8 Things That Are More Ancient Than They Appear

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This story originally appeared in print in the December 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

By Gabe Luzier


Robots seem futuristic, but they’re really old news. The Greek mathematician Archytas of Tarentum invented the first air-powered bot sometime around 400 to 350 BCE. His design? A pigeon. The wooden robo-bird helped Archytas conduct the world’s first research on the mechanics of flight. When suspended from wire, it flew about 650 feet before literally running out of steam!


Dental hygiene was not high on most ancient people’s priority list, but the Egyptians bucked the trend by developing early toothpastes, toothbrushes, and even breath mints. In 2003, scholars leafing through papyrus documents at the Austrian National Library in Vienna found a 1,500-year-old recipe for iris flower toothpaste. The paste was likely paired with early toothbrushes (made from frayed twigs) called miswaks. These were invented by Babylonians 5,500 years ago and later popularized by the prophet Muhammad.


Evidence the ancient Greeks used cheese graters is in Aristophanes’s 411 BCE play Lysistrata. The titular heroine convinces a group of women they can end the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex from their warrior husbands, reciting an oath: “I will not raise my legs toward the ceiling. I will not crouch like a lioness-on-a-cheese-grater.” The theory is that the handles of Greek cheese graters resembled crouching animals.


In 1900, sponge divers off the coast of Greece’s Antikythera Island found an ancient shipwreck—and with it, a 2,000-year-old computer. The analog contained 37 complex bronze cogs and gears capable of predicting solar and lunar eclipses and even the date of the next Olympic games. (New research suggests the device is even older than scientists originally thought.) The world wouldn’t see a similar device for about 1,300 years!


Ancient Persians may have lived in the desert, but that didn’t stop them from devising a way to store ice. Starting around 400 BCE, Persians gathered ice from frozen rivers each winter and stored it in yakhchals, underground ice pits that resemble conical beehives. The curved walls channeled water to accelerate freezing, while the tops allowed cold air to enter the pits.


Dr. Henri Breault, a pediatrician, saved thousands of children’s lives when he introduced the “Palm N’ Turn” cap in the 1960s, but he didn’t really invent the crafty lid. In 1984, archaeologists digging in Guatemala unearthed a 2,500-year-old pot that twisted open much like a modern child-proof cap. What were the Mayans desperately protecting from kids’ grabby hands? Chocolate.

7. Mechanical Clocks

Ancient Egyptians divided the day into 24 parts, but the length of each hour actually varied and wasn’t fixed until mechanical clocks broke onto the scene in 1094. Su Sung, an astronomer, statesman, and horologist, spent six years developing the first one—an elaborate 30-foot-high tower powered by water and liquid mercury called the “Cosmic Engine.” A water wheel ensured that it kept time precisely.


Centuries before Banksy, ancient people in Pompeii tagged walls with the same kinds of messages we see today. The overshare: “Atimetus got me pregnant.” The potty-mouthed brag: “Secundus defecated here.” And the classic burn: “Epaphra is not good at ball games.” The first instance of graffiti occurred in the city of Ephesus, now part of Turkey, advertising a brothel. But it wasn’t all so seedy. The Persian poet Yazid al-Himyari wrote most of his verse on walls.