26 July 2013


When the Greek sponge diver rose from the blue in 1900 with a battered box ill-treated by saltwater immersion for two thousand years, the ugly wood box caused little excitement. This artifact was neither a bronze statue nor a precious vase nor jewelry, and the crew's first impulse was to toss it back to the deep. The sponge divers were risking their lives to bring up treasure from a Roman shipwreck.

Instead the item made it ashore and into museum storage for decades, almost unknown to the scientific world much less popular imagination. Cursory examination in 1902 showed it had some type of gear mechanism. Nothing further happened. The x-ray had yet to be used on artifacts. Then, in the 1970s, an American and a Greek researcher collaborated to x-ray the badly corroded bronze lump.

The lump turned out to contain 30 bronze gears, and may have had more gears. Of astonishing complexity, the Antikythera machine functioned in astronomy. In our jargon, it had a lot of “apps.” Further study provoked the usual debate about whether and how those oh-so-simple ancients could have made such a mechanism, and that debate continues. Those familiar with the Nebra sky disk recognize this bias that favors our own meager accomplishments at the expense of clever forebears who did so much and with much less.

Proponents of its function cite ancient texts describing other automated mechanical wonders in “prehistoric” times and specifically during Hellenistic Greece; and suggest the inventor was Archimedes, Hipparchus, or a student of either. Whoever designed the Antikythera had other examples of automata for inspiration and had access to a wealth of astronomy---if one ignores the naysayers. Various papers and replicas since 1974 attempt to establish exactly how the Antikythera mechanism works. If one understands calculus or simply plows through, the academic papers can be a good read in themselves and reveal how very intricate is this device that tracks lunar, solar, and planetary movements, possibly eclipses, and perhaps even the Olympic games in its day.* Replicas show that the original device was aesthetically pleasing; it might have also included precious metals and stones.

The Antikythera embodies someone's great passion if not a lifelong obsession. Now that this remarkable object has literally resurfaced, it carries an inherent challenge to tell the human story of how it came to be, including who carted it off as spoils for a Roman emperor along with gorgeous statues and vases. This unassuming collection of bronze gears from the first century BCE that we today scarcely understand continues to challenge notions of progress, if not of who we are, in the greater scheme of human history.

* See Nature article, 31 July 2008, vol 454. For the latest finds at the Antikythera wreck site, see : http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2013/mar/18/return-to-antikythera-divers.
J.S. Dunn lived in Ireland during the past decade, on 12 lovely acres fronting a salmon river. The author continues to research and travel the Atlantic coasts and recently  enjoyed wonderful seafood on the Cotes d’Armor, and in Cornwall, and at the famed Lobster Pot restaurant in County Wexford, Ireland.