Arthur’s in a fighting mood at the start of Ancient Wisdom. “A lot of rubbish has been written about mysterious knowledge possessed by the ancients. They didn’t need any help from visitors from outer space. On the other hand, there are some relics from the past which are truly mysterious because they challenge our ideas about the level of technology that existed at the time.”
Probably the most famous image from Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World was the crystal skull which featured prominently in the opening titles each week. We’re told that Anna Mitchell-Hedges found the skull in a lost city when she was a girl. Her arrival in the UK from Canada is notable – with security guards on hand to guard the skull – and her story is certainly intriguing. As ever, Gordon Honeycombe’s narration sets the mood perfectly. “This is the weirdest gem in the world. The skull of doom. The circumstances of its discovery were bizarre. Its origin is unknown. And its powers, some say, are fatal.”
That Mitchell-Hedges claimed to have discovered the skull, perfectly preserved, in an ancient temple seems more than a little unlikely, whilst an expert who examined the skull considered it to be no more than a couple of hundred years old. Mitchell-Hedges remained adamant that it dated back at least 3,600 years and didn’t waver until she died. Few others tended to agree with her though, and the overwhelming evidence points to the fact that it was a relatively modern creation. See here, for example.
The other eyebrow-raising claim in Ancient Wisdom comes from Dr Arne Eggebrecht. “He found it in an exhibition of treasures from Ancient Iran. A pottery jar, a copper cylinder and an iron rod discovered in Baghdad. He believes they are components of an electric battery made two thousand years before batteries were invented in the West.” Arthur’s not convinced and there’s no common modern consensus, so this remains a mystery. As ever, there’s plenty of information out there, such as here, for example.
Whilst the Crystal Skull was almost certainly a modern construction and the uses of the Baghdad Battery remain open to interpretation, the Antikythera Mechanism does seem to be the genuine article. It was discovered by divers in 1900, who found it on a wreck off the coast of Greece, but it wasn’t until Professor Derek de Solla Price started to examine it in earnest during the 1970’s that it began to yield its secrets. Using x-ray and gamma photography he was able to deduce that what appeared to be nothing more than a lump of rock actually contained an intricate mechanism. Believed to have been constructed around the second century BC, it’s regarded as the world’s first analogue computer – a device used to calculate astrological positions. Further information can be found here.
There’s a lack of loopy eye-witnesses (who make Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World so enjoyable) in this edition, but there’s still several fascinating scientific mysteries to chew over.