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5 Incredible Examples of Ancient Engineering

Though most don’t get much coverage, amazing examples of ancient engineering are nearly everywhere. 

From South America and Southeast Asia, to North America and Europe, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes ranging from tiny devices like the Antikythera Mechanism to sprawling temples like those found in the jungles of Angkor Wat.

Like Angkor Wat, we’ve all heard of the Egyptian pyramids, the Roman aqueducts and the Great Wall of China that from end to end stretches nearly 13,200 miles (21,200 km), but today we’ll focus on five lesser known marvels of ancient engineering that often get overlooked. 

1. La Hougue Bie

La Hougue Bie Incredible Examples of Ancient Engineering
La Hougue Bie by ellywa is licensed under CC-BY-SA

When it was built on the island of Jersey off the coast of Normandy, France more than 5,500 years ago, La Hougue Bie was among the largest and earliest passage graves in Europe. 

So named because of its narrow tunnel leading to internal tombs covered by thousands of tons of earth and stone, La Hougue Bie’s origins and symbolism have baffled archaeologists and historians for centuries. 

Like many historical sites in the region, La Hougue Bie includes elements of both Pagan and Christian occupation, but despite its classification as a passage grave, it was probably equally significant religiously and ceremonially as it was as just a final resting place. 

It bears similarities to other continental sites primarily in that its dark central tomb is often interpreted as representing the womb of Mother Earth, and its characteristic narrow tunnel leading inward as a birth canal. 

In addition, the structure was precisely aligned so that when the sun rose on the spring and autumn equinoxes the interior would have been flooded with light – another common symbol of life and rebirth. 

La Hougue Bie was originally constructed by some of the island’s earliest inhabitants, but was added onto many centuries later by Christians, as evidenced by the two Medieval chapels built atop the prehistoric mound, or dolmen. 

The site was first excavated in 1925 by the local historical and archeological society, and consists primarily of an 18.6 meter (61 feet) long passage chamber covered by a 12.2 meter (40 feet) tall earth mound. 

Estimates suggest that nearly 15,000 cubic meters of material were moved during its construction, and excavations have uncovered numerous pot and vase shards as well as the scattered remains of at least eight individuals, all of who probably held lofty religious and ceremonial positions. 

In addition to its unequaled state of preservation, radiocarbon dating of items found inside suggest that the tomb may have been permanently sealed off as far back as 3,000 BC, which means it probably lay relatively undisturbed for nearly 5,000 years. 

Though most of the structure is composed of earth and stone, at one time there were also rudimentary wooden, mud and thatch longhouses around the mound that most likely functioned as meeting places for worshippers. 

In the early 18th century the site’s Christian chapels were abandoned, and in the 1790s a stone tower, known as the Prince’s Tower was built by a wealthy local playboy who turned it into a theater more known for risque performances, drunken revelers and all-around debauchery than religious piety. 

Between the late 1920s and Nazi occupation in 1940, the site was open to the public, but during the Second World War it functioned as a German command bunker. 

Though it’s the most preserved and well-known, La Hougue Bie is just one of five passage grave sites spread around the Channel Islands. 

2. Sechin Bajo

Sechin Bajo Incredible Examples of Ancient Engineering
Sechin Bajo by Rickray1870 is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Located just a few kilometers inland from west-central Peru’s South Pacific coast, the archaeological site at Sechin Bajo may have been one of the most prominent centers for trade, art and culture in pre-Incan South America. 

Spread over about 90 acres (37 hectares) overlooking the picturesque Sechin River Valley, Sechin Bajo is characterized by multi-tiered stone foundations and earthen walls that in their heyday were home to one of the New World’s oldest civilizations – one that radiocarbon dating has pegged at more than 5,500 years old.

Though the site’s multiple structures had been badly damaged by the elements and vandals, it wasn’t until the late 1930s that official excavations began under the watchful eye Julio Tello, a man commonly referred to as the “Father of Peruvian Archaeology.”

The site’s most prominent features include a number of centrally located multi-storied structures known as “edifices” that once contained stairs, hallways and multiple rooms for living and storage.

The first edifice is the oldest, while the second and third were constructed over and around it much later on and covered much larger areas. 

In its final form, the third edifice contained a large public square, ornate wall carvings and private living areas, and it was built facing Cerro Sechin 2 kilometers away which indicates cooperation between builders. 

Near Sechin Bajo’s center an earthen mound with a base approximately 590 x 393 feet (180 x 120 m) wide towers nearly 60 feet (18 meters) over the ground below, and the site also features a large 50-foot square adobe slab raised a few feet over a sunken circular plaza, not unlike the kivas built by the Anasazi in the American Southwest.

Despite early excavations however, many of the site’s most impressive finds weren’t revealed until well into the 20th century, one of which was a badly worn carved adobe tablet 6.6 ft (2 meters) tall that appears to depict a man holding what looks like a knife in one hand and a severed human head in the other. 

Some archaeologists claim the head is actually a shield, but those who think it’s a head theorize that the site may have once been a ceremonial center that included human sacrifice. 

Historians think that Sechin Bajo and surrounding sites were conquered by marauders from the highlands around 1000 BC, after which agriculture, domesticated animals and distinctly different styles of art and architecture became more prominent. 

Though Sechin Bajo is the region’s most well-known ruin, it’s just one of many collectively known as the Sechin Complex. 

The complex’s multiple urban centers were once thought to be relatively autonomous, but it’s now believed that they were all parts, like neighborhoods or suburbs, of a larger integrated city.  

Sechin Bajo was probably abandoned permanently in the 15th century AD, after which it was largely used as a graveyard by locals. 

3. Chand Baori Stepwell

Located in the village of Abhaneri in Rajasthan, India, the massive Chand Baori stepwell is another wonder of ancient engineering that’s remained relatively obscure to all but locals, historians and archaeologists. 

Stepwells are large inverted pyramid shaped tanks or cisterns for collecting rainwater, and though they’re found in other countries like Cambodia and Pakistan, they’re most common on the Indian subcontinent, and Chand Baori is one of the largest and most impressive examples. 

As their name suggests, stepwells have steps built into their sides that allow access regardless of whether the water level is low or high. 

More than a thousand years ago multiple stepwells were built in arid Indian regions to provide year-round water, and due to their immense size and stone construction most took decades to build. 

According to local legend, ghosts built the Chand Baori stepwell in just one night.

What’s generally more accepted however, is that during the reign of Raja Chanda somewhere between the 8th and 9th centuries the region experienced a particularly harsh multi-year drought that dictated the well be built by more earthly means – namely skilled craftsman and laborers wielding relatively crude iron tools.

Concerned with the wellbeing of his people, and probably even more so with his own ability to remain ensconced in the lap of luxury to which he’d become accustomed, Chanda realized that something needed to be done.

And to that end, he commissioned the construction of what would become one of the countries largest and most ornate stepwells.

But no definitive evidence exists of how or when it was constructed, and if Raja was looking for a relatively quick solution to a pressing water problem, a multi-year project like a giant stepwell wouldn’t have given him a particularly speedy return on his investment. 

Nonetheless, Chand Baori was built, and at its lowest point it stretches more than 100 feet below the earth’s surface. 

Though that may not sound particularly impressive, each of the well’s four top sides are nearly twice that long, and more than 3,500 precisely hewn and perfectly leveled stone steps taper downward toward the well’s bottom. 

In fact, the structure more resembles a temple or Roman theater than an Indian water collection project. 

But unlike other stepwells, one of Chand Baori’s four sides isn’t staired, but includes an impressive three story stone pavilion with carved pillars, ornate sculptures and expansive balconies.

In addition, the upper stories of the pavilion and the well’s perimeter are ringed by a continuous row of arched porticos that were built much later, probably in the 18th century.

Along with nearby Harshat Mata Temple, both sites served as destinations for religious pilgrims, and probably served a number of ceremonial roles in addition to providing water for the area’s residents. 

Now Chand Baori is owned and managed by the government, and though it no longer serves its original purpose it’s still popular with pilgrims and tourists.

4. Tunnel of Eupalinos

Tunnel of Eupalinos Incredible Examples of Ancient Engineering
Tunnel of Eupalinos by Tomisti is licensed under CC-BY-SA

In many respects the ancient Greeks were well ahead of their time, but during Eupalinos’ lifetime, compasses, GPS surveying equipment and massive rock crushing diesel and hydraulic boring machines were still millennia away from being invented. 

But despite the limitations of the era in which he lived, the now famous Greek engineer planned and built one of the ancient world’s most impressive engineering marvels. 

The 3,300 feet (1,000+ m) tunnel was commissioned by Polycrates (the Tyrant of Samos) in the mid-6th century BC to carry water from a natural spring just inland of the island’s capital city.

The spring was about 171 feet (52 m) above sea level and more than a kilometer away from where its water was most needed, and historians agree that it was likely the first time that digging began at both ends of a tunnel with the intent of meeting somewhere near the middle.

At over a kilometer in length the tunnel may not seem overly impressive by contemporary standards, but the tools of the day were woefully unsuited to the task, and Euclid’s geometric principles that are even now the foundation of engineering and mathematics wouldn’t be formalized until two centuries later. 

In addition, the proposed tunnel would have to wind its way under dozens of meters of rock, and the spring and outlet would need to be hidden to prevent them from being destroyed or poisoned by invaders during times of conflict.

After careful calculations and preparation, workers began digging into rock from two distinct portals.

Most accounts claim that construction lasted multiple decades and was carried out by common laborers as well as innovative tunnel boring machines, though no evidence of the latter exists. 

And even now it’s not exactly clear how Eupalinos calculated the two boring routes. 

Some claim he marked the ground above the tunnel’s planned route, then used Pythagoris’ theorem to determine its length and course. 

And since even then it was known that parallel lines never meet, Eupalinos decreed that the two shafts zigzag as they approached one another to ensure that they could be joined with reasonable accuracy even if the original calculations were off. 

But experts agree that his measurements were so accurate, that had workers continued digging in straight lines the tunnels would have intersected almost perfectly. 

Due to adverse conditions however, a number of diversions were necessary during construction, after which even more complex calculations were required to get the two converging tunnels back in line with one another. 

When completed, the tunnel carried about 400 cubic meters of water per day to the city’s subterranean reservoir that was covered by massive rock slabs supported by more than a dozen pillars. 

None other than the famous Greek historian Herodotus made reference to the tunnel’s significance, lauding Eupalinos’ revolutionary use of mathematics and previously untested engineering principles.  

The tunnel supplied the city with water for more than 1,000 years before being abandoned, after which it served as a place of last retreat for citizens during times of war and civil unrest. 

5. El Mirador

El Mirador Incredible Examples of Ancient Engineering
El Mirador by Geoff Gallice is licensed Under CC-BY

Located deep within the rainforest of the Mirador Basin in south central Ecuador, the archaeological site at El Mirador (the Lookout in Spanish) is often referred to as the “Cradle of Mayan Civilization.”

The sprawling complex is home to the largest number of sites from the Pre Classic era which lasted from about 1000 BC to 250 AD, though it’s agreed that construction of its most iconic and monumental structures didn’t begin until around 600 BC. 

Some claim that at its height El Mirador was the largest city in the Americas, and that it spread across nearly 15 square miles (25 km square) and had a population of more than 100,000. 

The sprawling jungle city was particularly well-known for its raised stone causeways that connected urban residential and commercial areas with suburbs up to 12 miles (20 km) away. 

The site also includes the centrally located pyramid of La Danta with an internal volume purported to be greater than 2.8 million cubic feet (80,000 cubic meters), making it one of the ancient world’s largest structures. 

At its peak, the pyramid towers more than 230 feet (73 m) over the jungle below, and is actually composed of three distinct sections or temples, one built atop of the next giving it a distinct stepped structure.

The pyramid’s base measures an impressive 980 x 2,000 feet (330 x 609 m) and encompasses an area of approximately 50 acres.

By some estimates construction took as many as 15 million man-days to complete, or in simpler terms required thousands of laborers possibly working for multiple decades making it one of the New World’s most epic construction projects. 

Like many South American structures, the pyramid appears to have been designed along astronomical lines which were probably used to predict important celestial events like solstices and equinoxes that were particularly relevant for ceremonial purposes and agriculture. 

Archaeologists and historians think that despite its splendor and prosperity, El Mirador reached its peak between 400 BC and 200 AD.

Then after centuries of slow economic decline and the cessation of large building projects, the site was eventually abandoned around 900 A.D as the population migrated north and westward and assimilated with nearby cultures.   

El Mirador would remain largely hidden until the 1920s and ‘30s when it was inadvertently photographed from the air, but professional excavations didn’t begin until decades later in the early ‘60s. 

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