The achievements of ancient cultures tend to be woefully unappreciated -- we think of the people as loincloth-wearing savages, and when we're proven wrong by some impressive feat of engineering, we just make a bunch of documentaries about aliens. But the engineers of times past were nothing to sneer at, and some of their accomplishments make ours seem slightly embarrassing.
Derinkuyu's underground city was discovered in the 1960s in Turkey, when a modern house above ground was being renovated. Much to the relief of everyone present, the 18-story underground city was abandoned and not swarming with mole people.
"Do you want to flood it again, just to be sure?"
Hidden for centuries right under everyone's noses, Derinkuyu is just the largest of hundreds of underground complexes built by we're-not-sure-who-exactly around the eighth century B.C. To understand just what's so phenomenal about this feat of engineering, imagine someone handing you a hammer and chisel and telling you to go dig out a system of underground chambers capable of sustaining 20,000 people. And not one of those fancy modern chisels, either -- we're talking about something dug with whatever excavating tools they had 2,800 years ago.
Dutch Art Institute
"Get the Jim-digger. He still has some fingernails."
The city was probably used as a giant bunker to protect its inhabitants from either war or natural disaster, but its architects were clearly determined to make it the most comfortable doomsday bunker ever. It had access to fresh flowing water -- the wells were not connected with the surface to prevent poisoning by crafty land dwellers. It also has individual quarters, shops, communal rooms, tombs, arsenals, livestock, and escape routes. There's even a school, complete with a study room.
The Straits Times
And doodles of boobs on the desks of the study room.
Even now, the site hasn't been fully excavated, so we haven't found the golf course or the football stadium yet.
On the island of Malta is a prehistoric underground megalithic structure known awesomely as the Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni, which sounds like the title of Terry Gilliam's next movie. It was discovered by accident in 1902 when some workers were digging a hole and broke through the ceiling. Oh, and they also found about 7,000 skeletons all clustered near the entrance. So, that's creepy.
Since most humans inherently lack common sense, the workers decided to take a look around, instead of fleeing from whatever it was that 7,000 people clearly died trying to escape. Luckily, rather than having their faces melted off by some Indiana Jones MacGuffin, they found something truly astonishing.
The Malta Experience
"Holy shit, there's a Waffle House down here!"
The three-level underground structure is made entirely out of megalithic stones, and was built who knows when. What surprised people even more was when they found out that male voices could reverberate throughout the entire complex if the person was standing in a certain spot. But here's the kicker -- the effect only worked if the speaking voice was in the 95 to 120 Hz range, so women's voices don't usually generate the same effect. Whoever built the Hypogeum actually invented sexist architecture.
It gets weirder: If you're a man chanting at roughly the 110 Hz frequency, the entire temple complex turns into this bizarre trance-inducing room that seems able to stimulate the creative center of the human brain.
The Malta Experience
And if you really want to mess with people, just chant "rhubarb."
Simply put, by merely standing inside that temple complex while someone was chanting in the proper location, you actually enhanced your religious experience. And that's all we really know about this place. We have no idea who built it or how they pulled it off. All we know for certain is that they had a knowledge of acoustics that is still baffling scientists to this very day. Our modern attempts at recreating the effect in our own basement have varied in success, depending on how much whiskey we've consumed beforehand.
Yemen is a country rich in dust and poor in water, which is why in ancient times the empire that controlled it, the Sabaens, built a great dam in 750 B.C. Because subjugating a populace is thirsty work.
Which, coincidentally, is also the slogan of the failed sports drink Stalinade.
The dam, which was cheated out of being one of the "official" Seven Wonders of the World, was nevertheless regarded one of the greatest feats of engineering of the pre-industrial age. After all, building a dam isn't like putting a bunch of stone monoliths in a big circle. You have to have canals, gates, sluices, and spillways, and the whole thing has to be waterproof, or else everybody living on the wrong side of it might wake up drowned one morning.
The Sabaens managed all this before the existence of concrete, and their dam stood for over 1,000 years. In comparison, modern dams built with our advanced technology last for around 50 years, or 100 if they're really something.
Nabataean Travel & Trade
Even with the Best Buy extended warranty, it's just not worth it.
The Great Dam of Marib was about 2,000 feet long (almost twice as long as the puny Hoover Dam), and while it stood, it converted ancient Yemen into a fertile oasis, what was then known as the kingdom of Sheba (of "Queen of Sheba" fame). Because everything has to fall down eventually, the dam finally burst around A.D. 600, bringing down much of the agriculture system and converting the area into the sandy fun park it is today.