Lost Techs of Ancient Rome and Renaissance England

One of the more persistent myths is the idea of continual progression: man advances, building on the great wisdom of those who came before. This notion of movement towards an achievable ideal is one of the more charming delusions of liberalism. I really do wish it were true, and that mankind was advancing towards a perfectible state. It’s just not.

This idea of progression has a particularly persistent hold in the realm of science and technology. Scientists may believe it to be so, but historians know the truth: societal disruption, political and economic forces, plague, war, and plain ole time can knock us back and strip knowledge from us. If we think we’re immune to this now, say hello to my little friend, the EMP weapon.

For example, crude batteries were used by some ancient peoples for a kind of gold electroplating technique (now lost). Before archaeologists began digging up things like the Baghdad battery, anyone who suggested such a scenario would have been ridiculed.

The recipe for the unique cement used to make Roman structures strong and durable was also lost. Just last month, a team of researchers published their findings with a theory about its composition and production:

By analyzing the mineral components of the cement taken from the Pozzuoli Bay breakwater at the laboratory of U.C. Berkeley, as well as facilities in Saudi Arabia and Germany, the international team of researchers was able to discover the “secret” to Roman cement’s durability. They found that the Romans made concrete by mixing lime and volcanic rock to form a mortar. To build underwater structures, this mortar and volcanic tuff were packed into wooden forms. The seawater then triggered a chemical reaction, through which water molecules hydrated the lime and reacted with the ash to cement everything together. The resulting calcium-aluminum-silicate-hydrate (C-A-S-H) bond is exceptionally strong.

The mystery of Roman concrete has been pondered for a long time, but a new look at an old discovery is revealing lost tech we didn’t even suspect existed. Studies on the Cheapside Hoard –a large cache of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewelry found in 1912–are revealing a level of unexpected technological sophisticated so surprising that the research team likened it to an Elizabethan iPod:

Dr Ann-Marie Carey, a research fellow at Birmingham City University, and her colleagues have used modern technology to discover how these beautiful items were created – and have been stunned at the advanced technologies that have been applied to construct the items.

“Our forensic analysis has revealed the amazing technologies which craftsman of this period were using – and we fear some of these 400-year-old processes may now be lost to us,” said Dr Carey.

“It is has been a fascinating investigation. We think of our own time as one of impressive technological advances but we must look at the Elizabethan and Jacobean age as being just as advanced in some ways.”

Dr Carey said: “When we received photographs of the Hoard we were fascinated with the level of detail in the jewellery.

“We wanted to know how such pieces were made and to understand the story behind them. Until now there had been little research into the craftsmanship involved so we feel we are making a unique contribution to the forthcoming exhibition.”

Dr Carey, with the help of senior technologist Keith Adcock, have used 21st century digital technologies to recreate pieces from the Hoard, including a ‘Pearl Dropper’ an egg-shaped item that originally featured ribbons of pearls and was possible worn on as a hairpiece.

The most impressive item from the hoard is the finely detailed watch pictured at the top of the post, which exhibits a level of craftsmanship–and was made using techniques–not known to exist in Elizabethan England.

Or maybe The Doctor just dropped it.


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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.