Wednesday, September 8, 2010

History: Gone But Not Forgotten

The Brethren who read Triple P regularly know that I am a staunch believer in the equal or greater intelligence of our ancestors. Oh sure, they burned books, fought wars over stupefyingly unintelligible religions and kept those pesky women in their place, but… Wait. When, exactly, did that stop?

So I was thrilled to see this
article over at that lists ten “lost” technologies that just about prove we’re the ones who are slow. Click over and check out the whole thing if you’ve got a minute. Here though, in brief, are a few highlights.

Nepenthe, a Greek drug of “forgetfulness”, has often been compared to laudanum and opium. Our ancestors lost the ability to make nepenthe (but not the ability to use the word in poetry) some time in the Dark Ages. As the article points out, all the ingredients of nepenthe are probably still available, we just don’t know what they were.

Not the case with silphium, a tremendously (if Roman literature is to be believed) successful birth control medication. All ladies had to do was drink the juice of this heart-shaped, fennel-like bulb every month or so et voila! Your worries about offspring are no more. This is particularly amusing to me in light of the many “retro” sites now on the Internet that would have you believe recreational sex was invented in the ‘60s with the introduction of The Pill and came into its own in the ‘70s. The silphium plant grew only in very specific conditions in North Africa and, because of its enormous demand during the Pax Romana, was overharvested and made extinct. So people destroying their environment and a good thing along with it isn’t new either.
On a more seafaring note, number eight on the list is the fascinating Antikythera Mechanism. If you haven’t already, you should have a look at this thing:
Found aboard a ship wrecked off the Greek island of the same name in the early 1900s, the device is jam packed with cranks, gears and dials. Probably dating from the first century BCE, the thing is generally labeled by scientists as a clock and lunar phase calculator. This seems like raw oversimplification to me. My reasoning is simple: the only example of the mechanism ever found was aboard a ship. That puppy was used for navigation, I’ll bet, and probably has a similar working to what would be a modern sextant/compass combination.

Number one on the list, and with good cause, is our old friend Greek Fire. This delightful compound that the Byzantines perfected was the ancient equivalent of better-than-napalm. Not only would it stick to and burn just about anything, it continued to burn underwater. This made it a favorite weapon in naval warfare and Greek Fire was turned on ships on more than one documented occasion. What the stuff was actually made of is a subject for both debate and research. You can bet most military forces in existence today would love to get their hands on a weapon that continued to burn underwater, among other things.

Yeah, we’ve come a long way and, as the article wryly notes, flush toilets and paved roads prove our superiority. Even though the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans had those too.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That is a pretty neat article. I think the one that frustrates me the most is the space travel technology that has been lost just since the 1960's and 70's. That, and the first paragraph of your post just show what a bunch of tools we are as a modern society... and I don't mean that in the nice way, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Yup; pretty much. I need some that nepenthe...