By Edward Snow
An international team is plotting its second expedition to the tiny Greek island of Antikythera where it hopes to find more shipwreck treasures buried under the sea at the site where sponge divers found an ancient, 2,000-year-old clockwork computer during a dive more than 100 years ago.
The island of Antikythera is located midway between the Peloponnese and the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea. A current issue of New Scientist magazine speculates that, in the first century B.C., a heavy wooden vessel sailing west from Asia Minor towards Rome with a full cargo on board smashed against the island’s cliffs in a storm and sank.
The sponge divers who stumbled upon the wreckage in 1900 salvaged the site under the direction of Greek archaeologists in what New Scientist describes as the first scientific investigation of a shipwreck. The investigators found bronze and marble statutes, gold jewelry, ornate furniture and gorgeous ceramics and glassware. But their most intriguing find was the unique geared device now known as the Antikythera mechanism. None of the archeologists – or for that matter anyone living on the planet at the time – had any idea that a mechanism this intricate and complex existed anywhere in the world.
Science writer Jo Merchant notes that when the device was brought to the surface it was corroded and encrusted in sea growth. At first, investigators ignored it. However, about a year later, the rock-like crust cracked open and “historians realized they had something special on their hands.”
The device was covered with largely illegible inscriptions and contained dozens of intricately meshed gear wheels that originally fit in a box about the size of an old-fashioned mantle clock. Once cleaned up it was possible for investigators to establish a timeline and a suspected point of origin for the device – the Greek colonies of Corinth, possibly Syracuse, on Sicily.
It was apparent to everyone who examined it at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens that the Antikythera mechanism was more sophisticated and far more technologically advanced than historians believed possible for the period. But it wasn’t immediately clear was what the device was used for. Eventually, high-resolution imaging systems, three-dimensional X-ray tomography and some insightful mathematical sleuthing revealed that the mechanism was used to track – with uncanny accuracy -the precise movements of the sun, moon and the five planets known to ancient Greek astrologers.
A unique feature of the mechanism was a dial that enabled the astrologer using it to move planetary positions backwards and forward in time with the kind of alacrity matched only in modern planetariums today. According to Merchant, the Antikythera mechanism functioned as a 19-year calendar based on the lunar cycle. Meshing clockwork gears and dials synchronized the uneven cycles of the sun and moon – twelve lunar months are about 11 days short of a year, but 235 lunar months fit well into 19 years. With this figured out investigators studying the device were able to determine that it was used to predict solar and lunar eclipses far into the future.
Obviously, the individual who designed and built the mechanism was a mathematical genius who understood celestial dynamics. Scientists who have studied the device suspect a possible connection with Archimedes, a mathematician who lived in Syracuse and died in 212 B.C.
More Valuable than Mona Lisa
Professor Michael Edmunds of Cardiff University led a 2006 study of the mechanism and had this to say: “The device is just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind. The design is beautiful, the astronomy is exactly right. The way the mechanics are designed just makes your jaw drop. Whoever has done this has done it extremely carefully…in terms of historic and scarcity value, I have to regard this mechanism as being more valuable than the Mona Lisa.”
In 1976, a scuba team led by marine explorer Jacques Cousteau excavated a small area of the site where the mechanism was found and brought up hundreds of small items, including jewelry, statuettes and coins. Currently, an international team led by archeologists Theotkokis Theodoulou and Dimitris Kourkoumelis of Greece’s Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, and archeologist Brandon Foley of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, is busy planning a second visit. The archeologists plan to use the latest sea search technologies to see if more ancient treasure remains buried in the sand at the project site.
Merchant reports the dive site can be treacherous and is at the mercy of the elements; an unrelenting north wind can make it too dangerous to dive. Foul weather ended the archeology team’s initial exploratory efforts earlier this year, but optimism persists. On its first try all the new team netted were an elegant wine jug, some small bronze pieces, and parts of an anchor probably left behind by Cousteau. But they came away with the conviction that more ancient treasures might still be found at the site; what they must do is dig deeper in the sand to find the larger items buried there.
“To discover if the wreck holds the treasures they dream of, perhaps even another ancient computer, they must wait for next year’s expedition,” Merchant wrote.
Two Important Questions
A few years ago the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) did a television special on the Antikythera mechanism that raised two important questions: Why in all of recorded history has only one of these remarkable devices been found? And what could possibly have motivated or enticed someone to invest the amount of time and energy needed to invent and build such a unique device several decades before the birth of Christ? Surely there was an easier way to figure out when to plant crops or stage Olympic competitions.
The easy answer to the first question is we wouldn’t know anything about the device that was found if a couple of sponge divers hadn’t fortuitously happened along to pluck it from its watery grave. In a world with Hellenism in decline it’s not hard to imagine that an intricately designed “analog computer” like the Antikythera mechanism might be abused or misused in the hands of those who fail to understand its utility. Once it was broken the device would have been especially difficult to fix; presumably, in this event, the prudent move might have been to melt down the valuable metal to make something more useful, like a bronze arrow tip.
The “why should anyone bother” question requires less conjecture: the ancient Greek philosophers looked at the night sky and saw universal order, purpose and meaning in the motions of distant planets and stars. In contrast, modern scientists survey the heavens and attempt to calibrate and measure whatever they can, but lately find themselves bemoaning the fact that most of existence appears to be hidden from sight as mysterious dark matter and energy.
Curiously, in all the reporting to be found on the topic, it’s difficult to find a scientist, historian or science reporter willing to tell readers or viewers the whole truth about this remarkable discovery. That is, the Antikythera mechanism was not the handiwork of a brilliant, mathematically astute Greek astronomer with an abundance of engineering skills – because astronomers as defined by moderns did not exist in the ancient world. The builder of the Antikythera mechanism was a brilliant astrologer on a sacred mission to provide a working model of systemic perfection. The Western world is only now beginning to catch up on some the astrological wisdom and vision gifted to humanity by the movers and shakers of this historical era.
About the author
Tags: Antikythera mechanism, Archimedes, astrology, Jo Merchant, Mona Lisa, National Archeological Museum Athens, New Scientist Magazine, Professor Michael Edmunds, Public Broadcasting System (PBS), solar and lunar eclipses