The Ancient Enigmas That Have Confounded Science

Video highlights from Atlantis Rising

Some archaeological finds give you new knowledge, others lead you down the garden path.

On 13 February 1961, three Californian prospectors were digging for minerals and geodes to sell in their shop. One of their finds yielded a huge surprise—instead of the sparkly interior of a quartz crystal geode, the stone contained what appeared to be a porcelain cylinder surrounding a magnetic metal core. It turned out to be a spark plug.

Thus the ‘Coso artefact’ came into existence. According to stories, an unnamed geologist told the finders that this stone would have taken 500,000 years to form, which meant this technology could challenge history as we know it. However, nobody has ever spoken to this mysterious geologist, and it has since been determined that the spark plug was manufactured in the 1920s, and the encasing mineral was actually clay, not rock.

But some archaeological finds that are ‘ahead of their time’ have turned out not to be junk.

Antikythera mechanism: the first analogue computer

Fragment A of the Antikythera mechanism

Fragment A of the Antikythera mechanism, which studies suggest was an ancient astrolabe. Also see header image above, showing the back and front of the same piece.
IMAGE VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In 1900, a team of Greek divers found a shipwreck just off the coast of the Greek island Antikythera. They collected numerous artefacts—statue pieces, pottery, jewellery—which they handed over to the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens; one of these was a nondescript lump of corroded bronze and wood.

Two years later an archaeologist noticed a gear wheel embedded in the lump, but the artefact wasn’t properly investigated until much later. In the 1970s X-ray and gamma-ray imaging of this and other related fragments revealed the remains of a mechanism exceedingly complex for its time.

Until now, thirty interlocking gear wheels have been found, along with an extensive series of astronomical inscriptions. Before the Antikythera mechanism spent nearly 2,000 years at the bottom of the sea, it is thought to have computed and displayed the movements of our solar system with extraordinary accuracy. In fact, technology of a similar sort did not emerge until some 1,000 years later. Now, more than a hundred years since it was found, research on this mechanism is still underway.

Babylonian astronomy tablet: a groundbreaking clue

Babylonians wrote their astronomical calculations on tablets such as this one.

Babylonians wrote their astronomical calculations on tablets such as this one.
PHOTO CREDIT: Mathieu Ossendrijver, Science/AAAS

In ancient Babylon, everything from the price of grain to weather forecasts was connected to the motion of the planets and stars. The Mesopotamian civilisation lived long before the advent of telescopes, so their astronomical predictions relied on arithmetic. Or so we thought.

Back in 2015, historian Mathieu Ossendrijver who specialises in Babylonian astronomy, was handed photos of cuneiform clay tablets that dated back to 100-200 years BC. One of the pieces photographed proved to be a clue to several tablets he had translated earlier but had never understood—except for knowing they had something to do with the planet Jupiter.

His discovery was published last year in the journal Science, revealing the only known case when Babylonian astronomers had actually used a geometry-based algorithm to track Jupiter’s passage through the sky. It means these ancient mathematicians used an astronomical method thought to be invented only in the 14th century by a group of thinkers at Oxford. Thus, these clay tablet etchings also lay the groundwork for calculus.

Oldest stone-tipped projectiles: literally before our time

Obsidian spear tips like this one discovered in Ethiopia predate modern humans.

Obsidian spear tips like this one discovered in Ethiopia predate modern humans.
PHOTOGRAPH BY TD WHITE

Modern humans have invented an impressive range of weapons—and until recently it was thought that Homo sapiens were the first to come up with the idea of throwing spears (javelins) instead of only thrusting ones. A prehistoric projectile weapon would have made a significant difference in terms of the prey our human ancestors could gun down.

But in 2013 a new discovery of the oldest-ever found stone projectiles threw the weaponry timeline into disarray. The earliest fossils of Homo sapiens found in Ethiopia are roughly 200,000 years old. The pointy javelin tips archaeologists recently found in Ethiopia’s Rift Valley predate modern humans by some 80,000 years. Which means that our ancestors actually possessed the capacity to make such complex weapons—a trait we previously thought only started with us, the Homo sapiens. We are yet to figure out whether we discovered these weapons independently, or learned the skill from our ancestor H. heidelbergensis.

Filmmakers James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici recently found Bronze-age stone anchors at the bottom of the sea near the Strait of Gibraltar. To them, that’s a clue to the mythical civilisation of Atlantis. Watch Atlantis Rising at 7.30pm AEST on 19 February on National Geographic Channel.

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