Ancient Optics and Lenses

Ancient optics
The Nimrud Lens. © The British Museum

The Nimrud lens


Whatever its origin, as ornament, as magnifying lens or part of a telescope, the Nimrud lens is the oldest lens in the world. Looking at it evokes mystery and wonder. However unusual this object seems at first, it is not unique. In fact there are several hundred reported lenses now on record from around the ancient world.



Another, possibly 5th century BC, lens was found in a sacred cave on Mount Ida on Crete. It was more powerful and of far better quality than the Nimrud lens.

Also, Roman writers Pliny and Seneca refer to a lens used by an engraver in Pompeii. So perhaps the ancients knew more about lenses than we give them credit for.

The Viking Lenses

The Vikings could have been using a telescope hundreds of years before Dutch spectacle makers supposedly invented the device in the late 16th century.

This remarkable possibility has emerged from a study of sophisticated lenses just recognised from a Viking site on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea.


„It seems that the elliptical lens design was invented much earlier than we thought and then the knowledge was lost,“ says Dr Olaf Schmidt, of Aalen University in Germany.

„The surface of some of the lenses have an almost perfect elliptical shape,“ Dr Schmidt said. „They were obviously made on a turning lathe.“

But it seems clear that the Vikings did not make the lenses themselves. „There are hints that the lenses may have been manufactured in the ancient empire of Byzantium or in the region of Eastern Europe,“ Dr Schmidt said.

Babylonian Lenses

Their long line of astronomical records on clay tablets stored in the British Museum, dating back to 747 B.C., indicate they observed some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.


“There is said to be distinct evidence that they observed the four satellites of Jupiter, and strong reason to believe that they were acquainted likewise with the seven satellites of Saturn,” wrote the English Orientalist George Rawlinson, in the 1860’s.

“It has generally been assumed that they were wholly ignorant of the telescope,” added this Camden professor of ancient history. “But if the satellites of Saturn are really mentioned, as it is thought that they are, upon some of the tablets, it will follow—strange as it may seem to us—that the Babylonians probably possessed optical instruments of the nature of telescopes, since it is impossible, even in the clear vapourless sky of Chaldea (ancient Babylonia), to discern the faint moons of that distant planet without lenses.”

The Layard (Nineveh) Lens


The Nineveh Lens: This 3,000 year old piece of rock-crystal was unearthed in 1853 from the throne room of King Sargon II’s Assyrian palace of Nimrud, in Nineveh (Kuyunjik, Iraq). Layard discovered this lens which is considered the first used (or found) plano-convex lens. This lens however was not „ground“ and polished round but had facets which limited it’s ability to magnify. It has been said that this lens could actually have been only an ornament or menagerie.

Source: Ancient Wisdom