Archeologists have returned to the ancient shipwreck that yielded the Antikythera Mechanism. This amazing artifact is an intricate mechanical masterpiece that Ancient Greco-Roman scholars used to predict the motions of the heavens.
The most recent dive turned up a bronze chair, a piece of a Greek board game, intact amphora (a vase with big handles), a fragment of a bone flute, and many pieces of broken ceramics, glass, iron, and bronze. According to project co-director and marine archaeologist at the Woods Hold Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Brendan Foleyand, “Every single dive on it delivers fabulous finds, and reveals how the ‘one percent’ lived in the time of Caesar.” The boat is dated to have sunk in the year 65 BCE.
To understand why archaeologists keep going back to the site, we must understand what the Antikythera Mechanism did, and how it compares to other elaborate constructions throughout history.
Similar to the internal workings of pocket watches and elaborate Grandfather clocks, the most pronounced feature of the Antikythera Mechanism is gears, though the device did not measure the passage of time. Most likely, the device was operated with a crank to advance or rewind to a certain date in order to show the positions of the planets and the phase of the moon. The back of the mechanism likely had a separate dial which the predicted the dates and appearances of lunar eclipses, whose periodicity was understood by the Chaldean astronomers of ancient Neo-Babylonia. The knowledge of eclipses likely was brought to the Ancient Greeks by the conquests of Alexander the Great from 336 to 323 BCE.
For many centuries longer, state of the art for timekeepers were the sundial and the water clock. Sundials don’t work when it’s cloudy or dark, and water clocks don’t work when the weather is below freezing. Because the inheritors of Ancient Greek knowledge were the scholars of the Golden Age of Islam, freezing was not a problem for them. According to David S. Landes in “Revolution in Time,” when Harun al-Rashid, a legendary caliph of Baghdad, wanted to impress Emperor Charlemagne (reigned 800—814 CE), he sent him one such “highly animated water clock that told the hours by sound and spectacle.”
Purely mechanical clocks that ran independently of the trickle of water first appeared in Europe in the 14th century and completed one revolution per day, thus showing all 24 hours on the clock face. By the 16th century astronomers were able to build clocks that could accurately measure. In the 17th century, pendulums were finally added, becoming the dominant method for metering a clock’s tick (with the exception of watches).
So, seeing that it took scientists and engineers more than 1,500 years to catch up with the machinery of Ancient Greece, it’s not surprising Archeologists are still itching to go back and learn as much about this device as we can.