A few decades ago, a mysterious astronomical device was discovered between the islands of Peloponnese and Crete, somewhere in the Aegean Sea. The object, which has been dubbed the Antikythera Mechanism, is one of the few objects in the world that could not possibly exist. The origins of this object raise many questions. Who made them, why, and when?
It was found in the deepness, covered by thousands of years of rust. The mechanism was discovered on 17 May 1902 by fishermen in the waters off Crete, at a depth of about 40 metres in the sea, in a Roman shipwreck that sank in the 1st century BC. The artefact was excavated later that year and examined by an archaeologist named Valerios Stais, who then purchased it for the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. For decades afterwards, the find was ignored because it seemed too complex and too elaborate to be contemporary with the other artefacts recovered from the wreck. Without any analysis, it was labelled as modern-day waste, when it was much more than that.
The scientist pointed out that bronze sculptures from that period were also found only in the cargo of sunken ships, the rest probably ended up in smelters.
The original structure has not been allowed to be studied abroad and cannot even be removed from the museum building. So the scientists were forced to transport the testing machines to the museum. A total of 82 fragments were recovered, which were later dated to around 140-100 BC by later dating studies. More than fifty years after its discovery, archaeologist Derek de Solla Price, examining the main part of the structure under a magnifying glass, noticed that it contained gears. In the years that followed, the bronze pieces were examined first by X-ray and then, as time went on, by the latest technological tools, but the purpose of the structure and the identity of its maker remained obscure.
X-ray analysis and other modern tools have revealed that the device consists of more than 37 handmade bronze gears and discs. It contains more than 2000 characters and symbols. The front of the structure resembles a clock, with two concentric circles, one representing the Greek zodiac and the other the Egyptian calendar. The largest wheel has 27 teeth. The object is 33 cm high, 17 cm wide and 9 cm deep, it was made of bronze and housed in a wooden case.
What was its purpose?
According to the researchers, the Antikythera structure was a computer with a solar-centred, or heliocentric, viewpoint, used to calculate and model astronomical phenomena. This was further proof that mankind had advanced astronomical knowledge and technology 2000 years ago. This is, of course, astonishing. The press coverage was not lacking, with many researchers claiming that such a device could not have existed at that time. However, one researcher, Michael Wright, was sceptical that the model really reflects a heliocentric view.
Heavily damaged by time at the bottom of the sea, the mechanical computer bears the hallmarks of the precision and complexity of the old 19th-century clocks. Even today, its exact purpose cannot be established with certainty. It was probably used in astronomy, as mentioned earlier: to make precise measurements about the sun, the moon and the planets.
Previous experiments have also shown that the mechanics could also describe the certain motion of the Moon. Because the Moon moves in an elliptical orbit around the Earth, rather than in a regular circle, its speed changes several times during the month, slowing down at one point and speeding up at another. To illustrate the accuracy of the instrument, Apple software engineer Andrew Carol built an exact replica of the mechanics of the structure in Lego and used it to accurately predict the solar eclipse on 8 April 2024. The mechanism seems so accurate, that it was probably preceded by several imperfect prototypes. However, no such prototypes have yet been found by archaeologists.
As you can see, one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time is thought to have been a kind of early astronomical computer. But how the Ancient Greeks developed the device which is packed with a stunningly complex array of bronze gears, remains a mystery – especially given the period in which it was made.
A study from November 2022 suggests that the device may have first been in operation on 22 December 178 BC. Researchers believe that a solar eclipse occurred on this exact date to coincide with the winter solstice the next day, so both were important events, and both would have been excellent start dates.
While this conclusion is certainly interesting, not all experts agree. For example, if the specific start date were correct, the other seasons and dates displayed by the device would be inaccurate (for example, the grape ripening season is in mid-February), so this theory does not really hold up either.
Who built it?
But who made it and where? There are many explanations. Some theories suggest that Poseidon of Rhodes, a Stoic philosopher, was the inventor of the mechanism, while others that it was Archimedes. Recent research has not come much closer to a solution, but it is also supposed that the inventor was Archimedes. The mechanical marvel was probably made in Corinth, based on designs by the mathematician and physicist Archimedes. The ancient genius is also credited with the invention of the military equipment that enabled the Syracuse Greeks to resist the Roman armies that invaded Sicily for nearly two years. At the same time, Cicero mentions in one of his works a device that Poseidon is said to have made.
According to ancient writings, Archimedes was killed during the sack of Syracuse, it was stolen by the Roman general Marcellus. The device was kept as a family heirloom by the Roman family, and Cicero may have seen it as a friend. In 2010, researchers suggested that the Antikythera mechanism seems to be more based on Babylonian astrology, as experts believe that the Greeks borrowed a lot from the Babylonians, including astrology and mechanical designs and solutions. But there are also much wilder theories that the device was the work of alien beings. Legend has it that it was the much-heralded Annunaki race that introduced the human race to Earth.
According to ancient alien theorists, the human race is the creation of aliens, and they are also our gods who have occasionally visited Earth from the sky. This is where the various cave paintings, sculptures and hieroglyphs later came from, depicting huge elongated-headed creatures, spaceships and sculptures of scavengers. Aliens wanted to share their knowledge with mankind through such and similar structures.
The paleoastronautical view is that aliens have visited Earth since prehistoric times. They did so to study prehistoric humans and teach them completely new things. This is one of the reasons why humans started to make tools and later learned to read and write and the Antikythera mechanism could be the result of this progress. What is certain is that the Ancient Greeks were well versed in the technology, and several sources mention Greek geared structures.
Perhaps more recent research could reveal even more secrets if we could dive into the seabed again.
How old is it?
Until November 2014, we thought that the mechanism had been 2000 years old. A new discovery in that year suggested that the mechanism had been more antique than the shipwreck itself where it was found.
In 2014 a new study showed that the mechanism was 200 years older than the ship which was sunk in a storm between Greece and Crete. The bronze mechanism is connected to two Greek geniuses, Archimedes and Hipparchus. 82 fragments of the mechanism have been recovered from the ship since its discovery in 1901. There were attempts to find more parts of the mechanism in 2014 but they were unsuccessful because of the bad weather in that area during that time. Besides the function of the mechanism – prediction of solar eclipses – there was another role of the device: its back indicated an event on May 12, 205BC. This event happened after the murder of Archimedes who was killed by a Roman soldier during the conquer of his city.
Previous techniques for determining its age were analysing the writing style on the device and radiocarbon analysis. These techniques were combined with the context of the ship where it was found. The indication on its back suggested a new fact: that it had come from Syracuse ? a place where Archimedes lived. However, there are other writings on the device: these are written in the style of Rhodes. which questioned Archimedes’ connection. This discovery brings another person into the foreground: the astronomer Hipparchus, who died in Rhodes in 120BC.
The problems brought up another theory which suggested that there had to be two mechanisms on that ship. These disputes over their date of birth, circumstances of their creation, and their function bring more questions while we are still amazed by this device.
Photo: Marsyas / CC BY 2.5