Often when people consider ancient civilizations, they picture societies with little to no technology, but recent studies and archeological discoveries show that this is far from the truth.
One of the most famous ancient devices was recently discovered by the island of Antikythera by Greece. Known as the Antikythera device, it is a fascinating glimpse into the technology of ancient Greece and Rome. The gears within this machine use techniques unknown to the watch-makers of today, and show the multiple layers of ingenuity used to craft a device that not only calculated precisely the phase of the moon, but also the cycles of planets, solar and lunar eclipses, and other intricate astronomical predictions. Such devices have been described before in the literature from this ancient period, but this is the first time such a device was uncovered. Here is a 3D digital reconstruction of the device and how it works: Antikythera mechanism in 3D.
Another interesting technology from ancient times is the ‘Baghdad battery.’ Found in the 1930s by an German archeologist named Konig, he discovered a ceramic vessel with a highly corroded copper cylinder encasing an iron core. Although his discovery was forgotten due to the war, the find was preserved and today archeologists and scientists were able to confirm that the vessel could indeed be used as a weak battery: The Riddle of the Baghdad Batteries. Although we may never know for sure what exactly these vessels were used for, needless to say they could indeed produce a weak electrical current – an invention that would not reappear for a good thousand years.
Consider also the Pyramids of Egypt: Egyptian Pyramids. Using the technology they had in their day, ancient Egypt constructed some of the most amazing wonders in the history of humanity. Also, related in this excerpt from a mathematical publication at the National University of Singapore, the pyramids north-south axis is aligned within three-sixtieths of a degree of true north, which is actually more accurate than the Meridian Building at Greenwitch Observatory in London: Astronomical Alignment in Egyptian pyramids. Astronomy during the time of the Egyptian ancient civilization was fairly robust, so it is fairly possible that the calculations necessary to create such an alignment was possible, even with the lack of a “North star.” (Due to the procession of the Earth’s axis, the “north star” is not the same throughout history. Earth’s true north will point at a different section of the sky as it slowly processes over time. Two thousand years ago, north did not align with any one star.
In the book A Strange Wilderness: The Lives of Mathematicians, Aczel starts in the ancient civilizations and chronicles the lives of mathematicians throughout the centuries. It’s interesting to note the high amount of knowledge in Ancient Greece and China. Often mathematics was used in practical applications within the ancient civilizations, but these practical uses sparked many a revolution in the abstract theories of mathematics and even within science itself. Books such as these further explore how varied and full of surprises history can often be.
Overall, these are just highlights of the ingenuity that can and has often existed in ancient civilizations. History can be full of surprises, and sometimes, noting the surprises in our own history, can help us create interesting surprises in the histories of the worlds we are building. It is very likely that a past civilization may have discovered or invented a new technology, only for it to be lost and rediscovered far in the future. Considering the non-linear growth of civilizations – how they can rise and fall – there’s multiple opportunities for technology, science and mathematical thought, and medical breakthroughs or discoveries to be lost due to the fall of a civilization. Incorporating this into your world-building can help create a more interesting and varied history, especially if ruins of older civilizations still exist, allowing for people in your world’s current time period to carefully excavate and study.