Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

A Real Ancient Mystery: The Antikythera Mechanism

with 15 comments

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.)

Written by unitedcats

July 9, 2010 at 8:01 am

15 Responses

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  1. When I read their precision about tooth making of gears, I was perplexed. Since I’m mechanical engineering student, so it came out as more amazing and awe for me. It is expected it was used to study planetary motion and perhaps without using Keplar’s law of planetary motion. I’m not sure but it has 46 gears and were very complexed but very accurate and precise in construction. Are you amazed by such kinda of engineering and science of ancients? I believe if you study whole ancient descriptions with logically opened mind you will discard theory of evolutionary homo sapiens especially the established theory of origin of civilization just before 10,000 years ago.


    July 9, 2010 at 9:38 am

  2. “I believe if you study whole ancient descriptions with logically opened mind you will discard theory of evolutionary homo sapiens especially the established theory of origin of civilization just before 10,000 years ago.”

    Yes, so very true.

    Our ‘civilized’ society mind is still colored by the teachings of the church. ugh.

    John Galt

    July 10, 2010 at 8:01 am

  3. […] A Real Ancient Mystery: The Antikythera Mechanism « Doug's Darkworld […]

  4. Cool Post Doug! I love this sort of stuff (obviously) especially when its NOT a hoax. I hope more stuff like this exists, it’s just cool!



    July 12, 2010 at 6:13 am

  5. […] technology. No Roman electric generators, no medieval nuclear piles, nada. Even the Anitkythera device, amazing as it is, doesn’t show evidence of alien […]

  6. I think it’s a time machine that exploded on arrival to the past.


    April 15, 2012 at 5:51 pm

  7. What I still can’t quite wrap my mind around is that the Antikythera Mechanism is, thus far, the ONLY type of mechanism found to date of THIS complexity. As mentioned in the post, instruments of this sort were not manufactured again until 1,400 years later. That being said, an analogy can be made using the ENIAC computer, the world’s first general-purpose computer, built in 1946. Let’s surmise that shortly afterwards the ENIAC was lost – and the technology surrounding it did not emerge again until the year 3346 A.D. That basically requires a HUGE stretch of imagination – even more so, than say, that the ancient Greeks were “presented” with the device, or at least assisted in building it, by “individuals” as of yet unidentified. Just something to mull over…..

    Johnny B

    February 10, 2013 at 6:55 am

    • It’s the only complete item of its kind. Other gears and parts have been found, there were definitely some highly complex mechanical devices in use, and there are a few references in the contemporary literature that seem to be referring to devices very similar to the Antikythera device at least. And we know vast amounts of knowledge was lost in the cataclysms that befell Europe in the second half of the first millennium. Even such knowledge as how to make red glass was lost, not to be rediscovered until a few centuries ago. Also of note, the Antikythera site is going to be revisited again very soon by modern archeologists. Who knows what they will find. —Doug


      February 13, 2013 at 11:45 pm

      • Thanks for the reply & info Doug! I’ll be quite interested to see if they discover anything new when they re-visit the site!

        Addressing cataclysms, to include natural and man-made, it is still difficult for me to understand why they didn’t safeguard this contemporary priceless device a bit better – perhaps a copy or two stashed away, or at least some schematics secured somewhere? Putting such an item in a boat in ca. 80 BC would be almost tantamount to putting the President & Vice-President on the same plane flight today. Simply too risky, or maybe I’m just thinking “too-modern??”

        Johnny B.

        Johnny B

        February 14, 2013 at 10:28 am

  8. As a student of Roman history I can say that travel by boat was by far the safest form of travel during most of the Roman era. Even just outside Rome bandits were a serious problem.


    February 14, 2013 at 11:05 pm

    • Thanks for your reply, however I am still curious as to why no copies were constructed, or why no schematics were apparently safe-guarded. Even if no such things occurred, one would think that the constructor(s) would have immediately set about building another device after the loss of the original – unless, as I’ve mentioned before, “individuals” currently unidentified who either built, or assisted in building the device, were no longer available for consultation. That may help to explain the 1,400 year gap before that type of technology re-appeared – our ancestors did not receive further “assistance,” and as a result, technology progressed as if the device had never existed.

      Johnny B

      March 3, 2013 at 7:20 am

  9. Nice discussion. I am wondering where the name “Antikythera” came from. Apparently, it has something to do with the island Cythera, but why Anti-Kythera?


    March 2, 2013 at 6:48 pm

    • Hi Palmer. “Antikythera” is an island as well. The meaning is literally “opposite of Kythera (or Cythera).”
      Hope this helps!

      Johnny B

      March 3, 2013 at 6:40 am

      • It does help. Thanks.


        March 3, 2013 at 9:33 am

  10. A lot, as in much or most, of the Roman Empire’s written work was lost in the upheavals after 535 AD, when the still not understoodglobal calamity destroyed every civilization on Earth. There’s one Roman Emperor who wrote over 50 books, the most prolific writer among Roman Emperors. None survive. This was also an era when such devices may very well have been a closely guarded secret, where they were careful not to have records that could be stolen. And in any event, huge bodies of ancient writings still remain to be discovered, and archaeological excavation grows more scientific every day. At this point it is reasonable still to question how much significance should be attached to a single artifact. Could there be some more exotic explanation that doesn’t require a lost body of technology? Possibly. If anything is discovered one can be sure I will blog about it. Thanks for the comments! — Doug


    March 3, 2013 at 7:51 am

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