Scientist tackles mystery of ancient astronomical device

January 6, 2015 by Sandi Doughton, The Seattle Times
Main Antikythera mechanism fragment. The mechanism consists of a complex system of 32 wheels and plates with inscriptions relating to the signs of the zodiac and the months. Image: National Archaeological Museum, Athens, No. 15987.

The shoebox-size chunk of bronze didn't attract much attention when divers retrieved it from an ancient shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901. Archaeologists on the expedition had their hands full with far more impressive finds, including life-size statues of warriors and horses, delicate glass bowls and scores of ceramic vessels called amphorae.

Decades would pass before scientists realized that the nondescript bronze - now called the Antikythera Mechanism - was the biggest treasure of all.

The device consisted of a series of intricate, interlocking gears designed to predict eclipses and calculate the positions of the sun, moon and planets as they swept across the of the sky.

The machine exhibited a level of technological sophistication no one dreamed was possible when it was built, at least 2,000 years ago. Europe produced nothing to equal it until the geared clocks of the Medieval period, more than a thousand years later. Some scholars describe the Antikythera Mechanism as the world's first analog computer.

"The amazing thing is the mechanical engineering aspect," says James Evans, a physicist and science historian at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. He is part of an international group working to crack the puzzle of the device's origins and purpose. Evans recently added a new twist with an analysis that suggests it dates to 205 B.C. - as much as a century earlier than previously believed.

If he's right, it is more likely that the Antikythera Mechanism was inspired by the work of the legendary Greek mathematician Archimedes. It would also mean the device was built at time when scientific traditions from multiple cultures were coming together to create a new view of the cosmos.

"Pushing the date back is exciting," Evans said. "We think it would be highly significant because it could change the picture of the development of Greek astronomy."

While excitement over ancient astronomy might not be widespread, the mechanism's discovery and the mystery that surrounds it are so steeped in drama it inspired a popular science book and an episode of "Nova."

Greek sponge divers stumbled across the wreck of the Roman galley in 1900, after being blown off course and taking shelter in the lee of the tiny island north of Crete. During underwater excavations the next year, they hauled up one of the richest bounties of Greek artifacts ever uncovered - but one diver died and two others were crippled from working at depths of up to 200 feet.

French explorer Jacques Cousteau visited the site in the 1950s and 1970s, using an underwater vacuum to suck up sediment and reveal buried objects.

Scientists think the ship was a merchant vessel that foundered around 60 B.C.

Archaeologists eventually identified more than 80 corroded fragments believed to be part of the Antikythera Mechanism, including the shoebox-size piece with dials and gears clearly visible on the surface.

Replica Antikythera Based on the research of Professor Derek de Solla Price, in collaboration with the National Scientific Research Center Demokritos and physicist CH Karakalos. image by Marsyas via Wikimedia Commons

The real breakthrough in understanding came in 2005, when a team of scientists used X-ray tomography to peer through the encrusted metal and reveal the layers of gears inside. Digital techniques yielded the first sharp images of the inscriptions on the dials and casings.

The studies revealed at least 30 interlocking gears, and researchers believe the device held at least two dozen more.

The assembly was housed in a wooden box and operated by a hand crank. Elaborate dials traced the movement of heavenly bodies, while ingenious gearing mimicked the fluctuating speeds at which the moon crosses the night sky, even though the Greeks had no understanding of the elliptical orbit responsible for the effect.

One dial plotted the four-year cycle of Olympic Games. Another predicted the timing of solar and lunar eclipses, apparently down to the hour.

That was the dial that Evans and Christian Carman of the University of Quilmes in Argentina, focused on for their new analysis, published in the Archive for History of Exact Science.

Based on the style of Greek lettering on the Antikythera Mechanism, previous estimates of its construction date ranged between 150 and 100 B.C. But Evans and Carman took an astronomical approach, comparing eclipse dates on the mechanism to Babylonian eclipse records and a NASA eclipse catalog.

They concluded that the "start date" for the eclipse predictor was 205 B.C.

That doesn't prove the device was built then, but Evans thinks it was. "For us, it seems most likely that it was built close to the period for which it would have worked best," he said.

Science historian Alexander Jones, who was not involved with the analysis, called it "a really remarkable piece of work."

Evans and Carman clearly establish the oldest possible age for the device, said Jones, of New York University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. But he's still not convinced it was manufactured that long ago. It's possible that 205 B.C. was a historic date, chosen by the maker as the starting point for his dial, Jones pointed out.

The 205 B.C. date is tantalizing because it would bring the device closer to the lifetime of Archimedes. The genius who revolutionized geometry and invented compound pulleys was killed in 212 B.C. during the Roman conquest of the Greek city state of Syracuse, on the island of Sicily.

A story later told by the Roman historian Cicero claimed that the general who sacked Syracuse brought back to Rome a mechanical brass sphere created by Archimedes that modeled the movements of heavenly bodies.

But the famous inventor died seven years before 205 B.C., and there's no way to link him to the Antikythera Mechanism.

"People should be leery of trying to associate it with any one particular person," Evans said. "But you would have to think that whoever built this must at least have made use of what Archimedes had done, or came out of a tradition that started with Archimedes."

If the date holds up, it would also mean that the device was built before the invention of trigonometry, a branch of mathematics long linked to the golden era of Greek astronomy.

"I think that would make it much more interesting, because it would come from a more formative period of Greek astronomy," Evans said.

Future revelations about the may hinge on the discovery of additional fragments. A new series of underwater excavations started last year and will resume in the spring.

This time, divers will be able to spend hours instead of minutes on the bottom, using a pressurized robotic suit developed in Vancouver, British Columbia, and originally used to inspect New York City's water system.

Explore further: Antikythera mechanism: Researchers find clues to an ancient Greek riddle

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KBK
1.4 / 5 (14) Jan 06, 2015
The question, the next domino of logic, of course, is:

What else is out there...that is even older and at least or even more impressive, even more advanced?

If one starts looking, then they begin to find such items, such scenarios.

Which places a giant question mark into and on known 'public' history.

Which makes another domino of logic fall.

One finds a considerable amount of hidden history, purposely obfuscated history.

Which only leads to far more questions than answers.

The intrepid will look and pursue, the fearful and self-corralled will be pessimistic, rude, insulting and derisive. The question is, of course, why they deride, why they project so hard into controlling discussions to devolve them into fitful argument...

Is it fear, is it ego, or is it something else?
katesisco
1.8 / 5 (8) Jan 06, 2015
The debate has been: does the times make the man or the man make the times?
I think the genius that creates magnificent insights and monuments is clearly the work of one mind, from beginning to end. So, the man makes the times. HENCE the untimely short Early Copper Age. It may not be a stretch to claim that our recorded civilizations are the work of one , not a culmination.
default
4.4 / 5 (13) Jan 06, 2015
@KBK: the domino that escapes logic, is why should anyone expect discoveries that prove to be older than the Antikythera device to be more advanced than it? do you think Greek society was progressing backwards to the future from an earlier civilization that would consider the Antikythera device to be crude?
KBK
1.3 / 5 (12) Jan 06, 2015
@default: Look deeper, look around, I cannot do that for you. This device is not the only anomaly.

Look around, look deeply, look with a mind that is willing to grow.... and you will find hundreds.

Far, far far to many to all be in error.

All it takes is one. Just one. Then the whole erected story is shot to hell. And when you look enough, with as much a critical and balanced a mind as is possible (critical not meaning severe and negative)...the erected story of 'history' will indeed be shot to hell.
PPihkala
1.4 / 5 (9) Jan 06, 2015
Two ancient dates that I can think of are bosnian pyramids, 24000 years ago and destruction of north america in asteroid strike, 13000-12000 years ago. Other calamities have probably at times reset the technological advance reached that far.
OZGuy
4.7 / 5 (14) Jan 06, 2015
KBK
Time add another layer of tinfoil and top up the meds unless of course you are a pre-teen in which case High School or your local equivalent will set you straight in due course.

PPihkala
The Bosnian pyramids are NOT pyramids just a geological formation that's being milked to write books and generate tourist revenue.

North America was not destroyed in any asteroid strike around 12,000 years ago. There may or may not have been a meteorite impact but it certainly didn't destroy North America if it did occur.

Then you inanely infer "Other calamities have probably at times reset the technological advance reached that far." . Sorry but desperately wanting to believe in outlandish conspiracy theories and entertaining conjecture rather than undertaking actual learning to fill your brain is a guaranteed road to lifelong ignorance.
alfie_null
4.7 / 5 (13) Jan 07, 2015
@default: Look deeper, look around, I cannot do that for you. This device is not the only anomaly.

Look around, look deeply, look with a mind that is willing to grow.... and you will find hundreds.

You cannot do what? Simply post some links for instance? Supporting some alternative belief you don't quite want to admit?

Enough with the hand waving. That's not how science works. You push out a hypothesis. Or maybe just an observation you don't understand. Which is consequently subjected to critics. If you can successfully defend it, good. Else it's tossed on the scrap heap, like so much of the bad science we've been subject to in the past. It's a collaborative process and it's not kumbaya, man. It never was.
mooster75
4.2 / 5 (11) Jan 07, 2015
@default: Look deeper, look around, I cannot do that for you. This device is not the only anomaly.

Look around, look deeply, look with a mind that is willing to grow.... and you will find hundreds.

You cannot do what? Simply post some links for instance? Supporting some alternative belief you don't quite want to admit?

Enough with the hand waving. That's not how science works. You push out a hypothesis. Or maybe just an observation you don't understand. Which is consequently subjected to critics. If you can successfully defend it, good. Else it's tossed on the scrap heap, like so much of the bad science we've been subject to in the past. It's a collaborative process and it's not kumbaya, man. It never was.

But damn it, there's a conspiracy involved!

Switching to serious mode, it would have been nice if there had been some new information in the article. I had my hopes up that something new had been discovered about the device, but no such luck.
baudrunner
1.3 / 5 (3) Jan 07, 2015
Elaborate dials traced the movement of heavenly bodies, while ingenious gearing mimicked the fluctuating speeds at which the moon crosses the night sky, even though the Greeks had no understanding of the elliptical orbit responsible for the effect.
Garrulous bit of writing, that.

Anyone "ingenious" enough to design this marvelous piece of engineering could easily infer that bit of knowledge without giving it a second thought.
Tangent2
1.5 / 5 (4) Jan 07, 2015
Archaeologists on the expedition had their hands full with far more impressive finds, including life-size statues of warriors and horses, delicate glass bowls and scores of ceramic vessels called amphorae.


Statues, glass bowls, and ceramics were far more impressive finds than a gear box system that, according to mainstream, should not exist due to the assumed level of knowledge of the ancients?

Did I miss something?
ron_ae
not rated yet Jan 08, 2015
There was one or two finds of similar mechanical "computers" according to an "ancient discovery" episode I watched. I believe there was a statement something to the effect that the other mechanisms were less complex. I cannot locate the information now. Has anyone else heard of the other device (s)?
OZGuy
5 / 5 (8) Jan 08, 2015
Tangent2
When originally retrieved the Antikythera Mechanism looked like an unimpressive block of scrap brass, once they cleaned it up and could actually see it attitudes changed.
ron_ae
not rated yet Jan 09, 2015
It is possible that fragments which were found later were mistakenly identified. I appreciate your input.
tlweldon75
1 / 5 (1) Jan 09, 2015
maybe it's for navigation, like the rolex submariner.
floathouse
1.9 / 5 (9) Jan 11, 2015
OZ-Guy,

You really need to do a little homework before you pontificate a hand wave statement about the Younger Dryas impact event. You not only are wrong, you are woefully and ineptly wrong. i.e. "North America was not destroyed in any asteroid strike around 12,000 years ago. There may or may not have been a meteorite impact but it certainly didn't destroy North America if it did occur."

Here are some geological facts. The Black Mat (about 8' of charcoal, incendiary debris, nanodiamonds, errata, ejecta is thickest (closest) to the impact site near the Pacific Northwest. That's just a geological fact. That particular geological column artifact is in fact 14c dated to almost exactly 12,800 YBP, as is the Yellowstone Gorge and the clam shell beds in Central (High Rockies) Colorado. The Black Hills is geologically an ancient island with petrified giant trees of gigantic proportions. The Yellowstone Basin is a slope failure of the original impact site. Those are geological facts.
floathouse
1 / 5 (9) Jan 11, 2015
Here is a white paper with photos:


600 Mile Wide Impact Crater in the Pacific NW
Cause of the Younger-Dryas extinction level event 12,800 years ago

ttps://www.academia.edu/8590060/600_Mile_Wide_Impact_Crater_in_the_Pacific_NW_cause_of_the_Younger-Dryas_extinction_level_event_12_800_years_ago
TechnoCreed
5 / 5 (8) Jan 11, 2015
Hey 'outhouse' FIY academia.edu do not hold any peered review paper. Second thing; please read the title and post comments related to the subject... You are way out of topic.

Oups! the rating on the first comment you posted. Was supposed to be a 1.
Maggnus
4.6 / 5 (11) Jan 11, 2015
Here are some geological facts. The Black Mat (about 8' of charcoal, incendiary debris, nanodiamonds, errata, ejecta is thickest (closest) to the impact site near the Pacific Northwest. That's just a geological fact. That particular geological column artifact is in fact 14c dated to almost exactly 12,800 YBP, as is the Yellowstone Gorge and the clam shell beds in Central (High Rockies) Colorado. The Black Hills is geologically an ancient island with petrified giant trees of gigantic proportions. The Yellowstone Basin is a slope failure of the original impact site. Those are geological facts.
Hogwash. The Yellowstone basin is a caldera. The rest of your post is just flotsam. Give a few cites or shut up,
Vietvet
4.7 / 5 (12) Jan 11, 2015
Here is a white paper with photos:


600 Mile Wide Impact Crater in the Pacific NW
Cause of the Younger-Dryas extinction level event 12,800 years ago

ttps://www.academia.edu/8590060/600_Mile_Wide_Impact_Crater_in_the_Pacific_NW_cause_of_the_Younger-Dryas_extinction_level_event_12_800_years_ago


Thanks for the laughs, the funniest thing I've read all day.

"I will make the declarative statement that the Sacajawea impact event at 12,800 ybp DID in fact drive many giant flora and fauna INCLUDING some surviving species of dinosaurs into near extinction, with a few remaining scattered groups surviving into the late Holocene (near modern times),--"

And the bit about an asteroid hitting the Pacific Northwest and popping out in China was a real knee slapper!

https://www.acade...ears_ago

OZGuy
4.8 / 5 (9) Jan 11, 2015
@floathouse
Haven't seen that one on the sci-fi channel movie list yet, I'll keep an eye out for it. Should push Sharknado 2 down the ratings list a fair bit if they have decent special-effects people.
EnricM
5 / 5 (5) Jan 13, 2015
nt...

Is it fear, is it ego, or is it something else?


First: It is a Domino STONE, Domino is a game.
Second: What the hell are you talking about?
Ancient Astronauts?

Why in hell's name would we fear that the Greeks of the Hellenistic period / Roman Empire were able to create a clockwork mechanism? In which way is that scary? Or do you suffer from Chronometrophobia ? Are you afraid by the Big Ben mate?

OZGuy
5 / 5 (5) Jan 13, 2015
EnricM
Maybe it's alethephobia given it's not exciting enough for him and needs more mystery and conspiracy added to be palatable.
TechnoCreed
4.3 / 5 (6) Jan 13, 2015
Why in hell's name would we fear that the Greeks of the Hellenistic period / Roman Empire were able to create a clockwork mechanism? In which way is that scary? Or do you suffer from Chronometrophobia ? Are you afraid by the Big Ben mate?
Maybe it's alethephobia given it's not exciting enough for him and needs more mystery and conspiracy added to be palatable.
Much more like gnosiophobia.
PhotonX
5 / 5 (4) Jan 25, 2015
And the bit about an asteroid hitting the Pacific Northwest and popping out in China was a real knee slapper!
OFF TOPIC: Yes, I had to read that twice to make sure I didn't misunderstand it. Were they talking about a contracoup compression? No, it clearly poses this question: "If a large meteor struck the earth that was over 25 miles in diameter, could it penetrate the crust and Earth's upper mantle, travel through the liquid molten center, and exit through the upper mantle and crust on the opposite side of the globe?", and arriving at that conclusion by analogy by reducing "the Earth down to the size of a large goose egg, (about 10")". That's some goose. Or a wild goose chase, maybe.
.
But I'm no geologist. Maybe it *is* possible for a 25 mile asteroid to completely penetrate Earth's core from North America (wiping out an unknown civilization apparently as advanced as the Greeks) and emerge in China without causing worldwide calamity. Or maybe I just don't understand it.
Whydening Gyre
3 / 5 (2) Jan 25, 2015
Maybe it's alethephobia...


Much more like gnosiophobia.


Made me xenophobic...
til I looked those up...

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