A Real Ancient Mystery: The Antikythera Mechanism
I actually feel kind of bad arguing that things like the Ica Stones or the Bimini Road are hoaxes and such. I mean, I so so want for something like that to be real. Have been that way since my childhood and I discovered UFOs, sea serpents, the Bermuda triangle, ancient astronauts, and all the rest. Read every book on such topics I could lay my hand on, and still read the occasional one today. So when I wrote my post on the Ica Stones, in some ways it felt like I was explaining that Santa Claus isn’t real. Sniff.
Fortunately, all is not lost. There is in fact an ancient artifact that has excellent provenance, and is still mysterious and not fully understood. And it most definitely indicates that at least in some parts science and technology around 100BC was far more advanced than anyone dreamt. Yes, the ancient Greeks built at least one computer. Pictured above is a 2,000 year old computer, the Antikythera Mechanism. It’s very real and there’s no doubt about its origin. It’s not a hoax like the Ica Stones, nor is is from natural geological processes like the Bimini Road, this is the real deal.
The AntiKythera Mechanism was found on a first century BC Greek shipwreck in 1900-01. It was found by Greek sponge divers using early forms of diving apparatus. They carried up numerous statues and other small artifacts. An archaeologist diving to the site found what appeared to be gears in a rock, and as such, the Antikythera device was found. It then sat in a museum drawer for fifty odd years before anyone took a serious look at it. And then, it gets exciting. X-rays revealed that it was an amazingly complex clockwork mechanism with literally dozens of gears. This was no ancient Greek egg timer, this was a serious computational device.
OK, so what was it? Well, it was a wooden box with a complex bronze clockwork mechanism inside with a number of dials on the outside:
The top is the front view, the bottom is the rear view. Basically the knob on the side was turned, and the various dials and pointers moved to show the position of the Sun, Moon, and very likely a number of planets in the sky. It may have been able to predict eclipses, and it may have been able to show when Olympic games were being held. It had a door with a huge inscription on it that was most certainly an instruction manual. The language and phrasing on it indicate it came from Corinth, which would mean that maybe the technology behind it originated with Archimedes. There are also indications that it came from Rhodes, and Hipparchus may have have something to do with it. Bottom line is, we don’t really know who made it or why it was on a ship apparently bound for Rome, but we do know that it was another 1400 years before complex clockwork mechanisms like this appear in the historical record.
In fact at first disbelief was so strong that it was initially suggested this was something that had fallen off a much more modern ship and wasn’t really an ancient Greek artifact at all. Modern studies have shown that it is indeed a clockwork device built around 100BC. And more importantly, it’s very clear from the complexity and elegance if its construction, that this was not some one-off device by a mad genius, there was a considerable body of knowledge and technology behind the device. Though here’s a wonderful example of the scientific method at work, people reasoned that if this was indeed a product of a body of technology … we would expect that at the very least some other fragments of such devices would have shown up in the archaeological record. And lo and behold, a search of drawers of ancient Greek “miscellaneous” archaeological finds revealed a handful of other toothed gears such as the Antikythera mechanism was made of.
And, what, exactly, was the Antikythera mechanism used for? That is still the biggest mystery of all. While initially it was thought to be a navigational device, this is no longer thought to be the case. It’s way too complex and wouldn’t really be practical as such. It may have been simply a teaching aid, something used at an advanced school to demonstrate knowledge of the heavens and mathematics. It might also have been what would now be called a “military secret.” IE being able to predict eclipses and such could be useful knowledge for people in power. The later explanation has the benefit of explaining why such devices weren’t more widely distributed and why there’s no mention of them in what records of the era we have. On the other hand, very few bronze artifacts from ancient eras survived because bronze was valuable and most artifacts sooner or later got melted down and turned into coins and such.
What the device isn’t, is evidence of time travel or aliens. While it is an incredible device, it doesn’t contain any indication of knowledge or math that wasn’t extent at the time. Studies of the Antikythera device continue today and new discoveries are still being made.
Have a great weekend everyone.
(All of the above images are claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. They are central to illustrating the post and are not being used for profit. At some point I will write a post about why didn’t the ancient Greek and Roman world spawn an industrial revolution? I mean, they had all the technology, including a steam engine.)