Are there any known "lost arts"?

I’m a firm believer in progress and tend to think that we live in an “age of miracles” unequaled in the history of the world. And yet, I occasionally read stories about ancient civilizations that supposedly had technology in advance of ours.

Now, I realize full well that most of that is just sci-fi/fantasy crapola (no, Atlantis didn’t really have anti-gravity), but it has gotten me to wondering whether there are any manufacturing or production techniques, for example, that we know used to exist but which we cannot reproduce today. The only possible example which springs to mind at the moment would be damascus steel which is rumored to have been far superior in terms of strength and sharpness to any steel blades we can produce today (although this may just be a myth).

I can certainly see why a particular manufacturing technique might fall out of use (how many people today, for example, care enough about buggy whips to learn how to make them?), but even so I assume it wouldn’t be too hard for somebody to recreate the technique with a little thought.

Can anybody think of any manufacturing techniques that are known to have existed once (i.e, because of written records or the existence of artifacts), but which we don’t know how to replicate using modern technology?



The most famous example is the lost formula for Greek Fire…

I’m told there are Chinese porcelain techniques that were lost over the ages, but, alas, that’s just stuff I heard from a FOAF…

There are a lot of arts that are almost lost, kept alive by a tiny handful of people. Like reading the astrolabe, or taking square roots with pencil and paper.


Greek Fire was my first one, but Trinopus beat me.

Also check out Damascus steel/swords.

I saw an example in art history class in undergrad of a low relief glasscut vase of white translucent glass on top of black glass. The low relief was cut in such a way that the black glass beneath shone through the white glass just enough in certain places so as to provide extremely fine shading. They don’t know exactly how to do this now. An example of a reproduction was, while nicely done, obviously inferior when looked at next to the original.

What was Greek Fire?

Greek Fire

I don’t know if it counts as an art, but moving huge stone slabs as used by Egyptians to build pyramids, the ancient inhabitants of Britain to build Stonehenge, and the Easter Islanders is still largely a mystery, and we have only gained similar abilities in the past 100 or 200 years using steam and internal combustion engines.

I think there are still people who can use abacuses and slide rules, but possibly there are other tricks for arithmetic that have been lost or will shortly be lost thanks to the popularity of calculators and computers.

We don’t know the particular formula for the “Greek Fire” of legend, but that’s just lost history. We certainly can equal, or surpass, anything the ancients used for the purpose, we just don’t know how they did it. Similarly, it’s uncertain how certain steelwork was done by ancient smiths, but modern reconstructions of the likely methods have resulted in some very, very close replicas; moreover, modern methods are vastly superior to hand-forging, although they might require less craftsmanship (and thereby be less impressive from that standpoint).

I’m not knowledgable about Chinese porcelain, but it’s my impression that many techniques were secrets that “died” with their inventors, so that it can never be known whether a particular technique has been rediscovered or not. There are often several ways to get a single result.

A newspaper article once stated that an ancient valuable bronze artifact had been made by the long-lost art of wax casting. The writer had to have misunderstood the term “lost wax casting”.[/mini-hijack]

The art of moving giant stone heads in Easter Island may have been lost, but people have figured out how it was probably done.

The stone buildings in Peru, where huge non-plastered stones are fitted together and you can’t put a knifeblade between them, has also been figured out.

Take your giant head, ropes, and friends. Clear a path. Tie the ropes above the center of gravity of the head, get a chant going, start tugging the ropes rythmically to the sides to get the head rocking, shift the vector so the ropes are pulling partially forward, and voila, your head is rocking and rolling its way toward its destination.

Get a lot of friends or peons, rocks, and ropes. Set your foundation rocks in place, nice big ones. Roll up another big one and set it on the foundation rocks. Get a rythm going, and start dragging the new rock back and forth, sideways to the foundation rocks, not far enough to pull it off. The rocks abrade each other, and after thousands of calories of energy expended, they fit each other as if they had been cast. Somehow this seems like more work and less fun than in Easter Island, but it makes amazing walls.

But I am curious about Damascus steel. Do we know how it was done?


How about the lost art of writing?

I’m talking about communicating in one’s own language without any any tricky HTML code effects, with just the same symbols that can be produced with a pencil or a stick in the mud as with a computer keyboard and a word-processor program…

Big Deal! Somebody moved some rocks!

I’m talking about communicating ideas!
Regarding the OP, as far as manufacturing goes, I’d say we’ve got the ancients beat…

Ideas- and communications-wise…
same answer!

Polychrome masonry. An architect in Washington, DC, John Joseph Earley, developed a durable, brightly-colored type of masonry that covers a few edifices in the city and five or six homes in Silver Spring. He died in 1945 and an office fire shortly after destroyed the formula. Too bad; some of the houses could use some patching up.

This was never widespread. Earley was hoping to land a development conract for the Four Corners neighborhood of Silver Spring, but it went to someone else instead. The houses he built (near Colesville Rd. and Lanark Dr.) are prized rarities.

I don’t suppose that you can provide a cite for this could you?

I think it was Thor Heyerdahl who reconstructed the Easter Island head-move-method. He and some buddies actually made, moved and erected one.

Sure, and feel free to check out the example I gave in my OP… :wink:

Yes, and Heyerdahl was right about everything else, of course;
wasn’t he?
I’ll just add a lost art of my own if I may…
Coade Stone

A kind of remarkably crisp concrete or moulded stone used in the 19th century; the secret formula was lost when the factory closed.

Formulas and specific methods for particular crafts are often trade secrets and thus susceptible to loss. I believe we can’t quite duplicate the color of Chatres blue stained glass, also.

*Ad hominem * attacks on Heyerdahl aside, he and his associates apparently really did manage to raise an Easter Island statue without any advanced technology. As mentioned by a previous poster, the methods used to build the Egyptian pyramids and monuments such as Stonehenge are still open to question.

Throughout Ireland there are stone fences which have stood for centuries without mortar. It is no trick to sort and stack thousands upon thousands of rocks neatly together so that they will make stable, nearly level, walls–all you need to do is make precise measurements of the contours of each stone and the right computer software. It is thought that fire and pressure were used to force the rocks into breaking up and collapsing into the proper formations, but, as I understand it, nobody is really sure.

This explanation for how the stone fences were fashioned was only proposed in the 20th Century. It was also in the past century that some techniques used by ancient metalurgists were reconstructed–unfortunately, I don’t have a cite for this.

No one is sure how the interior of a Greek trireme was designed. These were ships with three rows of oars arranged one atop the other. The oars in the topmost row would have been positioned at such an extreme angle that it appears they would have been impossible to work.

A number of modern cities have buildings and monuments arranged so that they form geometric patterns. A prime example is Washington, D.C. From the top of the Washington Monument one can go to the four sides of the building and look out directly on The Jefferson Memorial, The Lincoln Memorial, The Capitol and The White House. These and various other cites are said to be aligned with the front door of the Custis-Lee Mansion. Standing in front of John F. Kennedy’s grave one sees The Washington Monument bisect the Lincoln Memorial.

All of this was done with the benefit of various surveying and measuring techniques which were well understood by the 18th Century. In ancient and Medieval times, however, people in various parts of Europe were apparently able to make similar arrangements, placing structures such as temples and, later, cathedrals, at precise distances and along precise alignments.

Lines which can be drawn on maps to show these exact positionings are known as “ley lines”, as in England many of them are found in areas with place names ending in “ley”, an old word for field. (Hence names such as Ashley and Wheatley). Just how people managed to do this precise work of placement nobody knows.

At the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark there is a sequence where Harrison Ford is “chased” by a huge stone ball. There actually are stone balls of this sort, in a variety of sizes, scattered throughout the jungles of Costa Rica. How ancient people managed to carve them seems to be anyone’s guess.

Among the objects found in the tomb of Tutankhamen is a carved vase with beautful decorations which are only visible when the vase is lit from the inside. It is not clear how artists were able to do work of this sort.

I’ve heard it said many times that no one is sure exactly how the Stradivarius family was able to do such fine work.

Probably lots of little knick-knacks we don’t know how to make anymore. I’ve read that West Coast Indians could weave water-tight baskets from reeds or something like that, but gave it up after traders gave them metal pots and so forth. We know how to do it, but I don’t think anyone is any good at making stone tools or arrowheads nowadays. I guess these don’t count as lost technologies, nor would that knowledge or skill be remotely useful today anyways…

There are people now who build stone walls and fences without mortar. While it is a skilled task, it doesn’t require computer mapping.

No big mystery here, either. Making a big stone ball isn’t very difficult, especially when it’s not very accurate. The south american balls aren’t very accurate.

I don’t think any art can be permanently lost, if enough people are interested in finding it out again. Especially now, when communication is so much easier, and work is much less likely to be duplicated.