Most of us have heard of The Seven Wonders of the World. The reason they're "Wonders" is just that: these structures are truly amazing. The Hanging Gardens, for instance, were built around 600 B.C. According to the historian Diodorus, they were built on terraces, one overhanging the next, to reportedly please the wife of Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon. They included water pipes and supposedly something like Archimedes' Screw was used in hep building them (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanging_Gardens_of_Babylon). Or take the Lighthouse at Alexandria, built between 285 - 247 B.C. Historians from Greece to Arabia have written about the immense structure, and all agree it was around 400 feet high, but its exact purpose and usage is still uncertain. In fact, as with the Pyramids, no one even knows just how the ancient Egyptians built it (http://www.greece.org/alexandria/pharos/).
If you read through old tales, you'll find a surprising bit of information regarding how much technology the ancients actually used. For instance, in "Three Kingdoms of Ancient China", a book dating back to about 300A.D., we hear of battles with catapults. In "Library of History" by Diodorus, dating to around 300 B.C., he likewise speaks of these siege engines (Cuomo, Serafina: "BEYOND THE IVORY TOWER: The Sinews of War: Ancient Catapults", Science 6 February 2004 303: 771-772 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1091066] (in Essays on Science and Society)
However, that just scratches the surface. Archaeological finds tell us even more about ancient technology. In ancient Mesopotamia, for instance, the people apparently had the technology to do fine ceramics from basalt (Stone, E. C., D. H. Lindsley, V. Pigott, G. Harbottle, M. T. Ford: "From Shifting Silt to Solid Stone: The Manufacture of Synthetic Basalt in Ancient Mesopotamia", Science 26 June 1998: Vol. 280. no. 5372, pp. 2091 - 2093 DOI: 10.1126/science.280.5372.2091).
So, from old stories to archaeology, there's now a surprising find: the ancients weren't so "primitive" in their technological usage as was once thought. However, in the same token, they were also clever enough that some things may remain a mystery for a long time, perhaps forever.
If you want to know more about the ancients and their technology, here's a few suggestions:
- D'Epiro, Peter, and Mary Desmond Pinkowish, "What Are the Seven Wonders of the World? and 100 Other Great Cultural Lists". Anchor. December 1, 1998.
- site of Archaeological Institute of America: http://www.archaeological.org/
- "Archaeology Today" (on-line), a good publication: http://www.archaeology.org/
- Derry, Thomas Kingston and Williams, Trevor I., (1993) A Short History of Technology: From the Earliest Times to A.D. 1900. New York: Dover Publications.