Ancient technology

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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 in historic times before the Middle Ages, which began after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476,[1][2] the death of Justinian I in the 6th century,[3] the coming of Islam in the 7th century,[4] or the rise of Charlemagne in the 8th century.[5] For technologies developed in medieval societies, see Medieval technology and Inventions in medieval Islam.

Ancient technology

A significant number of inventions were developed in the Islamic world; a geopolitical region that has at 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


Mesopotamian people (Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians and Babylonians) invented many technologies including metalworking,[citation needed] copper-working,[citation needed] glassmaking,[citation needed] lamp making,[citation needed] textile weaving,[citation needed] and flood control.[citation needed]

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.

According to the assyriologist Stephanie Dalley, the earliest 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 BCE. This attribution, however, is refuted by the historian of ancient water-lifting devices Olseon in the same paper, who still credits, as well as most other scholars, Archimedes with the invention.[6][7]

Perhaps the most important advance made by the Mesopotamians was the invention of writing by the Sumerians. With the invention of writing came the first recorded laws called the Code of Hammurabi as well as the first major piece of literature called the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Although archaeologists don't know for sure who invented the wheel, the oldest wheel discovered was found in Mesopotamia. It is likely the Sumer first used the wheel in making pottery in 3500BC and used it for their chariots in around 3200 BC.

The Mesopotamians used a sexagesimal number system with the base 60 (like we use base 10). They divided time up by 60s including a 60-second minute and a 60-minute hour, which we still use today. They also divided up the circle into 360 degrees. They had a wide knowledge of mathematics including addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, quadratic and cubic equations, and fractions. This was important in keeping track of records as well as in some of their large building projects. The Mesopotamians had formulas for figuring out the circumference and area for different geometric shapes like rectangles, circles, and triangles. Some evidence suggests that they even knew the Pythagorean Theorem long before Pythagoras wrote it down. They may have even discovered the number for pi in figuring the circumference of a circle.

Babylonian astronomy was able to follow the movements of the stars, planets, and the Moon. Application of advanced math predicted the movements of several planets. By studying the phases of the Moon, the Mesopotamians created the first calendar. It had 12 lunar months and was the predecessor for both the Jewish and Greek calendars.

Babylonian medicine used logic and recorded medical history to be able to diagnose and treat illnesses with various creams and pills. Mesopotamians had two kinds of medical practices, magical and physical. Unlike today they would use both on the same patient. They didn’t see it as one as good and one as bad.[8]

The Mesopotamians made many technological discoveries. They were the first to use the potter's wheel to make better pottery, they used irrigation to get water to their crops, they used bronze metal (and later iron metal) to make strong tools and weapons, and used looms to weave cloth from wool.

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


Left half of the Turin papyrus map, courtesy J. Harrell

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 were 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. Early construction techniques utilized by the Ancient Egyptians made use of bricks composed mainly of clay, sand, silt, and other minerals. These constructs would have been vital in flood control and irrigation, especially along the Nile delta.[9]

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


Technology in Africa has a history stretching to the beginning of the human species, stretching back to the first evidence of tool use by hominid ancestors in the areas of Africa where humans are believed to have evolved. Africa saw the advent of some of the earliest ironworking technology in the Aïr Mountains region of what is today Niger and the erection of some of the world's oldest monuments, pyramids and towers in Egypt, Nubia, and North Africa. In Nubia and ancient Kush, glazed quartzite and building in brick was developed to a greater extent than in Egypt. Parts of the East African Swahili Coast saw the creation of the world's oldest carbon steel creation with high-temperature blast furnaces created by the Haya people of Tanzania.

Indian subcontinent

The history of science and technology in India dates back to the earliest civilizations of the world. The Indus Valley civilization yields evidence of hydrography, metrology, and sewage collection and disposal being practiced by its inhabitants.

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.

Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan.

The ancient system of medicine in India, Ayurveda was a significant milestone in Indian history. It mainly uses herbs as medicines. Its origins can be traced back to origin of Atharvaveda. The Sushruta Samhita (400 BC) by Sushruta has details about performing cataract surgery, plastic surgery, etc.

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.


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.[citation needed] Traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture and herbal medicine were also practiced. The Four Great Inventions of 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.

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, the double-action piston pump, cast iron, the iron plough, the multi-tube seed drill, the suspension bridge, natural gas as fuel, the magnetic compass, the raised-relief map, the propeller, the crossbow, the south-pointing chariot, and gunpowder. Other Chinese discoveries and inventions from the Medieval period, according to Joseph Needham's research, include: block printing and movable type, phosphorescent paint, 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.


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.[10]

In the 7th century AD, Persians in Afghanistan developed the first practical windmills. For later medieval technologies developed in Islamic Persia, see Inventions in medieval Islam.

Greek and Hellenistic

Hero's wind-powered organ (reconstruction)

Ancient Greek technology developed at an unprecedented speed during the 5th century BC, continuing up to and including the Roman period, and beyond. Some inventions that are credited to the ancient Greeks are the following: the gear, screw, bronze casting techniques, water clock, water organ(hydraulis), torsion siege engine, 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.

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, the piston pump, and primitive analog computers like the Antikythera mechanism. 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 was used extensively 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.


Pont du Gard in France, a Roman aqueduct
Drainage wheel from Rio Tinto mines

Roman technology supported Roman civilization and made the expansion of Roman commerce and Roman military possible over nearly a thousand years. The Roman Empire had an advanced set of technology for their time. Some of the Roman technology in Europe may have been lost during the turbulent eras of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Roman technological feats in many different areas like: civil engineering, construction materials, transport technology, and some inventions such as the mechanical reaper went unmatched until the 19th century. Romans developed an intensive and sophisticated agriculture, expanded upon existing iron working technology, created laws providing for individual ownership, advanced stonemasonry 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 build monumental arches, amphitheatres, aqueducts, public baths, true arch bridges, harbours, 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 society had also carried over the design of a door lock with tumblers and springs from Greece. Like many other aspects of innovation and culture that were carried on from Greece to Rome, the lines between where each one originated from have become skewed over time. These mechanisms were highly sophisticated and intricate for the era.[11]

Roman civilization was highly urbanized by pre-modern standards. Many cities of the Roman Empire 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 and suspected on the Janiculum in Rome. Some Roman baths have lasted to this day. The Romans developed many technologies which were apparently 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 cement, boat mills, arch dams and possibly tide mills.

Mesoamerica & Andean Region

Lacking suitable beasts of burden and inhabiting domains often too mountainous or boggy for wheeled transport, the ancient civilizations of the Americas did not develop wheeled transport or the mechanics associated with animal power. Nevertheless, they produced advanced engineering including above ground and underground acqeducts, quake-proof masonry, artificial lakes, dykes, 'fountains,' pressurized water,[12] road ways and complex terracing. Equally, gold-working commenced early in Peru (2000 BCE),[13] and eventually copper, tin, lead and bronze were used.[citation needed] Although metallurgy did not spread to Mesoamerica until the Middle Ages, it was employed here and in the Andes for sophisticated alloys and gilding. The Native Americans developed a complex understanding of the chemical properties or utility of natural substances, with the result that a majority of the world's early medicinal drugs and edible crops, many important adhesives, paints, fibres, plasters, and other useful items were the products of these civilizations.[citation needed] Perhaps the best-known Mesoamerican invention was rubber, which was used to create rubber bands, rubber bindings, balls, syringes, 'raincoats,' boots, and waterproof insulation on containers and flasks.

See also


  1. 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; [...])
  2. 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.)
  3. Robinson, C. A. (1951). Ancient history from prehistoric times to the death of Justinian. New York: Macmillan.
  4. 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.
  5. Myers, P. V. N. (1916). Ancient history. New York [etc.]: Ginn and company.
  6. 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).
  7. Oleson, John Peter (2000). "Water-Lifting". In Wikander, Örjan (ed.). Handbook of Ancient Water Technology. Technology and Change in History. 2. Leiden: Brill. pp. 217–302 (242–251). ISBN 90-04-11123-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Robert Alan Chadwick, First Civilization: Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt (2) (London: Equinox Publishing Ltd, 2005), 119.
  9. Jerzy Trzciñski , Malgorzata Zaremba , Sawomir Rzepka , Fabian Welc , and Tomasz Szczepañski. “Preliminary Report on Engineering Properties and Environmental Resistance of Ancient Mud Bricks from Tell El-retaba Archaeological Site in the Nile Delta,” Studia Quarternaria 33, no. 1 (2016): 55.
  10. Ward English, Paul (June 21, 1968). "The Origin and Spread of Qanats in the Old World". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. JSTOR. 112 (3): 170–181. JSTOR 986162.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Naif A. Haddad, "Critical Review, Assessment and Investigation of Ancient Technology Evolution of Door Locking Mechanisms in S.E. Mediterranean," Mediterranean Archaeology & Archaeometry 16, no. 1: 43-74.
  12. A’ndrea Messer (February 8, 2011). "Maya plumbing, first pressurized water feature found in New World". Penn State News. Retrieved August 25, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. K. Kris Hirst. "A Walking Tour of Machu Picchu, Peru". Archived from the original on December 11, 2013. Retrieved August 25, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

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.