages until its rediscovery by a Dutch Spectacle Maker, Hans Lippershey in the 17th Century. The telescope, however, would be immortalized by the great Galileo and his pivotal work on astronomy.
Sadly the lens' creator has been lost the ages.
2. The Antikythera Mechanism Would Remain Lost for Millennia
The Antikythera Mechanism was discovered off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera in the early 1900's. X-Ray imaging during the 1970's and 1990's revealed that it consisted of a series of cranks, gears, and dials with an unknown purpose.
It has been dated to be from 1st or 2nd Century BC and was lost when the ship it was on mysteriously sunk. It was found in the shipwreck millennia later and its true purpose is still something of a mystery today.
Despite this, the general consensus is that it was probably some form of a clock that used the phases of the moon and solar years. If it is true, in effect, a very early example of an analog computer.
Given the level of sophistication of the device, it was clearly not the only one of its kind and was probably a widely used piece of equipment at the time. Mechanical computers wouldn't appear again until they were invented by Charles Babbage in the 19th Century.
We will never know the name of the device's inventor.
3. The Original Recipe for Damascus Steel Has Been Lost Forever
Damascus steel was legendary for its strength during the middle ages. Stories were told about its seemingly mythical properties by returning Crusaders, much to the disbelief of those who heard about it.
What is known today is that it was made from raw material, called Wootz steel from Asia, Cassia auriculata bark, milkweed, vanadium, chromium, manganese, cobalt, nickel, and some rare elements.
Its production would cease sometime around 1650 and similarly, strong steel wouldn't be produced again until the Industrial Revolution.
From later studies of examples in 2006 using scanning electron microscopes by Peter Paufler at the University of Dresden, the secrets of Damascan steel were revealed once and for all. It appears that its strength was, in part, to do with accidental nanotechnology.
The manufacturing process and ingredients produced a chemical reaction that altered the material's strength at the atomic level.
"The metal developed a microstructure called ‘carbide nanotubes,’ extremely hard tubes of carbon that are expressed on the surface and create the blade’s hardness,” Kris Hirst, and archaeology expert explained.
As for its eventual stop in production, Hirst has an explanation for that too, “What happened in the mid-18th century was that the chemical makeup of the raw material altered—the minute quantities of one or more of the minerals disappeared, perhaps because the particular lode was exhausted".
As with other lost science and rediscovered science and technology, its creator has been lost forever.
4. Cement Was Lost by the Romans and Rediscovered During the Industrial Revolution
When Rome and the so-called Dark Ages gripped Europe much of antiquities advancements were lost for centuries. One such example was the recipe for cement/concrete.
Evidence of early concrete can actually be found in many buildings throughout the ancient worlds from Persia to Egypt to Rome. It was the Romans who appear to have mastered its use with their masterpiece of architectural engineering - the dome of the Pantheon Rome.
Romans also widely used concrete to built aqueducts, baths and fortifications like the Aurelian Walls of Rome.
Why this technology was lost during the Dark Ages is unknown but it might be possible that its recipe was a trade secret amongst Roman stonemasons. Whatever the reasons, it would not be until the 19th Century that a technique for producing Portland Cement was 'discovered'.
No records exist about who, exactly, devised the Roman recipe for cement.
5. Greek Fire Was an Early Form of Napalm
Greek Fire, an early form of napalm, was simple but effective terror weapon widely used by the Byzantine Empire until its collapse in the Middle Ages. It was most famously used to halt and then repel two sieges at Constantinople by Arab invaders.
Its recipe appears to have been refined by the reign of Constantine IV in 678 AD by a Greek Christian refugee, Kallinikos of Heliopolis. He had fled from Syria when Muslim invaders conquered the lands.
Records from the time seem to indicate it could be deployed in a variety of different means from 'grenade' form to being sprayed from siphons mounted on warships similar to a modern flamethrower.
So potent was the weapon that it was officially protected by Byzantine Emperors for generations. The technology was lost when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans.
Scholars would attempt to replicate the substance for centuries afterward and its exact recipe is still something of a mystery today. It wouldn't be until the 1940's that a similar substance, Napalm, would be developed - although a similar chemical was used by the Livens Flamethrowers during WW1.
6. Seismology Is Much Older Than We Once Thought
The practice of detecting earthquakes is pretty routine today but accurate prediction still eludes us. As it turns out the field of seismology is a lot older than originally thought.
Almost 2000 years ago, a Chinese inventor, engineer and mathematician Zhang Heng developed the first working seismometer in 132 AD. His device was not only a very reliable scientific instrument but was also a work of art in its own right.
Modern experiments in Zhengzhou, China using the same design have shown that it is actually pretty accurate at detecting earthquakes from afar. It is not only capable to detect an earthquake but also provide a rough heading of the epicenter.
His device consisted of a large bronze vessel, similar to an urn or samovar (Russian kettle), that was almost 1.8 meters in diameter. Eight dragons sit face-down along the outside of the vessel, one on each of the main compass point directions.
Each dragon held a small bronze ball in its mouth beneath which also sat 8 bronze toads directly underneath the dragons mouths.
When an earthquake occurs, one or more of the dragons drop their balls into the awaiting toads' mouths. This would provide a rough direction for the origin of an earthquake.
Heng's invention would be forgotten for centuries until mankind re-invented this technology in the 19th Century.
7. Plastic Surgery Was Practiced as Early as the 6th Century in India
Plastic surgery is not just the reserve of the fabulously wealthy, it is also used for vital reconstructive work for patients who've suffered serious injuries or diseases. Although most might attribute it as being a product of the 20th Century, it actually had a much early origin.
Plastic surgery, according to a 6th Century BC Indian text, The Sushruta Samhita, could be very old indeed. This text contains tantalizing evidence that reconstructive surgery of the nose (rhinoplasty) was common practice back then.
The text was written by a famous physician of the time, Sushruta (meaning very famous in Sanskrit).
"The portion of the nose to be covered should be first measured with a leaf. Then a piece of skin of the required size should be dissected from the living skin of the cheek and turned back to cover the nose, keeping a small pedicle attached to the cheek" Sushruta explains in the text.
He continues: "The part of the nose to which the skin is to be attached should be made raw by cutting the nasal stump with a knife. The physician then should place the skin on the nose and stitch the two parts swiftly, keeping the skin properly elevated by inserting two tubes of eranda (the castor-oil plant) in the position of the nostrils, so that the new nose gets [the] proper shape."
His work also explains how to reconstruct earlobes using cheek flaps, wine as an anesthetic and using leeches to clear blood clots.
The procedures would remain hidden for centuries until the text was later translated into Arabic in the 8th Century. It finally reached Europe when an account published in 1794 in the Gentlemen's Magazine of London.
8. The Steam Turbine Was Invented in the 1st Century AD
In the 1st Century AD, Heron of Alexandria devised and built the world's first recorded rotating steam engine (steam reaction turbine/traction engine) in the world. It was called the Aeolipile and is evidenced in Heron's famous work Pneumatica.
The design was relatively simple. It had a reservoir of water that was heating from below.
The generated steam was then funneled through one of two copper arms that supported a large pivoted brass sphere. The sphere had two protruding nozzles directly opposite each other with their ends turned outwards in opposite directions to each other.
Steam in the sphere was then forced out of the nozzles, generating thrust and spinning the sphere. Heron's works would later be lost to the ages. It would be a long time before the rest of the world caught up with Heron and rediscovered the traction engine and steam turbine almost two thousand years later.
9. The Battery Was First Developed in Parthian Baghdad
During archaeological excavations within a Parthian village (250 BC to 224 AD) in 1936 in Khujut Rabu just outside Baghdad, a mysterious clay pot was discovered. This might not sound too unusual except that the contents of the jar were very surprising indeed.
Archaeologists were stunned when they found that within the pot was a copper cylinder with an iron rod suspended within it. Both the cylinder and rod were held in place by an asphalt stopper in the top of the jar.
What could its purpose have been?
Whilst working on the problem in 1938, German Archaeologist Wilhelm Konig noted its similarity to early batteries and became convinced it was, indeed an early battery. Hence it earned its name - the Baghdad or Parthian Battery.
Replicas would later be built after the Second World War by an American engineering who worked at the GE High Voltage Lab in Pittsfield. By filling his replicas with an electrolyte, like vinegar, he found that the jars were able to generate around 1.1 - 2 volts of electricity.
With no written records about their use at the time, it is anyone's guess today what they were used for or who was the inventor of the technology. But it is possible that their function was for electro-plating items - a practice common to the region today.
It would take until the 19th Century before a similar device would be 'invented' in Europe by the great Alessandro Volta.
11. The Romans Had Mastered Nanotechnology Centuries Ago
In the 1950's, a mysterious Roman artifact was acquired by the British National Museum. The so-called Lycurgus Cup or chalice is a true melding of science and art that was originally created around 1,600 years ago.
This chalice which depicts a scene of the mythological King Lycurgus of Thrace, has some interesting optical properties. It can actually change color from green to red depending on which direction light is shined upon it.
This optical magic trick baffled scientists at the time who couldn't figure out how it was able to change from Jade Green (when lit from the front) to Blood Red (when lit from behind). It would remain a mystery until the 1990's.
English researchers took some broken fragments of the chalice and examined them under a microscope. What they found was something that completely surprised them - it seemed that the Romans had an appreciation of nanotechnology thousands of years ago.
The trick was achieved with the use of finely ground silver and gold particles that were impregnated into the glass of the chalice. These particles had been ground down to as small as 50 nanometers in diameter - an incredible achievement for the time.
Such small particles, when hit by photons of light, differentially vibrate electrons within the fixed metal flecks depending on the direction of illumination. This results in the color change seen in the glass.
The researchers concluded that such precise work could not have been an accident. It would seem that the Romans at this time had perfected the technique which is ostensibly similar to our modern discipline of nanotechnology.
The technique would be lost with the collapse of Rome and our understanding of nanotechnology wouldn't remerge for almost 1500 years. The technique's inventor is also not known.
12. The Ancient Chinese Had Mastered Automation and Robots Centuries Ago
The ancient Chinese appear to have mastered mechanical engineering long before the West. The scientist recently uncovered highly advanced robots that could sing, dance and perform basic tasks could push back the origins of robots by centuries.
These robots were described in ancient China Book written during the Tang Dynasty between 618 and 907 AD. Chao Ye Qian Zai, roughly translated to Stories of Government and the People contains many fascinating tales describing ancient mechanical engineering technology.
One example included a robot devised by King Lan Ling (550 to 557 AD). This bot resembled a non-Chinese ethnicity man and was able to dance, serve drinks and bow.
Another incredible robot is said to have been designed and built by Ma Daifeng during the rule of Emperor Tang Xuan Zhong’s Kai Yuan (690 to 705 AD). His automaton was a dresser for the queen which contained a mirror and two shelves with door beneath.
This device was recorded in an ancient book, Travel News, from the time stating that:
"Through ingenious levers and switches, when the queen opened the mirror, the doors beneath automatically opened as well. He devised a robotic woman servant for the queen that would bring washing paraphernalia and towels.
Then the towel was removed from the servant’s arm, it automatically triggered the machine to back away into the closet."
Such technology would be forgotten for many centuries until its later redevelopment in recent times.
13. The Heliocentric Solar System
Although it is commonly acknowledged that Copernicus was the first to describe the Heliocentric solar system, it appears that this model of our universe might have a much older origin. Aristarchus of Samos (310 BC to 230 BC) was a Greek astronomer who vehemently believed that the Earth rotated around its axis, whilst orbiting the Sun.
He was heavily criticised in his day most notably by Cleanthes the Stoic who declared that he should be indicted for heresy "for putting into motion the hearth of the universe.”
Although his actual works were lost to the ages, they were referenced in later writings by Archimedes, Plutarch and Sextus Empiricus. Archimedes, in particular, noted, of Aristarchus's theory that it would make the Universe much larger than was commonly believed at the time - very prophetic in hindsight.
His work would not be referenced again until the 16th Century when the great Copernicus himself would draw inspiration from his writings. He even referenced them in his manuscript Six Books Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs.
Despite this Copernicus later crossed out this reference, and Aristarchus’s theory was not mentioned in the published book.
And there we are, 12 + Bonus Discoveries That Were Only Noticed Years Later, and the People Who Never Got The Credit. Can you think of any others? Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments below.