Being a history buff I’ve still not gotten over the burning of the Alexandria Library by the Romans. I know, I know it’s been a while I should let it go but honestly, I mourn the loss and suppression of knowledge. Where could be be if humans built on what they learned rather than lost or suppressed it? Just as the burned library is a symbol of lost knowledge a touch stone of it is the Antikythera Mechanism. What’s that you ask? I’m so glad you did because there are more answers now than there where 10 years ago but not as many as there were 3,000 years ago when it was used. THAT’S what’s freaky about it.
I think the best way to approach this unique artifact is tell the modern story of it. That starts in 1901 with some sponge divers off the coast of a small Greek Island of Antikythera in the Ionian islands while diving after a storm. There they found the treasure of what is referred to as the Antikythera Wreck of a Roman ship, a VERY large, VERY overloaded Roman ship. They pulled up some of the most treasured exquisite Greek bronzes and marble statues. Along with that treasure they pulled up this bronze corroded mass of gears. This is what became known in modern times as the Antikythera Mechanism the largest piece is pictured above.
It wasn’t fully understood as to what this was. Nothing like it had been seen before. It was known the during the ancient time mechanical gears for work but never that engineered gears were created much less used. So it was a puzzle as to what it was. For years there were educated guesses. There were worries that it wasn’t from the ship wreck that it was from later and just happened to get buried in the ship’s debris field. Yet not being sure scholars were gentle with it and didn’t want to damage any of the gears by cleaning and dismantling it. Symbols on it were for gods, planets, and constellations. It was thought to possibly be some ritualistic item like the famous steam powered gear work gods and bulls of Roman Egypt (Montau Temple Bull).
Eventually when technology allowed it was x-rayed. Then it was determined that it was celestial related. There was a lunar aspect as there were 237 teeth to a wheel – an important number in Greek astronomy. However, without three dimensional images and fear that cleaning and disassembling it would destroy the fine detail things stalled.
In 1976 Jacques Cousteau and his team dove the wreck. They hoped to bring up something that answered questions about the mechanism. They did by bringing up coins, wine amphora, pottery, and other materials that helped date the wreck and finding parts of the mechanism in the wreck in such a manner that it proved it was part of the wreck not a washed in piece. The date was set at 50-70 BCE
Then we jump to 2000 when 3-D imagery is possible without damaging the parts. At that time a team of astrologists, mathematicians, and archaeologists took on a study of the mechanism. It was here the Antikythera Mechanism was dubbed the first analog computer. It was an astronomical device that predicted planet and constellation locations by date. Set the date on the back small dials and see on the larger front dials where to look in the sky for the objects. Also by cranking the dates you could observe the movement of the heavens. It is accurate to within one. degree every 500 years. A brass replica was built and is now on display.
On the gears and plates are etched an instruction manual. Which leads me to ask – if the item has writing all over it why wasn’t a linguist who specialized in ancient Greek not included in the study team? Any way in 2016 one looked into what was written and if the type of Greek used might give clues to its origin. The Koine Greek was the most common form of Greek at the time. The inscriptions labels the cycles, dials, and explains some functions. It assumes a great prior knowledge and understanding of astronomy. However it also indicates how to use the mechanism to determine future dates of important festivals such as the Olympics. The handwriting is of two distinct individuals.
So that’s great. The Greeks and Romans had an analogue computer that accurately predicted and showed the location of the constellations and planets over centuries. Where did it come from? Who used it? Why did they use it? Why was it on this ship? Were there others?
It is thought that the boat was heavily laden as it was going to supply the celebration and some wonders of the triumphal parade for the Emperor Julius Caesar, or that it was carrying booty from Sulla’s sack of Athens. We do know Cicero mentioned a ‘sphere of Archimedes’ that showed position of Sun, Moon, and planets to earth. It is known it stopped in Rhodes given it had amphora of Rhodes wine loaded. Which leads to the thought that Hipparchus ‘inventor’ of trigonometry might have had a hand in the design of the mechanism if not the making.
As to who used it? It would be helpful to sailors to determine time on long voyages. Set the location of the planets and see the date. It would useful to priests and civil servants – see when the next big festival is in say 5 years and plan for it. Very important in the day was the telling of fortunes and prophesies would be more accurate knowing the planet positions for say the time in question – should I battle on this day or that? should I propose now or later? From the recent language study it is discovered that it accurate predicts eclipses and has a table about if the color, size, and winds of an observed eclipse is a good omen or bad one.
It could have been used in a school or temple to teach. It might have been just a fancy curio for a rich family. At this point we don’t know if this was the only one or if say there was a family factory some where, possibly Rhodes, that made analog astrological computers.
As fascinating as it is, it was lost at sea and the knowledge of such analog computers lost until the great celestial clocks of Europe in the 14th century. Just think if it hadn’t been loss if we’d built on it over those 1500 years instead of learned the knowledge again from the bottom up. How far would we have gone?
It is important that knowledge is preserved and passed on to the next generation. It cannot be destroyed or suppressed because political winds change from Egyptian to Roman. It must be shared and built upon to call us to our higher selves and better service to all human not just those getting tribute for their advancements.