Antikythera mechanism

The Antikythera mechanism and its secret.

The Antikythera mechanism and its history came to light at the beginning of the 20th century, exactly on May 17, 1902, a wreck of an ancient Roman ship was found off the island of Serigotto (Antikythera). Antikythera is a rocky island located between Crete and mainland Greece. In the early 1900s, a group of Greek divers from the eastern Mediterranean island of Symi were searching for natural sponges when, during a storm, they went astray and luckily discovered the wreck of a huge ship carrying bronze and marble statues.

After reporting the find to the authorities, archaeologists worked on the wreck until September 1901, after which cataloguing and restoration work began at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (among the recovered sculptures of Ephebes from Antikythera, which at 1.96 m in height does not correspond to the known iconographic models and, according to some scholars, could be Perseus holding the head of the slain Gorgon or the young Hercules with the apple of the Hesperides, according to others the scientist Hermes, making a speech and holding the caduceus. Attributed to the sculptor Euphranor, it remains a brilliant work of bronze sculpture by the Peleponese).

Among the artefacts that initially escaped attention was a block the size of a large dictionary, a strange object that showed signs of corrosion and was largely encased in calcifications and marine animal deposits. Originally consisting of a single block, it subsequently split into several pieces, exposing precise coin-sized bronze gears, many with inscriptions. Spiridon Stais examined some of the fragments in 1902 and immediately realised that this was a complex mechanism. This is how the mechanical device known today as the Antikythera machine (or Antikythera mechanism) was discovered.

At first it was not easy to understand what it was, partly because the 82 copper parts that made it up were corroded and damaged. Through long and painstaking restoration work, the structure was restored, and at some point it became clear that it was a sophisticated device to reproduce the movement of the planets around the sun and the phases of the moon.

The mechanism was so sophisticated that it was assumed to have been built in times very close to our own, and happened to be on the seabed near Crete, in the immediate vicinity of a Roman ship. However, all analyses have confirmed that the object was created around the first century BC.

Stunning imagination - the Antikythera mechanism

We have grown accustomed to finds from the last century either disappointing or outright fake, but this machine from the past never ceases to amaze. In 2008, Alexander Jones of the Institute of Ancient World Studies in New York was able to translate some of the inscriptions and discovered that the names of months engraved on the instrument were those used in the Corinthian colonies, particularly in Syracuse, Sicily. It could therefore have been made in Sicily.

In 2010, this ancient Roman device was discovered to calculate eclipses, as well as the phases of the moon and the movements of the planets (five known at the time). Moreover: from the interpretation of some engravings on the apparatus itself, it became clear that it accurately indicated the dates of the Olympic Games and the associated Pangellena Games.

More recently, Jones himself has published a new paper in the journal Almagest, in which he claims to have been able to read some 3,500 symbols on the machine - virtually everything found on the fragments recovered. And he claims that what has been written resembles a philosophical guide to the heavens: "We were able to understand how eclipses were predicted in 100 BC," he explains, "and what knowledge they had of the movement of the planets: we have taken a big step forward in understanding what Greek astronomy was like at the time.

foto anticitera museo 99
Antikythera mechanism

The dimensions of the anti-kicker mechanism were originally intended to be similar to the dimensions of an office document container. Thanks to a whole series of analyses using various techniques, we now know how the machine worked and how it was operated (using a crank), so much so that several working copies of it have been created (depending on the interpretation that was made). However, as Jones summarised well, the question remains about the complexity of the mechanism: what was it used for?

The feeling, says the researcher, was that it was not intended for special research, but had an educational purpose. It could be used to show the position of the Sun and Moon on any day of the year, as well as eclipses and the movements of known planets: an important element as it determined political decisions.
One could go a step further in understanding this machine if more details were found on the seabed, but extensive research suggests that all that remains of this incredible calculator of the past has already been found.

A virtual reconstruction of how the Antikythera mechanism works
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