I thought my capacity for sheer jaw-dropping amazement at the Antikythera mechanism had been well and truly exhausted – until last night. The puzzling instrument is a clockwork computer from ancient Greece that used a fiendishly complex assembly of meshed cogs to simulate the movement of the planets, predict lunar eclipses and indicate the dates of major sporting events.
The clockwork technology in the device was already known to be centuries ahead of its time, but new evidence suggests that the enigmatic machine is even older than scientists had realised. “It is the most important scientific artefact known from the ancient world,” said Jo Marchant, who has written a compelling book on the find called Decoding the Heavens. “There’s nothing else like it for a thousand years afterwards.”
The new data concerns the four-year Olympiad dial, which has the names of significant Greek games etched into it – Isthmia, Olympia, Nemea, Pythia and Naa (plus one other that hasn’t been deciphered). The first four were major games known throughout the ancient world, but the Naa games, held near Dodona in northwest Greece, were a much more provincial affair that would only have been of local interest. “One possibility is that it was made by or for somebody in Naa,” said Marchant, who described the clockwork computer on the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast last year.
This also helps to pin down the date because the Romans took over that region in the 2nd century BC. A Greek-inscribed gadget like this, reasons Jones, would not have been made after the Romans took charge.
The Antikythera wreck, a shipwreck discovered off the Greek island of Antikythera on the edge of the Aegean Sea, northwest of Crete, from the 2nd quarter of the 1st century BC., was discovered by sponge divers off Point Glyphadia on the Greek island of Antikythera in 1900.
The wreck manifested numerous statues, coins and other artifacts dating back to the 4th century BC, as well as the severely corroded remnants of a device that is called the world’s oldest known analog computer, the Antikythera mechanism.
In October 1900, a team of sponge divers led by Captain Dimitrios Kondos had decided to wait out a severe storm hampering their return from Africa at the Greek island of Antikythera, and while there they began diving for sponges off the island’s coastline. In 1900, divers usually wore standard diving dresses — canvas suits and copper helmets – which allowed them to dive deeper and to stay submerged longer.
The first to lay eyes on the shipwreck 60 meters down was Elias Stadiatis, who quickly signaled to be pulled to the surface. He described the scene as a heap of rotting corpses and horses lying on the sea bed.
Thinking the diver had gone mad from too much carbon dioxide in his helmet, Kondos himself dived into the water, soon returning with a bronze arm of a statue. While waiting for the storm to abate, the divers dislodged as many small artifacts as they could from the wreck.
Together with the Greek Education Ministry and Hellenic Navy, the sponge divers salvaged numerous artifacts from the waters. By the middle of 1901, divers had recovered statues of a philosopher, a discus thrower, the Antikythera Ephebe of ca. 340 BC, a Hercules, a marble bull and a bronze lyre. Many other small and common artifacts were also found and were brought to the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
The death of one diver while some others were paralyzed from decompression sickness put an end to work at the site during the summer of 1901. The French naval officer and explorer Jacques Cousteau would later dive there, in 1953 and 1976, to search for more artifacts.
On 17 May 1902, however, the former Minister of Education Spyridon Stais made the most celebrated find at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. When examining the artifacts that had been recovered, he noticed that a severely corroded piece of bronze had inscriptions and a gear wheel embedded in it.
The object would come to be known as the Antikythera mechanism. Originally thought to be one of the first forms of a mechanised clock or an astrolabe, it is at times referred to as the world’s oldest known analog computer, although it is technically an advanced mechanical calculator.
Although the retrieval of artifacts from the shipwreck was highly successful and accomplished within two years, dating the site proved difficult and took much longer. Based on related works with known provenances, some of the bronze statues could be dated back to the 4th century BC, while the marble statues were found to be 1st century BC copies of earlier works.