Enjoying our iPhones, Blackberries, and high-definition flat screen televisions, we generally think we live in a technologically advanced world. But we still use technologies that people used thousands of years ago.
Meet Lindsay. She’s a modern, stylish woman. Lindsay has a date tonight, so she soaks in a soapy bath with scented candles, applies her Chanel makeup, dons this year’s most stylish Versace skirt, and accessorizes with her finest gold jewelry. Lindsay feels modern, but she doesn’t realize that women have been using each of these technologies for over two thousand years.
Using the first ancient invention, Lindsay bathes with luxurious soaps from Bath & Body Works. According to ancient Roman legend, soap invented itself spontaneously at Mt. Sapo. During ancient animal sacrifices, goat fat dripped through fires and bonded to lye from the ashes, which flowed down the mountain and collected on clay. Women used this clay to scrub laundry, inadvertently aided by soap. Who knew sacrifice could be so clean? Soap gets its name from the Mt. Sapo legend. The legend is interesting, but soap actually existed before the Romans. In 2,200 BC, ancient Babylonians wrote instructions to create soap on clay tablets. Babylonians may have used soap as early as 2,800 BC. Fortunately, no animals were harmed in the making of Lindsay’s bar of soap.
Lindsay adds ambiance and scent to her bath with candles, which were invented by the Egyptians in 3,000 BC. The Egyptians dipped pith, the spongy center of a plant stem, into melted animal fat. These ancient candles looked more like torches than today’s candles, but they served the same function. Later, the Romans rolled up papyrus that they repeatedly dipped in melted tallow or beeswax, creating the wicked candle. In the 1850’s, chemists developed paraffin, the wax used in today’s candles. In 5,000 years, we’ve essentially only added a wick to the ancient candle. Because we now use electricity for functional lighting, modern candles have become more of a quaint luxury. We don’t have much need for improved candles, so we will probably continue to use Ancient Egyptian candle technology into the future.
After her candlelit bath, Lindsay applies her Chanel eyeliner. Again, so did the Egyptians! Archaeologists have discovered cosmetics dating back to 4000 BC. Lindsay’s date probably won’t wear eyeliner, but both men and women in Ancient Egypt used eyeliner to make their eyes look larger. Eyeliner also protected against the evil eye, a curse Egyptians believed they received from envious glances. Today, women who wear too much eyeliner still may receive an evil eye, but not necessarily from envy.
The ancients may have worn cosmetics, but surely Lindsay’s $600 Versace skirt must be modern. Actually, skirts are older than candles and cosmetics combined. However, Lindsay can rest easily knowing that the ancients didn’t pay Versace prices.
The skirt is one of the longest continuing clothing trends in the world, going back 8,000 years. Archaeologists have found small figurines from Neolithic Europe depicting women wearing Ancient skirts. These skirts were more risqué than today’s skirts, looking more like belts with pieces of fringe hanging down. Like modern skirts, ancient skirts were not especially functional, but they communicated information about a woman’s social and marital status. The skirt has sent different messages at different times in history, but Lindsay’s skirt still communicates a message, depending on the type of skirt she chooses to wear. In her expensive designer skirt, Lindsay communicates that she is proud of her status and her appearance.
To finish her ensemble, Lindsay accessorizes with her favorite jewelry. Jewelry dates back 100,000 years, when ancients in Israel and Algeria wore pea-sized shells that scientists believe were probably strung together into necklaces or bracelets. Between 3,000 and 1,000 BC, the Egyptians used precious metals in jewelry. Wealthy Egyptians preferred the most valuable precious metal, gold, and took their jewelry to the grave so they could take it into the afterlife. However, grave robbers often decided they needed the valuable jewelry for the earthly life.
In the past, jewelry was used to store wealth. If currency can lose its value, one might as well spend the money on jewelry that can retain value. With gold jewelry, people essentially wore their money on their bodies. Today, gold jewelry is more of a luxury than a store of value. Even though people can safely store their money in banks, both men and women continue to wear their gold jewelry. It has a mystique that will keep people wearing jewelry for years to come, just like the ancients did 100,000 years ago.
Lindsay is ready to leave her trendy loft, which is full of ancient technology, but she will continue to rely on ancient inventions for the rest of the evening.
First Lindsay locks her door, again mimicking the Ancient Egyptians. Locks in 2,000 BC worked like modern locks but were made out of wood. The ancient locks contained movable tumbler pins. A wooden key had pegs, like the grooves in modern keys, that pushed the tumbler pins to the correct height, which opened a cross bar that released the lock. We have advanced to stronger metal locks, but modern locks work the same way.
Thieves today can pick locks by pushing the tumbler pins to the correct height. Since Ancient Egyptians lost their jewelry to grave robbers, we might be wise to stop relying on 4,000-year-old technology. We have added the deadbolt to supplement locks, but deadbolts only help when we’re inside our home. We’ve also modernized locks with electronic devices, which replace keys with punch codes or swipe cards. The most advanced locks even use biometric “keys” like fingerprints, retinal scans, and voice recognizers. Unfortunately, these advanced locks tend to be expensive. Most modern homes will continue to use their 4,000-year-old locks until the new technology becomes more affordable.
After she secures her apartment with one ancient lock, Lindsay uses another ancient lock to gain access to her car – a 2008 hybrid-electric Prius. The modern car relies heavily on a 6,000-year-old invention-the wheel. The first wheels were pottery wheels, which helped ancient Mesopotamians make ceramics. In 2,000 BC, Mesopotamians used wheeled chariots for transportation. The wheel is amazingly simple, but the invention ingeniously reduces friction. Modern cars have replaced animal-drawn chariots, but both use the same technology to reduce friction between the vehicle and the ground. Since the wheel is so effective, it is almost irreplaceable. Until we improve hovercraft technology, we will stick with the 4,000-year-old technology.
After Lindsay rides her 4,000-year-old wheels and uses her 4,000-year-old key to lock her car, she meets her date at the city’s finest steakhouse. Her $100 Kobe steak is the finest available, but the steak would taste like rubber without the oldest invention you probably used today: fire. Fire was invented somewhere between 1 and 1.8 million years ago. We do not know much else about the invention of fire, but ancients have been using fire to heat and soften their dinners for millions of years. We have made cooking more efficient with microwaves and convection ovens, but for the finest steaks, you still can’t beat an open-flame grill.
Lindsay used nine ancient inventions. How many have you used today?
This article was first published in Spirit Airlines Skylights Magazine, January/February 2008