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.


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.

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    And note how it is not only functional, but incredibly beautiful as well. THAT is something that has often been ignored in our push for higher and higher tech.

  • William556

    We have lost technology even more recent than that. I’ve read that the cylinder bores in the engines of the some of the WWII German fighter planes were more perfectly smooth and uniform throughout that can be managed with today’s best equipment. On the other end of the scale, there is a statue in one of the museums in Charleston, SC, done by a long dead local sculptor. It has a smoothness and other features like wrinkles in the clothing that no one knows how he managed it.

  • Jeannine

    The Stradivarius violins are another example of lost technology. We still don’t know how to make such wondrous instruments.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I would say when it comes to science and engineering that we do move in a mostly progressive manner. The problem in the past was that information was lost because of lack of documentation. With the way we document and store information today we do build upon the science and technology of recent and remote past. Of course people have speculated a vast world wide computer crash of stored info sending us back to the stone age, but that is extremely unlikely. By the way that Romans used volcanic ash to strengthen their concrete can’t be just recently discovered. I knew that, and I think I knew it as far back as ten years ago. Now I completely agree with you when it comes to progressing of humanity and culture. Frankly I think we’ve vastly devolved there. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre…”

  • Howard

    Some of the lack of documentation was undoubtedly intentional. If you can make Damascus steel and your competition cannot, why would you publish your method?

  • Howard

    There are still some problems with the idea that the “Baghdad battery” was really a battery, and its use for electroplating is only speculative. We still don’t really know what its purpose was.

  • mahoffmansts

    Then there is the profound thought articulated by many of the historical philosophers and theologians, compared to which most modern people, though well-educated, cannot hold a candle.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    That might have something to do with, but you can also ask why wouldn’t they want to leave the process down to their subsequent generations? And you can also ask, how can you remember each step of a complicated process without documentation? But let’s face it. The printing press didn’t come out until the middle of the fifteeth century. It’s no surprise that technology started to really snowball from there.

  • Howard

    How could they remember the process? (1) They worked hard on their memories. (2) The steps were probably ritualized. (Japanese sword-making certainly was.) (3) The long process of apprenticeship would have made the steps almost habitual.

    As for future generations, they did pass the knowledge on to their own apprentices. If those apprentices were killed, though, by war or the Black Death or whatnot, the knowledge could be lost. That’s probably what happened to Damascus steel.

  • Thomas More, O.P.

    It’s The Doctor. Duh. =D

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Good points. But those things are only good when there are no discontinuities. Lack of documentation ultimately makes knowledge disappear.

  • Phoenix_Lion

    I have often said we are more dumber now than ever. Though technology appears good but it is really a tool for Satan. We have become more dependent on it, than God’s great creation which is our brain.

  • Howard

    “But those things are only good when there are no discontinuities.” No, they are good for the products they make. Just because we don’t know how to build a pyramid the same way the ancient Egyptians did doesn’t mean their knowledge did no good; it gave us the pyramids. Likewise, we don’t know exactly how to make Damascus steel, but we still have some swords of Damascus steel, and in fact we can study those to see what makes them special and how we might replicate those features.

    “Lack of documentation ultimately makes knowledge disappear.” That’s just plain wrong. SECRECY ultimately makes knowledge disappear. Consider for a moment the process of making cloth. It’s a pretty complex problem to go from hair on the back of a sheep to wool cloth, let alone from flax to linen, but people were weaving cloth for thousands of years before writing was invented, let alone used for mundane purposes like describing how cloth is made. Living oral traditions can pass down knowledge much better than you think.

  • tony

    As a scientist and a catholic my belief is that there is a strong link between scientific knowledge, which has evolved over the millenia, religion and civilization. While there have been occasions when we have gone backwards, like now, by and large there has been a progression in all three as time has elapsed.

    As time has progressed so too has our knowledge of God, His Universe, and how to utilize this knowledge to our benefit.

  • BM

    Case in point: “More dumber.”

  • ponerology

    Since knowledge is power, are these technologies and is this knowledge really lost? Why would any people in power not document the information and ensure, at all costs, that it would be preserved? To be sure, not for the masses, but not even for themselves?

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    “Just because we don’t know how to build a pyramid the same way the ancient Egyptians did doesn’t mean their knowledge did no good; it gave us the pyramids.”
    Isn’t disappearing knowledge what we’re discussing? Knowledge disappeared because it was not written down and preserved. LOL, I guess we’ll just have to disagree.

  • http://pislamonauseacentral.blogspot.se/ Morningstar

    Yes! It must be The Doctor! ;)

  • Kenny Rhodes

    And Humans have been physiologically modern for what, 150,000+ years? Considering the time it took to get from basic agriculture to the iPhone, there have been several chances to technologically peak. And there have been several major cataclysmic resets since then as well.

  • mewood

    Ask the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers in the City of London about the craft in the Tudor and Elizabethan periods. Watchmakers and jewellers worked with magnifying glasses or loupes and small tools of similar type.When they were first used , I’m not sure but in the 18th century watchmakers are pictured with them.