Sometimes archaeologists find artifacts so mind-blowing they seem like evidence of lost civilizations or alien visitors. Which ones are misinterpretations or hoaxes, and which are the real thing?
Reliable evidence of startlingly advanced ancient technology is few and far between. The Antikythera Mechanism, which we've discussed previously, is the crown jewel of astonishing artifacts. Beyond that, discoveries of ancient tech become a mixed bag.
1). Hero's Steam Engine. Hero, also called Heron, was an inventor, scientist and engineer who lived in Alexandria and taught at the legendary library there in the first century CE. He published several books of engineering principles and inventions. In Pneumatica, he described dozens of devices, including the aeolipile, or "Hero's Engine." A water-filled metal ball with opposing bent tubes would spin under the force of steam ejected under pressure when heated. Although more a proof-of-concept than a useful tool (replicas were popular in the 16th and 17th centuries), some of Hero's other inventions made use of the steam engine's principles to raise and lower stage curtains. His ideas using automated statues could be considered the earliest work in robotics.
2). The Ancient Airplanes of Egypt and South America. Two separate claims seem to suggest the same astonishing conclusion: ancient peoples of Egypt and South America both had flight technology thousands of years before modern humans developed it. In South America, the idea is based on jewelry produced by the Chimú culture that existed in what is now Colombia about 2,000 years ago. Some of the small pendants and ornaments appear to depict human-made aircraft, including delta wing shapes, tail fins and even a cockpit. Amazing! However, considering that all the jewelry produced by the Chimú takes the form of stylized birds and insects, Occam's Razor suggests that the ornament maker happened to carve a bird shape that looks sort of like an airplane to a modern human.
The Egyptian airplane is a similar case. A wooden falcon found in Saqqara was later reported by Egyptian doctor Khalil Messiha to have exceptional flight properties. Messiha's claims were inflated and distorted over the years until the wooden toy was held as an example of perfect aerodynamic form, inexplicable for such an ancient culture. Digging a little deeper, however, reveals that the bird carving closely resembles wind vanes mounted on the masts of Egyptian riverboats, and that the design in fact violates many aerodynamic principles. Messiha's original claim that it could "sail in the air for a few yards when thrown by hand" is likely true. So will a brick.
3). Klerksdorp Spheres. When miners near the South African town of Klerksdorp started finding small metallic spheres that seemed to have symmetrical grooves machined into them, they thought it was weird. When the spheres were noticed to have been encased in pyrophillite that was a couple of billion years old, some people immediately jumped on board the Time Travelers/Ancient Aliens/Creationist bandwagon. Many of the reported facts do seem amazing: that they are perfectly spherical; that they are made of an unknown metal that doesn't exist on Earth; that they spin around when left alone.
Of course, none of these things are actually true. Klerksdorp Spheres are the result of concretions, geologic formations that fill air bubbles in the overlying strata. They aren't perfectly spherical at all. Some of them take the form of multiple spheres stuck together, and others are more like discs. As for the mysterious material? Most of them are made of various forms of iron. The spinning thing is just pure bunk. Of course, the spheres are unique among the objects on this list in that they come from a natural phenomenon rather than being human-made at all. That hasn't stopped humans from using them to propel their agendas, though.
4). The Coso Artifact. Wallace Lane, Virginia Maxey and Mike Mikesell found a geode in California in 1961. Inside the apparently 500,000 year old rock formation they found a bizarre ceramic and metal device. What really seems amazing about the Coso Artifact is that, as far as anyone could tell by scanning and slicing into it, it appeared to be a spark plug encased in ancient rock.
What's not so amazing is that the rock wasn't an ancient geode, it was an accretion of clay, rock and rust of a far more recent vintage. When scans of the artifact were examined in the late 1990s by the president of the Spark Plug Collectors of America, an astonishing, incredible, unbelievable thing was revealed: people actually collect spark plugs. Also, the weird device known as the Coso Artifact was manufactured by Champion in the 1920s. It was a spark plug. This has made it somewhat less useful in Creationists' arguments against evolution, but they'll surely find something else shortly.
5). The Baghdad Battery. So far, most of these ancient techs have been frauds or pseudoscientific misinterpretations. Did ancient people ever actually create cool advanced technology? How about functional electric batteries capable of producing nearly a volt of power each? Yes, the famous Baghdad Batteries (top image) found in the 1930s in Iraq really work. Each battery (about a dozen were found) consists of a 5-inch clay jar. Inside is a copper tube wrapped around an iron rod. Acidic residue was found at the bottom of the pot, and an asphalt stopper sealed the top.
They worked in much the same way as modern batteries, just not as efficiently. An acidic liquid placed at the bottom would transfer electrons from one metal to another, creating voltage at the "terminal" poking through the asphalt plug. Numerous replications have been built and tested, using lemon juice, vinegar or grape juice as the electrolytic fluid. The Mythbusters even took a shot at it (result: Plausible).
No one is totally sure what ancient people used batteries for. There are a few theories. My favorite revolves around the discovery of ornaments that appear to have undergone electroplating, which uses a small current to evenly apply molecules of a substance (such as gold) to an object. It's possible there was some kind of medical/therapeutic use as well. The Mythbusters demonstrated the "experience the power of the divine" theory, rigging a religious idol so that true believers and non-believers alike would get a potent but non-fatal jolt. Were ancient priests resorting to parlor tricks to drum up faith? I guess they didn't have mud-encased spark plugs to fall back on.
"Riddle of 'Baghdad's Batteries.'" BBC News.
"The Coso Artifact." Bad Archaeology.
"Model Airplane?" Catchpenny.org.
"The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria." University of Rochester.
"The Klerksdorp Spheres." Associated Content.
"The Coso Artifact." Reports of The National Center for Science Education.
"Model aeroplanes from South America." Bad Archaeology.