Finding “Lost” History

by Deborah Horn

Civilizations, languages, recipes and even once common knowledge have all disappeared with the passing of time. In modern times, there are experts who spend their lives chasing after what is lost to give us a better understanding of our past and our present.

“I believe that every time we unlock or discover a piece of lost knowledge, we get a greater insight into how ingenious and clever our ancestors were,” Mike Loades, an internationally known military historian, said. “Too often modern society uses history in order to make itself feel superior to take other ages and to look down on them as primitive. Every time we find out how clever they were, it challenges that view.”

Loades can be seen on various television shows as an expert in ancient weapons and warfare. He’s also one of the historians that has worked to uncover an important piece of lost history known as Greek Fire.

Greek fire was first used between 670 and 680 AD and is agreed to have fallen out of use sometime in 1100. It was an incendiary weapon used by the Byzantine military that could be ignited on water and was used to burn enemy ships. Some historians believe it was activated by water. 

The formula was such a closely guarded secret that when it eventually fell out of use the method to make it was lost forever. 

Or was it?

While we may never know the exact formula, historians like Loades believe they have figured it out, or at least figured out as close to a historical replica as possible.

“It would be perhaps fair to say that these various experiments have achieved ‘proof of concept’, though I don’t believe that any can make the definitive claim to have discovered the authentic ingredients of the original mixture,” Loades said.

Another formula seemingly consigned to oblivion was Roman concrete. The concrete we use today is, in many ways, a rediscovery of this ancient formula.

The Roman creation was able to withstand thousands of years of harsh weather. It was made of an aggregate, volcanic ash, lime and seawater. After many trials and tests on the cement found in Rome, the ‘secret’ of using seawater was discovered. 

While it wasn’t a weapon, or even a close-guarded secret, when the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD the recipe was simply forgotten.

Forgetting what once was can be a challenge for historians.

“Puzzling over these problems is a great detective exercise and it brings you in contact with so many different stimuli. You have to study old cultures in different parts of the world. You have to study art, which can bring you in contact with great beauty,” Loades said.

Losing a recipe, even a one that is a closely kept secret, is at least understandable.

But what about a country? 

That seems harder to misplace. 

The nation of Punt (pronounced “Poont”) is a nation that archeologists have yet to find. 

“Research is a lot like a jigsaw puzzle. It can be frustrating at times but it is also rewarding to see the pieces fit neatly together, revealing a larger picture or truth” Dr. Nathanial J. Dominy said.

Dominy teaches at Dartmouth College and has researched and taught about the now missing nation.

Punt was a nation that traded heavily with Egypt around 2500 BC. Among the things they traded were ivory, ebony, gold, leopard skins, and incense. 

“Punt lies at the intersection of two lifelong fascinations, ancient Egypt and nonhuman primates. I never anticipated the collision of those two passions, but I am happy that it happened,” Dominy said. 

Despite this, we still have no idea where this elusive country resided as no one bothered to mark it on a map or write down where it was located. 

What we do know is that Egyptians went to great lengths to get to Punt, building a port that “shaped geopolitical fortunes for many thousands of years, including now” according to Dominy. 

“Patience and resilience are important attributes to a successful research career. Frustration is natural, so learning to expect it has the benefit lessening its impact,” Dominy said. “My PhD advisor used to say that if research was easy, it would be called ‘search.’”

Dominy believes science will one day discover the nation’s true location.

“I think archaeologists working in Eritrea or Somalia will eventually find direct evidence (of Punt’s location) Dominy said. 

Perhaps one-day technology we consider commonplace will be lost to history.  

In the meantime historians and anthropologists say studying the past is the best way to understand how we got to where we are now.

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