Some time ago I first wrote about a mystery unfolding in the Aegean Sea. To be more specific it’s an underwater area off the island of Antikythera. A mystery that is slowly revealing more and more of its secrets.
It is an extraordinary mystery that really begins in 200 BC, when a Roman ship sailed on a voyage. Where it came from and where it was going to nobody knows for certain. But somewhere between Greece and Crete, it ran into a storm and sank. And for more than two thousand years the treasures it carried literally faded into history. Entombed in the sandy bottom of the ocean.
Fast forward to only 100 years ago, when a group of sponge divers made a chance discovery. They saw the hand of an ancient statue protruding eerily from the silt. These sponge divers had stumbled on the wreck of that Roman ship. It is the largest ancient ship wreck that has ever been discovered. Even though they could only spend a short amount of time on the bottom, because of the depth, they still managed to collect a vast array of artefacts. It was an amazing but eclectic collection of bits and pieces: bronze and marble statues, jewellery, glass and coins. The statues were beautifully crafted and life-like despite the ravages of time and the sea. The glassware crafted to an exacting standard and brightly coloured. The treasure was the sum of many parts but not the whole. Very few of the items were complete. And of course that has led to much speculation about what kind of ship she was. Was it a treasure ship making a delivery to a King or a High Priest? Was it a plunder ship carrying the spoils and trophies of war? Or, was it just laden with an assortment of trinkets destined for sale in some distant market?
But there was one particular item they discovered that at first glance looked like a corroded lump of bronze cogs and wheels. Because it was bronze, it had survived well in the sea but didn’t look like anything, anyone had every seen before. A lot of years passed before scientists finally decided to take a closer look at the object to see if they could identify it.
The first job was to get it X-rayed. And when they did that it looked way more complicated than they first thought. There were wheels within wheels. But what exactly was it? It slowly dawned on scientists that this was one of the most sophisticated devices ever discovered from ancient times. Forget about Apple and Microsoft. What they were looking at was the world’s first computer, an analogue computer that did calculations. As far as anyone knows, this is the only example of its kind anywhere in the world. But how did it work? After further examination, the scientists finally determined it was an ancient timepiece that worked as an astronomical calculator. A calculator, or mechanical device, that predicted the movement of the stars and the planets. As one astrophysicist said, the device makes mechanical what has been known for centuries about astronomical cycles. These cycles predict eclipses by the moon and the sun and they have been used to produce workable calendars. This hand-cranked device was more than likely used to predict which city was due to host the Olympic Games, as well as track the movement of the planets, for prophecies and religious ceremonies.
Just to put this into context. This is something built in 200 BC. The kind of skill and complexity needed to manufacture it would not become evident until the 14 Century. This was beyond being ahead of its time. It could well be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time. Scientists think the device was probably manufactured for a wealthy person, who used it for a bit of fun.
The scientific community is very excited principally because they believe they only have half the story. There is another half of the device or devices, still lying at the bottom of the Aegean sea, waiting to be found. So scientists have no idea how complicated this device could potentially be, or even how many there are until they discover the rest of it. One set of gears and cogs doesn’t match the rest so there is more of the device or devices to be discovered.
But as time goes on scientists are learning more and more about what is being called the Antikythera mechanism. Some of the bronze work contains inscriptions and one word stands out. It is the Greek word for Cosmos. Scientists believe another metal plate may actually contain an instruction manual for using the device because it details different gear settings.
In a very recent development, scientists are now saying that the device may be much older than they first thought. The latest theory is that it dates from around 200 BC, and not 60 BC as first thought, which ties the device to two of history’s greatest minds, Archimedes and Hipparchus, both of them astronomers and mathematicians.
But one of the great ironies of this discovery is that true cutting edge technology has now been invented for the express purpose of discovering the rest of this ancient example of high tech wizardry and whatever else might be lurking at the site. A $1.7 million diving suit, which acts like a wearable submarine, has been developed so that an archaeologist can use it to explore the wreck site. There are pedals at the feet of the suit to allow the wearer to literally fly through the water powered by thrusters built into the suit’s backpack. The suit’s arms allow for free movement and instead of using their hands, archaeologists will recover objects using mechanical pincers. The suit has breathing and communication systems and a carbon dioxide scrubber, which means a diver can stay at depth for long periods.
The whole expedition is costing millions of dollars and, is being partly sponsored by a Swiss watchmaker. The Swiss are people used to dealing with complicated machinery so no surprise that they are curious to know more about what makes this device tick.
So far 82 fragments of the Antikythera mechanism have been found and recovered from the wreck. If it turns out to be some rich person’s toy it will be one the most complicated toys ever devised, a genuine forerunner of today’s modern computers. Move over Apple and Microsoft. Forget California, the first Silicon Valley was in Ancient Greece.