Googling “mysterious ancient discoveries” or “unexplained ancient inventions” leads to dozens of sites listing artifacts supposedly so baffling the only possible answer could be aliens, time travel, the paranormal, the Iluminati, or aliens. Wait – did we already mention aliens? Sorry: they’re a go-to explanation for anything apparently too sophisticated, weird, or “out-of-place” for “humans figured it out, okay?” to be a satisfying explanation.
It’s a disheartening discovery, because once you separate the hoaxes and nonsense from the finds of actual archeological interest, there are still cool mysteries to explore. The list below features mysterious ancient inventions, unexplained ancient discoveries, and some slightly more recent finds still baffling to scientists in the 21st century – but not because they’re a sign of alien tech. Give humanity a little more credit, y’know?
Deadly “Greek Fire” Was a Family SecretIt’s not like anyone is aching for napalm to make a comeback, but scientists and historians are nonetheless very curious about 7th-century “Greek Fire,” a deadly proto-napalm fired from ships that “would cling to flesh and was impossible to extinguish with water.” Sounds like a nightmare!
The Byzantine Empire wielded it with aplomb, but, like Coca-Cola Classic and Bush’s Baked Beans, the recipe for Greek Fire™ was a protected family secret. National Geographic pulled a Mythbusters and took a guess at the ingredients in 2002, using a “bronze pump” and a “mixture of light crude oil and pine resin.” The results? It destroyed a ship “in minutes.” Good guess!
The Recipe for Damascus Steel Remains a MysteryReturning from the Crusades, a lot of perplexed Europeans started talking about swords wielded by Islamic warriors “that could slice through a floating handkerchief, bend 90 degrees and flex back with no damage.” Fast-forward to the 21st century and the recipe for so-called “Damascus steel” is still a mystery. The blades were likely made of “crucible steel,” which is created by melting iron with plant matter, but no one knows the specific type of crucible steel used to yield such a blade. It might as well be a lightsaber.
The Voynich Manuscript May Ultimately Just Be IndecipherableIf you haven’t heard of the Voynich Manuscript, you’re in for a treat. Researchers say the absolutely bonkers, hand-written and hand-drawn manuscript, featuring text in an indecipherable language and hundreds of illustrations including “a myriad of drawings of miniature female nudes, most with swelled abdomens, immersed or wading in fluids and oddly interacting with interconnecting tubes and capsules,” was created by someone sometime during the 15th century in Central Europe. A Polish-American antiquarian bookseller named Wilfrid M. Voynich acquired it in 1912. Other than that, who knows? It’s a total mystery.
If it’s supposed to mean anything or help people understand anything, it has failed miserably. That said, it is one of the few genuine mysteries out there. Do yourself a favor: jump down the Voynich rabbit hole. Just don’t blame Ranker if you lose your mind a little.
The Antikythera Mechanism Is a Mysterious Astrological CalendarUnlike the Roman dodecahedra, scientists have a pretty good idea what the so-called Antikythera Mechanism is all about. Discovered at the bottom of the sea in 1901, the intricate device was likely constructed around the end of the second century BC. It “calculated and displayed celestial information, particularly cycles such as the phases of the moon and a luni-solar calendar,” according to research compiled in Nature.
But we still don’t know who built it, who used it, and what they used it for, exactly. It’s also still unclear why it is “technically more complex than any known device for at least a millennium afterwards,” to quote the Nature abstract, which prompted a zillion “ancient aliens” and “TIME TRAVEL IS REAL!!” blog posts after it was published in 2006.
But history, as Brian Dunning of Skeptoid notes, tells us similar gear-based technology was around two and a half millennia prior, and Occam’s Razor tells us any “siblings” of the Antikythera Mechanism, like most commonplace bronze objects of the period, were likely “recycled” into other objects. It’s still mysterious, just for less sexy reasons than some might think.
Zhang Heng’s Seismoscope Detected Earthquakes (Somehow)The first earthquake-detecting tool in history was this ornate, golden, dragon-festooned, toad-surrounded vessel from around 132 AD. The picture is of a replica, but you get the idea, right? No? Okay, here’s the idea: when the earth quakes, one of the dragons, each representing principal directions of the compass, would spit out a ball into a toad’s mouth, indicating the direction of the quake. The instrument was said to have “detected a four-hundred-mile distant earthquake which was not felt at the location of the seismoscope.” Either that, or someone bumped up against it, because to this day, no one actually knows what was really inside the thing. (More dragons, maybe?) Some say it could have been a simple pendulum-based system, but the exact “science” remains a mystery.
It’s Unclear How Vikings Made Their Ulfberht SwordsSpeaking of insane swords – the Vikings may have used techniques or materials borrowed from the creators of Damascus steel to make their legendary “Ulfberht” swords. When archeologists discovered the Viking blades, they were shocked because “the technology needed to produce such pure metal would not be invented for another 800 years.” But in 2014, a 9th-century Viking grave was discovered in Scandanavia with an Islamic inscription meaning “for/to Allah,” linking the two worlds and making the shared knowledge plausible – but that’s just a guess. The true origin of the blades is still unknown.
Scientists Disagree About Why the Iron Pillar of Delhi Won’t RustThe more-than-1600-year-old “Iron Pillar of Delhi” has scientists divided about its weird resistance to rust. There are two schools of thought: Team Environment says the mild climate of Delhi, India, is ultimately to thank. Right place, right time, essentially. Team Materials says it’s all about the “presence of phosphorus, and absence of sulfur [and] manganese in the iron,” plus the “large mass of the pillar.” One thing both camps agree on? It’s a total mystery how the rust-resistant iron lumps were “forge-welded to produce the massive six-ton structure.” Regardless, it’s a impressive piece of engineering.
The Phaistos Disk Could Be a Prayer or an Ancient TypewriterThis giant sugar cookie is a head-scratcher, for sure, but there are some interesting theories out there. Discovered in 1908 in Crete, this 6-inch diameter clay disk dates back to around 1700 BC and features 241 “words” created out of 45 individual symbols, arranged in a spiral. It could be a sort of ancient “sheet music” to a hymn or prayer dedicated to matriarchal deity, or maybe it’s an ancient proto-typewriter? Who knows? It sure looks delicious, though.
Roman Dodecahedra Might Just Be CandlesticksIf you think these little bronze guys would make excellent paperweights or tchotchkes – well, so did the ancient Romans, maybe? We honestly have no idea. They could have been useless objects meant for decoration, a conversation piece for the 2nd-to-4th-century Roman equivalent of coffee tables.
George Hart of Stony Brook University notes dozens of these twelve-sided, 4-to-11 cm. spheroids have been found throughout Europe, yet the Romans made no mention of them. Guesses include candle stands, flower stands, surveying instruments, finger ring-size gauges, and even D&D-style dice. Maybe the ancient Romans were pen-and-paper stylus-and-papyrus RPG enthusiasts?
It’s Unclear What the Giant Balls of Costa Rica Were Used ForScientists have a pretty good idea how these giant, ancient stone balls found in Costa Rica were formed. From around ca. 200 BC to AD 800, natives used “fracture, pecking, and grinding” techniques to reduce granodiorite, a large igneous stone, into these pleasing spheres. What’s mysterious is why they did it. Ultimately, it may never be understood, since vandals have moved almost all of them from their original locations, making it impossible to test theories about their use as calendars or navigational tools. Some gullible vandals even blew the balls up, hoping to find gold in them thar balls. (They didn’t.)