The Lycurgus Cup

It is a 4th century Roman glass cage cup made of dichroic glass, which holds a special property. The cup lights up in red when lit from behind and green when lit from the front.

This property was for a long time a subject of scrutiny to scientist since the cup was found in the 1950s. It wasn’t until 1990 did scientists discover the chalice’s mystery. The Romans had ground down silver and gold to the scale of 50 nanometers -less than one-thousandth the size of a grain of table salt- and embedded it into the glass. The precise mixture and distribution of the precious metals suggest the Romans knew what they were doing.

Scientist across many different fields are studying the Lycurgus cup in the frontier of nanotechnology.

Greek Fire

Caption: the text reads: “the fleet of the Romans setting ablaze the fleet of the enemies”. Credit: Wikipedia

It was the most terrifying weapon in ancient times, one that burns with intense heat, spreading in all directions on land and water.

The are many variations of Greek Fire, as this weapon of terror had been emulated by, the Romans, Greek and Crusaders.  But the truly legendary and unquenchable one was made by the Byzantine Empire. In the year 673, it was used to devastating effect by Byzantine emperor Constantine IV’s forces against an attacking Arab fleet, it was launched in pots or spat from tubes. It’s deadliness in combat, especially at sea, is said to be the prime reason for the long survival of the Byzantine Empire. The art of making true Greek Fire was a secret so closely guarded that its exact composition remains inscrutable to this day.

“… the tail of fire that trailed behind it was as big as a great spear; and it made such a noise as it came, that it sounded like the thunder of heaven. It looked like a dragon flying through the air. Such a bright light did it cast, that one could see all over the camp as though it were day, by reason of the great mass of fire, and the brilliance of the light that it shed.” -The Memoirs of the Lord of Joinville.

A version of the Greek Fire was even used in the TV series “Game of Thrones” in decisive effect in the Battle of the Blackwater.

The Archimedes Heat Ray (Death Ray)

Another weapon that incorporated masterful use of the fire element was the Heat Ray by Archimedes, a genius Greek mathematician and inventor.

The heat ray functions by reflecting the sun rays onto approaching ships, causing them to burst into flames. It is speculated that Archimedes had used copper or bronze shields as mirrors to reflect the sunlight.

As enemies ships approached the sea bed, soldiers armed with mirrors would stand in spread out formation and focus the sun’s reflection onto one spot of a ship at a time, reducing it in one massive burst.

The mirrors may have consisted of polished metal and had peep-holes drilled in the middle for use in aiming. Credit: Wikimedia

The have been many experiments to test the credibility of the heat ray with the materials Archimedes would have had at his own disposal., and the results has been varied. In 1973, a Greek scientist named Ioannis focused 70 mirrors coated with copper coating on a fake plywood Roman warship from 160 feet. The boat burned up within seconds.

In 2005, an experiment by MIT students used 127 small mirrors tiles at 100 feet to burn a wooden target after 10 minutes.

Myth Busters repeated this experiment and found Archimedes heat ray, was unlikely to have performed so effectively in ancient times as it was reported to be.

But then, more recently, the authors of Green Power Science demonstrated that the heat ray was very possible. Using 27 ordinary flat mirrors, they were able to set fire to a model wooden ship.

How they were able to defend the city from invaders. Credit: Wikimedia

Damascus steel

It is a style of craftsmanship that first emerged around 300 B.C in India. It wasn’t until the 11th century when the Crusaders reached the Middle East did the remarkable attributes of Damascus steel become widely known.

Damascus is a legendary material used by warriors of the past. Damascus swords and knives can be easily recognized by exceptional hardness and a watery characteristic or “damask” pattern on their blades caused by the varying carbon levels of the original material. A bar is welded up from various kinds of steel, it is then doubled over, welded, redoubled, re-welded until the all the various layers of steel become intertwined, this makes the blade incredibly strong and shatter-proof. The quality of the blade can be judged by its watering.

The original composites of Damascus steel remains unknown today, as there are no existing record. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution has man been able to make a metal as strong as Damascus.

Iron Pillar of Delhi

It was forged 1,600 years ago (300s) and was moved to Delhi about 1,000 years ago before the mosque that surrounds it was built. It is a mystery how the mosque has turned to ruins yet the iron made pillar, which should have fallen to dust long ago, still remains in strong standing.  

How did it survive the tropical heat and violent monsoon season? Credit: Wikimedia

It is 24 feet tall, weighs more than 6 tons and is made of 98% wrought iron. And according to a popular translation of the Brahmi script, the pillar was made for a king and to honour the most important Hindu god -Vishnu.

This metallurgical wonder defies all explanation due to its huge size and the casting job that would have taken to make it. It is more difficult to even fathom how this mass of iron was lifted and manipulated during manufacture.

How ancient India was able to make this pillar remains a mystery to this day.

View more:

Sign up to receive our latest news!

By submitting this form, I agree to the terms.