Ancient technology

Ancient technology

: "See Ancient technology in Stargate for the technology of the aliens known as the Ancients in the fictional Stargate universe".

During the growth of the ancient civilizations, ancient technology was the result from advances in engineering in ancient times. These advances in the history of technology stimulated societies to adopt new ways of living and governance.

This article includes the advances in technology and the development of several engineering arts before the Middle Ages, which began after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476, [Clare, I. S. (1906). Library of universal history: containing a record of the human race from the earliest historical period to the present time; embracing a general survey of the progress of mankind in national and social life, civil government, religion, literature, science and art. New York: Union Book. Page 1519 (cf., Ancient history, as we have already seen, ended with the fall of the Western Roman Empire; [...] )] [United Center for Research and Training in History. (1973). Bulgarian historical review. Sofia: Pub. House of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences] . Page 43. (cf. ... in the history of Western Europe, which marks both the end of ancient history and the beginning of the Middle Ages, is the fall of the Western Empire.)] the death of Justinian I in the 6th century, [Robinson, C. A. (1951). Ancient history from prehistoric times to the death of Justinian. New York: Macmillan.] the coming of Islam in the 7th century, [Breasted, J. H. (1916). [ Ancient times, a history of the early world: an introduction to the study of ancient history and the career of early man] . Boston: Ginn and Company. ] or the rise of Charlemagne in the 8th century. [Myers, P. V. N. (1916). [ Ancient history] . New York [etc.] : Ginn and company.] For technologies developed in medieval societies, see Medieval technology and Inventions in medieval Islam.


The characteristics of Ancient Egyptian technology are indicated by a set of artifacts and customs that lasted for thousands of years. The Egyptians invented and used many basic machines, such as the ramp and the lever, to aid construction processes. The Egyptians also played an important role in developing Mediterranean maritime technology including ships and lighthouses.

The history of science and technology in India dates back to pre-modern times. The Indus Valley civilization yields evidence of hydrography, metrology and sewage collection and disposal being practiced by its inhabitants. Among the fields of science pursued in India were Ayurveda, astronomy and mathematics.

The history of science and technology in China show significant advances in science, technology, mathematics, and astronomy. The first recorded observations of comets, solar eclipses, and supernovae were made in China. Traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture and herbal medicine were also practiced. The four Great Inventions of ancient China: the compass, gunpowder, papermaking, and printing, were among the most important technological advances, only known in Europe by the end of the Middle Ages.

Ancient Greek technology developed at an unprecedented speed during the 5th century BC, continuing up to and including the Roman period, and beyond. Inventions that are credited to the ancient Greeks such as the gear, screw, bronze casting techniques, water clock, water organ, torsion catapult and the use of steam to operate some experimental machines and toys. Many of these inventions occurred late in the Greek period, often inspired by the need to improve weapons and tactics in war. Roman technology is the engineering practice which supported Roman civilization and made the expansion of Roman commerce and Roman military possible over nearly a thousand years. The Roman Empire had the most advanced set of technology of their time, some of which may have been lost during the turbulent eras of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Roman technological feats of many different areas, like civil engineering, construction materials, transport technology, and some inventions such as the mechanical reaper went unmatched until the 19th century.

A significant number of inventions were developed in the Islamic world, a geopolitical region that has at various times extended from al-Andalus and Africa in the west to the Indian subcontinent and Malay Archipelago in the east. Many of these inventions had direct implications for Fiqh related issues.

Ancient civilizations

It was the growth of the ancient civilizations which produced the greatest advances in technology and engineering, advances which stimulated other societies to adopt new ways of living and governance.


Mesopotamian peoples (Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians and Babylonians) invented many technologies, most notably the wheel, which some consider the most important mechanical invention in history. [Ahmad Y Hassan. [ The Crank-Connecting Rod System in a Continuously Rotating Machine] .] Other Mesopotamian inventions include metalworking, copper-working, glassmaking, lamp making, textile weaving, flood control, water storage, as well as irrigation.

They were also one of the first Bronze age people in the world. Early on they used copper, bronze and gold, and later they used iron. Palaces were decorated with hundreds of kilograms of these very expensive metals. Also, copper, bronze, and iron were used for armor as well as for different weapons such as swords, daggers, spears, and maces.

The earliest type of pump was the Archimedes screw, first used by Sennacherib, King of Assyria, for the water systems at the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and Nineveh in the 7th century BC, and later described in more detail by Archimedes in the 3rd century BC. [Stephanie Dalley and John Peter Oleson (January 2003). "Sennacherib, Archimedes, and the Water Screw: The Context of Invention in the Ancient World", "Technology and Culture" 44 (1).] Later during the Parthian or Sassanid periods, the Baghdad Battery, which may have been the first batteries, were created in Mesopotamia.

For later medieval technologies developed in the Mesopotamian region, now known as Iraq, see Inventions in medieval Islam.


The Egyptians invented and used many simple machines, such as the ramp to aid construction processes. They were among the first to extract gold by large-scale mining using fire-setting, and the first recognisable map, the Turin papyrus shows the plan of one such mine in Nubia.

Egyptian paper, made from papyrus, and pottery was mass produced and exported throughout the Mediterranean basin. The wheel, however, did not arrive until foreign invaders introduced the chariot. They developed Mediterranean maritime technology including ships and lighthouses.

For later technologies in Ptolemaic Egypt, Roman Egypt, and Arab Egypt, see Ancient Greek technology, Roman technology and Inventions in medieval Islam respectively.


The Indus Valley Civilization, situated in a resource-rich area, is notable for its early application of city planning and sanitation technologies. Cites in the Indus Valley offer some of the first examples of closed gutters, public baths, and communal granaries. The Takshashila University was an important seat of learning in the ancient world. It was the center of education for scholars from all over Asia. Many Greek, Persian and Chinese students studied here under great scholars including Kautilya, Panini, Jivaka, and Vishnu Sharma.
Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan.]

Ancient India was also at the forefront of seafaring technology - a panel found at Mohenjodaro, depicts a sailing craft. Ship construction is vividly described in the Yukti Kalpa Taru, an ancient Indian text on Shipbuilding. The Yukti Kalpa Taru, compiled by Bhoja Narapati is concerned with shipbuilding. (The Yukti Kalpa Taru had been translated and published by Prof. Aufrecht in his 'Catalogue of Sanskrit Manuscripts').

Indian construction and architecture, called 'Vaastu Shastra', suggests a thorough understanding or materials engineering, hydrology, and sanitation. Ancient Indian culture was also pioneering in its use of vegetable dyes, cultivating plants including indigo and cinnabar. Many of the dyes were used in art and sculpture. The use of perfumes demonstrates some knowledge of chemistry, particularly distillation and purification processes.


According to the Scottish researcher Joseph Needham, the Chinese made many first-known discoveries and developments. Major technological contributions from China include early seismological detectors, matches, paper, sliding calipers, the double-action piston pump, cast iron, the iron plough, the multi-tube seed drill, the wheelbarrow, the suspension bridge, the parachute, natural gas as fuel, the magnetic compass, the raised-relief map, the propeller, the crossbow, the South Pointing Chariot, and gun powder. Other Chinese discoveries and inventions from the Medieval period, according to Joseph Needham's research, include: the paddle wheel boat, block printing and movable type, phosphorescent paint, chain drive, the escapement mechanism, and the spinning wheel.

The solid-fuel rocket was invented in China about 1150 AD, nearly 200 years after the invention of black powder (which acted as the rocket's fuel). At the same time that the age of exploration was occurring in the West, the Chinese emperors of the Ming Dynasty also sent ships, some reaching Africa. But the enterprises were not further funded, halting further exploration and development. When Ferdinand Magellan's ships reached Brunei in 1521, they found a wealthy city that had been fortified by Chinese engineers, and protected by a breakwater. Antonio Pigafetta noted that much of the technology of Brunei was equal to Western technology of the time. Also, there were more cannons in Brunei than on Magellan's ships, and the Chinese merchants to the Brunei court had sold them spectacles and porcelain, which were rarities in Europe. Chinese scientific understanding, however, was less developed than that in the West.


The Qanat, a water management system used for irrigation, originated in Iran before the Achaemenid period of Persia. The oldest and largest known qanat is in the Iranian city of Gonabad which, after 2,700 years, still provides drinking and agricultural water to nearly 40,000 people. [ cite journal | last = Ward English | first = Paul | title = The Origin and Spread of Qanats in the Old World | journal = Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society | volume = Vol 112, No. 3 | pages = pp 170–181 | publisher = JSTOR
date = June 21, 1968 | url =

Persian philosophers and inventors may have created the first batteries, sometimes known as the Baghdad Battery, in the Parthian or Sassanid eras. Some have suggested that the batteries may have been used medicinally. Other scientists believe the batteries were used for electroplating—transferring a thin layer of metal to another metal surface—a technique still used today and the focus of a common classroom experiment. [ BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Riddle of 'Baghdad's batteries'] ]

In the 7th century AD, Persian engineers in Afghanistan developed an advanced wind power machine, the windmill. [ [ Intute: Science, Engineering and Technology ] ] [ [ New Page 1 ] ] For later medieval technologies developed in Islamic Persia, see Inventions in medieval Islam.

Greek and Hellenistic

Greek and Hellenistic engineers invented many technologies and improved upon pre-existing technologies, particularly during the Hellenistic period. Heron of Alexandria invented a basic steam engine and demonstrated knowledge of mechanic and pneumatic systems. Archimedes invented several machines. The Greeks were unique in pre-industrial times in their ability to combine scientific research with the development of new technologies. One example is the Archimedean screw; this technology was first conceptualized in mathematics, then built. Other technologies invented by Greek scientists include the ballistae, and primitive analog computers like the Antikythera mechanism and the piston pump. Greek architects were responsible for the first true domes, and were the first to explore the Golden ratio and its relationship with geometry and architecture.

Apart from Hero of Alexandria's steam aeolipile, Hellenistic technicians were the first to invent watermills and windwheels, making them global pioneers in three of the four known means of non-human propulsion prior to the Industrial Revolution (the fourth being sails). However, only water power became extensively used in antiquity.

Other Greek inventions include torsion catapults, pneumatic catapults, crossbows, cranes, rutways, organs, the keyboard mechanism, gears, differential gears, screws, refined parchment, showers, dry docks, diving bells, odometer and astrolabes. In architecture, Greek engineers constructed monumental lighthouses such as the Pharos and devised the first central heating systems. The Tunnel of Eupalinos is the earliest tunnel in history which has been excavated with a scientific approach from both ends.

Automata like vending machines, automatic doors and many other ingenious devices were first built by Hellenistic engineers as Ctesibius, Philo of Byzantium and Heron. Greek technological treatises were scrupuously studied and copied by later Byzantine, Arabic and Latin European scholars and provided much of the foundation for further technological advances in these civilizations.


Romans developed an intensive and sophisticated agriculture, expanded upon existing iron working technology, created laws providing for individual ownership, advanced stone masonry technology, advanced road-building (exceeded only in the 19th century), military engineering, civil engineering, spinning and weaving and several different machines like the Gallic reaper that helped to increase productivity in many sectors of the Roman economy. They also developed water power through building aqueducts on a grand scale, using water not just for drinking supplies but also for irrigation, powering water mills and in mining. They used drainage wheels extensively in deep underground mines, one device being the reverse overshot water-wheel. They were the first to apply hydraulic mining methods for prospecting for metal ores, and for extracting those ores from the ground when found using a method known as hushing.

Roman engineers were the first to build monumental arches, amphitheatres, aqueducts, public baths, true arch bridges, harbours, reservoirs and dams, vaults and domes on a very large scale across their Empire. Notable Roman inventions include the book (Codex), glass blowing and concrete. Because Rome was located on a volcanic peninsula, with sand which contained suitable crystalline grains, the concrete which the Romans formulated was especially durable. Some of their buildings have lasted 2000 years, to the present day.

Roman civilization was highly urbanized by pre-modern standards. Many cities of the Imperium had over 100,000 inhabitants with the capital Rome being the largest metropolis of antiquity. Features of Roman urban life included multistory apartment buildings called insulae, street paving, public flush toilets, glass windows and floor and wall heating. The Romans understood hydraulics and constructed fountains and waterworks, particularly aqueducts, which were the hallmark of their civilization. They exploited water power by building water mills, sometimes in series, such as the sequence found at Barbegal in southern France. Some Roman baths have lasted to this day. The Romans developed many technologies which were lost in the Middle Ages, and were only fully reinvented in the 19th and 20th centuries. They also left texts describing their achievements, especially Pliny the Elder, Frontinus and Vitruvius.

Other less known Roman innovations include boat mills, arch dams and possibly tide mills.


The engineering skills of the Inca were great, even by today's standards. An example is the use of pieces weighing in upwards of one ton in their stonework (e.g., Machu Picchu in Peru), placed together so that not even a blade can fit in-between the cracks. The villages used irrigation canals and drainage systems, making agriculture very efficient. While some claim that the Incas were the first inventors of hydroponics, their agricultural technology was still soil based, if advanced. This technology, including tiered farm plots, allowed significant yields from steeply sloped or otherwise unproductive land. They mined gold extensively, one of the objects of the Spanish conquistadors, and created a network of paths and roads connecting their many towns and villages. River gorges were crossed by roped suspension bridges, the rope made by braiding grasses.


Though the Maya civilization had no metallurgy or wheel technology, they developed complex writing and astrological systems, and created sculptural works in stone and flint. Like the Inca, the Maya also had command of fairly advanced agricultural and construction technology. Throughout this time period much of this construction, was made only by women, as men of the Maya civilization believed that females were responsible for the creation of new things.


The main contribution of the Aztec rule was a system of communications between the conquered cities. In Mesoamerica, without draft animals for transport (nor, as a result, wheeled vehicles), the roads were designed for travel on foot, just like the Inca and Mayan civilizations. They developed large cities, such as Tenochtitlan, which eventually became Mexico City.

ee also

* History of technology
** Medieval technology
** Inventions in medieval Islam
* History of science
* History of mathematics
* History of philosophy


Further reading

* Humphrey, J. W. (2006). Ancient technology. Greenwood guides to historic events of the ancient world. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.
* Rojcewicz, R. (2006). The gods and technology: a reading of Heidegger. SUNY series in theology and continental thought. Albany: State University of New York Press.
* Krebs, R. E., & Krebs, C. A. (2004). Groundbreaking scientific experiments, inventions, and discoveries of the ancient world. Groundbreaking scientific experiments, inventions, and discoveries through the ages. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.
* Childress, D. H. (2000). Technology of the gods: the incredible sciences of the ancients. Kempton, Ill: Adventures Unlimited Press.
* Landels, J. G. (2000). Engineering in the ancient world. Berkeley: University of California Press.
* James, P., & Thorpe, N. (1995). Ancient inventions. New York: Ballantine Books.
* Hodges, H. (1992). Technology in the ancient world. New York: Barnes & Noble.
* National Geographic Society (U.S.). (1986). Builders of the ancient world: marvels of engineering. Washington, D.C.: The Society.
* American Ceramic Society, Kingery, W. D., & Lense, E. (1985). Ancient technology to modern science. Ceramics and civilization, v. 1. Columbus, Ohio: American Ceramic Society.
* Brown, M. (1966). On the theory and measurement of technological change. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P.
* Forbes, R. J. (1964). Studies in ancient technology. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

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