Where This Meets That
When I was a kid, I was fascinated by ancient mysteries, like the Nazca Lines, Stonehenge, and the Moai. For me, back then, it always came back to UFO’s, and it was always cool to contrast the futuristic notion of UFO’s with our understanding of the ancient world.
This week, I wanted to take a look back at five fascinating things from our past that might be new to you. I hope you enjoy!
1) Antikythera Mechanism
In 1900, a group of sponge divers discovered a ship wreck off the Greek isle Antikythera. The divers retrieved numerous artifacts, including statues, pottery, jewels, and coin and, being honest sponge divers, immediately turned their collected findings in to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
They also handed in what first appeared to be a nondescript lump of worn wood and corroded bronze. Curators set the object aside to review behind all the more obvious artifacts. Two years later, a closer look revealed the object to be the world’s earliest known analog computer, estimated to have been constructed a century before Jesus.
The mechanism demonstrates a level of technological complexity not seen again for another 1,500 years, with the advent of mechanical astronomical clocks. It included no less than thirty bronze gears which were operated using a small hand crank and housed inside a wooden box approximately 13 x 7 x 3.5 inches in size.
Much analysis has lead experts to conclude that the Antikythera mechanism was some kind of astronomical device, such as an astrolabe, though its exact purpose remains up for debate.
2) Permian Vegetational Pompeii
In February 2012, news broke that an ancient tropical forest had been discovered beneath a coal mine in Wuda, Inner Mongolia in China. Three-hundred-MILLION years ancient! Scientists reported that, “the peat-forming forest was preserved in a manner similar to the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum by a smothering volcanic ash-fall. This ash-fall buried and killed the plants, broke off twigs and leaves, toppled trees, and preserved the forest remains in place within the ash layer.”
As scientists reconstructed the forest based on their findings, they found that tree ferns formed a lower canopy while taller trees sporadically towered 80 feet tall. Researchers also found nearly complete specimens of now-extinct species of plants. Interestingly, no animal or insect remains were found, which speaks to the limited scope of land-dwelling life during the early Permian period.
At the time this forest was preserved, North America and Europe are thought to have formed a single land mass, while China existed as two smaller continents not yet merged with the supercontinent we call Pangaea.
Now that’s ancient!
3) Derinkuyu Underground City
In his book The World Without Us, Alan Weisman describes how, in Turkey in 1965, “a resident cleaning a back room of his cave house broke through a wall and discovered behind it a room that he’d never seen, which led to still another, and another. Eventually, spelunking archaeologists found a maze of connecting chambers that descended at least 18 stories and 280 feet beneath the surface, ample enough to hold 30,000 people. . . . One tunnel, wide enough for three people walking abreast, connects to another underground town six miles away.” (p108)
The architects of this hidden city are unknown for certain but likely spanned numerous cultures. Diamond says, “It’s as if they couldn’t stop, one conquering culture after another realizing the benefit of a hidden, sub-surface world. The underground cities were lit by torches, or often . . . by linseed oil lamps, which also gave enough heat to keep temperatures pleasant. Temperature was probably what first inspired humans to dig [the chambers], for winter shelter. But as successive waves of Hittites, Assyrians, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Seljuk Turks, and Christians discovered these dens and warrens, they widened and deepened them for one principle reason: defense. The last two even expanded the original upper chambers enough to stable their horses underground.” (p109)
With defense in mind, its staircases were formed “so intentionally low, tight, and serpentine that any invaders had to proceed slowly, bent over, and in single file. . . . [so] they would be easily slain – if they got that far. Stairways and ramps had landings every 10 meters, with Stone Age pocket doors – half-ton, floor-to-ceiling stone wheels – that could be rolled into place to seal a passage. Trapped between a pair of these, intruders would soon notice that holes overhead weren’t air shaft, but pipes for bathing them with hot oil.” (p110)
Since Derinkuyu evolved to defend against potentially prolonged periods of siege, it exhibits a mind-boggling level of sufficiency, including earthen ovens that used rock tubes to channel smoke to chimneys up to two kilometers away, so as to not give away the residents’ location. The city featured vertical communication shafts that allowed conversation between any two levels, as well as underground wells, drains, and even wineries and breweries. In addition to multiple levels of living quarters, complete with presumed playrooms, there were worship spaces, including “two large, high-ceilinged spaces [joined] in a cruciform. . . . [where] seventh-century Christians who emigrated from Antioch and Palestine would have prayed and hidden from Arab invaders.” (p110)
4) Phaistos Disc
In 1908, archaeologists excavating an ancient palace at Phaistos, on the island of Crete, found this disc of baked clay not much larger in diameter than a modern CD. Both sides of the disc contained print in the form of 241 total signs that spiraled inward from the rim to the center. Etched vertical lines divided groups of signs, presumably into words or sentences, though the language is unique among all known writing systems and as of yet undeciphered.
The disc has been dated to around 1700 B.C., which makes it the world’s earliest known printed document by far. Most interesting is that it was produced using intricate stamping mechanisms that the writer pressed into the soft clay disk to make their marks (i.e., moveable type). The writer then baked the clay disk for “publication”.
In his fascinating book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond writes, “Making these stamps must have entailed a great deal of work, and they surely weren’t manufactured just to print this single document. Whoever used them was presumably doing a lot of writing. With those stamps, their owner could make copies much more quickly and neatly than if he or she had written out each of the script’s complicated signs at each appearance.” (p214)
Diamond continues, “The Phaistos disk anticipates humanity’s next efforts at printing, which similarly used cut type or blocks but applied them to paper with ink, not to clay without ink. However, those next efforts did not appear until 2,500 years later in China and 3,100 years later in medieval Europe.”
5) Voynich Manuscript
In 1912, antique bookseller Wilfrid Voynich acquired dozens of books from a Jesuit college in Italy, including this one that looked like a particularly intriguing addition. It has since gained a reputation as “the world’s most mysterious manuscript.”
Carbon dating and other traits of the book date its origin to the 15th century. According to a letter dated 1666 that accompanied the manuscript, Emperor Rudolf II (16th century) once owned it, apparently quite a book aficionado himself, since he allegedly paid the modern equivalent of $80,000 for the manuscript! Subsequently, the book passed through hands of botanists, alchemists, cryptologists, clerics, scholars, and collectors, and it has stumped them all.
The fascination is that its nearly 240 vellum pages are filled with an unknown language and puzzling illustrations, including unrecognizable plant species and iconographies. Based on the thematic elements of the illustrations, it is generally thought to fall into six sections: Herbal, Astronomical, Biological, Cosmological, Pharmaceutical, and what could be recipes.
Since we can’t be sure of the meaning of the book’s contents, we can’t really begin to understand its purpose. It appears to be some kind of a reference book, but it’s been suggested that it’s a historical fraud perpetrated by Rudolf II’s alchemist Edward Kelley to swindle the emperor, sort of a real-life precursor to Hans Christian Anderson’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. Oh, “alchemist” you say? How would that be for turning garbage into gold?
Perhaps it represents an early plunge into the genre of science fiction or an even earlier ancestor to the whole “found footage” genre so popular in movie theaters today. It certainly got people talking!
If you enjoyed this, also check out my Friday Five on “Stretchy Reading”!
Have a great weekend Everyone!