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The Mystery of Ancient Lenses and Glass

Ancient high technology is an interesting topic in forbidden archaeology. In this column, I will consider three examples having to do with lenses and glass: (1) the Nimrud lens from Assyria, (2) the advanced lenses in the eyes of Egyptian statues, and (3) and the huge slab of glass found in Galilee.


The Nimrud Lens

Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) was a British explorer, archaeologist, politician, and diplomat. In the 1840s, he excavated the ruins of the ancient Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Nineveh, in what is now northern Iraq. When I visited the British Museum in 2007, I saw some of the iconic stone statues and relief panels Layard shipped to London in the nineteenth century, such as the two, huge statues of winged lions that guarded the entrance to the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud. At that time, I was not aware of a smaller, but more interesting, discovery made by Layard at Nimrud—the Nimrud lens. So I did not notice it, although it was on display in room 55 of the British Museum, in case 9 in the Lower Mesopotamian Gallery.

Layard found the lens in a chamber of the North West Palace. The chamber contained hundreds of utensils made of bronze, iron, glass, and ivory. The lens was lying near some glass bowls. Layard wrote in his book, Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon (1853, p. 167): “With the glass bowls was discovered a rock crystal lens with opposite convex and plane faces. Its properties could scarcely have been unknown to the Assyrians, and we have consequently the earliest specimen of a magnifying and burning glass.”

At the request of Layard, physicist Sir David Brewster examined the lens and reported (Layard 1853, p. 167): “This lens is plano-convex and of a slightly oval form its length being 1.6 inch, and its breadth 1.4 inch. It is about .2 inch thick, and a little thicker at one side than the other. Its plane surface is pretty even, though ill polished and scratched. . . .  The convex side is tolerably well polished, and though uneven from the mode in which it has been ground, it gives a tolerably distinct focus at the distance of 4.5 inches from the plane side.” Brewster concluded, “It is obvious . . . that it could not have been intended as an ornament; we are entitled, therefore, to consider it as intended to be used as a lens, either for magnifying, or for concentrating the rays of the sun” (Layard 1853, p. 167).

According to a report by Dr. David Whitehouse  (“World’s Oldest Telescope?,” BBC News Online, July 1, 1999),  an Italian Assyriologist, Dr. Giuseppe Pettinato of the University of Rome, suggested that the lens was part of a telescope. Pettinato said this would explain why the Assyrians depicted Saturn with a ring of serpents. The rings of Saturn are not visible to the human eye except through a telescope. Normally, historians say the telescope was invented in Europe during the sixteenth century AD. But according to the British Museum, the Nimrud lens dates back to 710-750 BC, which would make it about 2,750 years old. The Nimrud lens could therefore be evidence for advanced high technology.


Eye Lenses of Egypt

Another amazing kind of lens comes from Egypt. It was described in a paper by Dr. Jay M. Enoch (“New Discovery of a Rare Ancient Egyptian Lens,” Atti Della Fondazione Giorgio Ronchi vol. 62, no. 3, 2007, pp. 417-429). On October 9, 2004, Enoch, of the School of Optometry of the University of California at Berkeley, was visiting the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He was looking at a face from an Egyptian mummy case and noticed that its eye appeared to be following him as he walked by. This face sculpture dated to the Egyptian Third Intermediate Period, about 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. Earlier examples also exist, such as the rock crystal eyes in the statues of Prince RaHotep and his wife Nofert, now in the Louvre in Paris, France. These statues, which are about 4,500 years old, are from the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. They were discovered at Maydum in the Nile Delta region. When the chamber containing the statues was first excavated, one of the Egyptian workmen, after seeing the lifelike eyes, became so frightened he ran outside (Enoch 2007, p. 422).

The illusion of eye motion, technically called motion parallax, is produced by a finely engineered transparent lens, made of rock crystal, or, in the later versions, glass. The outer surface of the lens is convex and represents the cornea, the clear outer covering of the eyeball.  The back surface of the lens is flat, representing the iris, the colored part of the eye. The detail that gives the effect of movement is a small depression in the middle of the flat back surface of the lens. This concavity creates the impression of a dark pupil in the middle of the iris. But when you look at the eye, there is a separation in distance between the apparent location of the pupil and the apparent location of the iris. The convex outer surface of the lens magnifies, which has the effect of moving the plane of the iris closer to the viewer. The concave surface that produces the pupil reduces it, which has the optical effect of placing the plane of the pupil behind the plane of the iris. Because the plane of the pupil image is behind the plane of the iris image, when an observer moves, the pupil appears to move in the same direction of the observer, relative to the iris.

Enoch gives a simple way to see how this works. Close one eye. Now hold, vertically, the index finger of one hand close to the open eye. Hold the index finger of your other hand further from the eye. Now turn your head. The furthest finger will appear to move in the same direction you are turning your head, just as the pupil in the crystal eye of the Egyptian statue appears to move in your direction as you walk by it. When the pupil moves, the whole eye appears to move.

Enoch (p. 419) wrote, “The Egyptian lens designers mastered control of magnification such that the displacements perceived by the observer resulted in apparent rotation [of the pupil] equal to the rotation of the observer! When this desirable feature was achieved in both eyes, the two eyes seem to follow the observer equally. This was an outstanding achievement!”

In the Maydum statues, the illusion is more perfect than in the later face image in the Boston museum. To Enoch this suggested that the technological skills that produced the lenses were far older than the oldest examples that we now have.


The Galilee Glass Slab

Beth She’arim is a sacred site in the Galilee region of Israel, where tombs were cut into the side of a limestone hill from the second century AD through the fourth century AD. In 1956, authorities decided to clear a natural cave to make it into a small museum. A bulldozer encountered a rectangular slab of what appeared to be stone. It was too big to move, so it was left in place. In 1963 a team of researchers from the Corning Museum of Glass and the University of Missouri was investigating ancient glassmaking in the region. Someone suggested that the slab in the cave was actually glass. A report on the website of the Corning Museum of Glass ( states: “The suggestion was greeted with skepticism—indeed, one member of the team volunteered that if the slab was made of glass, he would eat it. A chemical analysis, though, confirmed that it was, in fact, made of glass.” Because the slab was not transparent (it was a very dark purple color), it was not easy to recognize it as glass. The slab of glass was about 11 feet long, 6.5 feet wide, and 18 inches thick. Its top surface was perfectly level.

The report from the Corning Museum of Glass states: “There are two truly astounding things about the slab. First its sheer size: remember it measures 6.5 x 11 feet. That means it weighs about 9 tons—18,000 pounds. When discovered, it was the third largest piece of man-made glass in the world and it was made centuries ago. Its size is still rivaled only by the giant telescope mirrors of the 20th century. More astonishing still are the conditions under which it was made. It is estimated that about 11 tons of raw materials had to be heated to 1100°C (around 2000°F), and held at that temperature for perhaps 5–10 days.”

How old is the slab? Archaeologists excavated beneath the slab and found pieces of pottery indicating that the slab had been lying there since the end of the fourth century AD. Even today it is difficult to manufacture such huge pieces of glass.


Michael A. Cremo is the author, with Richard Thompson, of the underground classic Forbidden Archeology: The Hidden History of Human Race. He has also written Human Devolution: A Vedic Alternative to Darwin’s Theory. (See

Michael Cremo

Sept/Oct 2014 – #107