The Mysteries of Antikythera

Over a hundred years ago, the wreck of a treasure ship was found off the coast of Antikythera. It was the kind of discovery you hear about in movies, statues and coins laying at the bottom of the sea for thousands of years, a wealth of riches and knowledge. A Roman ship that sank while taking treasure from Greece, it became the site of the world’s first underwater archaeological investigation. They brought up the coins, and the statues, everything they could, including a big pile of sediment encrusted junk that would sit for months outside Athens’ National Archaeological Museum. But as any archaeologist will tell you, a pile of junk is always more interesting than any coin.

One afternoon that pile cracked open to reveal gears and mechanisms covered in inscriptions. In the early 1900’s, no one knew what to make of it. It was all gear trains and wheels, corroded bits and bobs made with unexplainable purpose. It went on the shelf as an unsolvable thing, where we put things like Linear A and the Voynich Manuscript. Fast forward seventy years, to see archaeologists and nuclear physicists working to create images of the mechanism, 82 pieces in all, trying to map them and fit them together to see what it does. That’s when life gets really weird.

The Anthikythera Mechanism is a computer.

It’s an analog computer, and new research shows that it may have been used to teach astronomy. Reconstructions have been built time and time again since the pieces were mapped. For the engineers in the crowd, here’s a video of how it all fits together. There’s even an Android app that showcases the different models.

In 2012 archaeologists were permitted to return to the Antikythera site to try and gather additional context, and more recently, they’ve been able to translate some of the inscriptions, written in Koine Greek. Estimates of the device’s origins place it somewhere between 200 and 70 BCE, and as far as anyone knows it’s the only one of its kind.

There are still more questions with answers, but the things the mechanism can tell us about ancient Greece aren’t merely locked up in how it works and what it does. Someone, presumably more than someone, had the mental wherewithal not just to design a computer, but to conceptualize a problem that they needed a computer to solveThe difference engine was designed to do math, but the Antikythera Mechanism does astronomy. The mechanism, as far as we can tell, is designed to answer questions about the stars by inputting data. Designing it would have taken artisans and engineers, let alone building and inscribing it. And from the models, we can tell that it worked. This wasn’t some pet project turned junk sculpture, it was a working mechanism that would output current astronomical information.

There’s no record of the Antikythera Mechanism anywhere else in history, no reference to its existence in texts, inscriptions, or the archaeological record. It may be the only one of its kind, and the only reason we know it exists is because a hundred years ago someone found a pile of junk in a shipwreck and made time to bring it up. Sometimes this world is god damn marvelous.

For more information on the Antikythera Mechanism, you can download the Android app, check out the videos from the latest diving expedition on Youtube or at the Return to Antikythera site, get updates at the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, or follow them on Twitter @antikytheradive.

Jim Tigwell

A survivor of two philosophy degrees, Jim Tigwell spends his days solving interesting problems in software. By night he can be found at poetry slams and whatever art opening has the strangest cheese selection. Host of the biweekly Concept Crucible podcast and occasional blogger, Jim is also a juggler, musician, magician, and maker of digital things. You can find his music and videos at Woot Suit Riot, a channel that doubles as a home for wayward and timid creators. Observe his antics there, or heckle directly on Twitter @ConceptCrucible. If the software and internet game doesn’t pan out, he’s determined to be a great Canadian vampire hunter.

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