The Antikythera Mechanism

The Antikythera Mechanism is an ancient Greek invention that was found during the excavation of a shipwreck off the coast of Antikythera in 1901.

The Antikythera Mechanism found off the coast of Antikythera Island.

The Antikythera Mechanism found off the coast of Antikythera Island.

About the Shipwreck

The shipwreck was found by sponge divers in 1901. For the next 3 years after the discovery Archaeologists would attempt to excavate as much as possible from the wreckage. The currents in this area however, make it difficult for any continued excavation. There is no way to tell why the ship actually sank but the currents may have played a role in the wreck. The Antikythera shipwreck was the first ancient shipwreck ever found. The ship itself was not Greek at all rather it was Roman in origin. The wreck is dated to around 2000 years old and it is believed that the ship was on its way back to Rome with spoils of war for Julius Caesar.  Along with the Antikythera Mechanism there were other objects found as well. There was pottery, jewelry, furniture, amphorae, and statues. The most famous of the statues found would be that of the ephebe. Out of all the treasures found at the wreck sight the Antikythera Mechanism was the one thing that would spark interest and debated over the next 100 years.

The Ephebe statue. It is believed to be either Paris or Perseus.

The Ephebe statue. It is believed to be either Paris or Perseus.

What is the mechanism?

The Antikythera Mechanism itself was found by the sponge diver named Elias Stadiatos. The device was found in a box that contained Greek writing on the outside. The writing is assumed to be similar to an instruction manual. It was made out of bronze and included up to 30 gears. The mechanism has been called the world’s first analog computer that was used to track astronomical calculations and make predictions based on the patterns of the stars. This is the most popular theory of what it was used for but some scholars are not convinced. Without an ancient detailed written account of the mechanism we may never really know the true function however, given the available archaeological evidence scholars have been able to uncover we now can make educated guesses as to the function of the mechanism. The person that is using the device is able to input a date in the future and it would track the sun, moon, stars, and plants for that given date. The device is assumed to have built somewhere around 87 B.C.E. and lost around 76 B.C.E. in the shipwreck. There has been no other mechanism like this ever discovered and some scholars believe that it was built off of earlier plans that were drawn up by Archimedes.

A modern day reconstruction of what the Antikythera may have looked like.

A modern day reconstruction of what the Antikythera may have looked like.

What is on it?

There have been several attempts to reconstruct the mechanism based on the gears and the writing that was found with it and on it. All of the writing on the front and the back of the device is in Greek. On the front of the device there are two rings: an inner ring and an outer ring. First on the outer ring it lists the months of the Egyptian calendar, as well as the Sothic year. On the inner ring was the Greek zodiac. There was a dial on the device that could be adjusted to account for a leap year every four years on the Egyptian calendar. This shows that the Egyptian calendar may have been more advanced than people give it credit for. The last important piece on the front of the device is the parapegma, which marked the rising and setting of particular stars.

On the back of the device there are five dials. The first dial represents the Metonic calendar that spans over 19 years and has 235 months in it. The second dial is the Olympiad dial that was used to track the Olympic games. The third dial represents the Callippic Calendar that spans over a 76 year cycle. The fourth dial is the Saros calendar consisting of 18 years and 223 months. The last dial is the Exeligmos calendar that has 54 years and 33 days in it.

Conclusion

The Antikythera mechanism was a once in a lifetime find that changed the way people thought about the capability of technology in the ancient world. The date of the mechanism places it at the end of the Hellenistic period, which shows the advancements of that period were great and may have been limitless if the period had not ended. The seven dials that are on the mechanism represent different kinds of calendars that would have been found throughout the Mediterranean. They represent the culture diffusion that was prevalent during this period. The only language on the device, however, is Greek meaning that the world at this point in time had a universal language for commerce.

Sources

The Antikythera Mechanism. (2006). Retrieved from Antikythera Mechanism: http://www.antikythera-mechanism.com/

Marchant, J. (2009). Decoding the Heavens. Cambridge: Da Capo Press.

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