Antikythera Mechanism

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The Antikythera Mechanism is a mechanical device of ancient Greek origin (dating from about the 1st century BC) that has been cited by pseudoarchaeologists as evidence of their beliefs about ancient aliens.

Fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism on display at the Archaeological Museum in Athens.[1]

Background

Discovery

In the year 1900, a team of sponge divers discovered an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Antikythera, a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea. Subsequently, the wreck was partially salvaged by the sponge divers under the supervision of Antonios Oikonomos, professor of archaeology at the University of Athens. However, factors including adverse weather conditions and the divers’ lack of training prevented the operation from being conducted in an “archaeologically scientific” manner. The ship is now believed to have been a merchant vessel that sank around 60 BC on its way to the western Mediterranean. The artifacts recovered from the wreck included bronze statues, some from the 3rd and 4th centuries BC; the most notable is the “Ephebe of Antikythera.” There were also marble statues, amphorae, ceramics, glassware, and coins. Though it is by far the most famous of the artifacts today, at the time little attention was paid to what would come to be known as the Antikythera Mechanism.[2]

Research

The first major investigation of the Antikythera Mechanism did not occur until eight months after the artifact arrived at the Archaeological Museum, when researchers began attempting to decipher the visible Ancient Greek inscriptions on the Mechanism. This was very difficult because the letters were so small and the metal was so corroded, and research on the Mechanism was fairly limited for the next few decades. In the 1950s, a physicist named Derek de Solla Price became interested in the Mechanism and traveled to Athens to study the fragments. In 1971, x-ray was used in order to view the inner workings of the Mechanism. This greatly increased knowledge about the Mechanism, but it was limited because the x-rays did not show the depth of the gears in relation to each other within the device. Based on this, de Solla Price attempted to reconstruct the Mechanism's gear train, although with the available information his reconstruction was only speculative. He was the first scholar to write a book on the Antikythera Mechanism, Gears from the Greeks, which was published in 1978.[3]

Research has been continued in the 21st century by the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project (AMRP). The use of reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) and X-ray computed tomography have allowed for "improved readings of the inscribed texts and enhanced knowledge of mechanical and physical details."[4] Using this information, the researchers arrived at a new reconstruction of the gear train that was published in 2006. The Mechanism's largest fragments are currently on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece.

The Mechanism

Reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism's front and back by Alexander Jones.[5]
All the fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism, photographed by Tony Freeth.[6]

The Antikythera Mechanism is in a fragmentary state- approximately 82 fragments in all, though some may or may not be part of the Mechanism. Originally it was in a wooden frame (now mostly disintegrated) and is estimated to have been about 315 x 190 x 100 mm (approx. 12 x 7.5 x 4 inches).[7] The other parts are made of bronze that is now heavily corroded.

On what is referred to as the back side of the Mechanism were two large dials around which pointers could be moved. The labels of the dials were spirals divided into small sections, with each section containing an inscription. The top spiral dial was the Metonic dial; inside of the spiral there were also two smaller dials, the Callippic dial and the Games dial. The bottom spiral dial was the Saros dial, which enclosed the smaller Exeligmos dial.

The inscriptions of the back dials were as follows:

  • The Metonic dial: labeled with lunar months in a 19-year cycle
  • The Callippic dial: labeled with 19-year cycles within a 76-year cycle
  • The Games Dial: labeled with the cycle of the Olympic Games and other sporting events
  • The Saros dial: labeled with the dates of potential lunar or solar eclipses
  • The Exeligmos dial: labeled with extra hours to be added to a cycle of 223 lunar months

The front had only one dial, which was labeled with the 12 zodiac signs as well as the months of the Egyptian calendar. It also had small markings dividing the circumference into 365 equal sections. This dial had multiple pointers to represent the Sun, moon, and planets. There were additional inscriptions surrounding the front and back dials that explained the Mechanism's functions. The front also had a rotating ball that depicted the phases of the Moon.[8]

The inner workings of the machine included at least 30 known gears, cut from bronze sheet metal, with triangular teeth cut at a 60 degree angle. There have been multiple different reconstructions of the gear train proposed over time.[9]

Origin

The place where the Mechanism was originally manufactured is not known, but it has been suggested that it was made in Rhodes. First of all, the Games dial has an inscription reading “Halieia,” a minor local festival that occurs in Rhodes. This was also the residence of Posidonius, who was said to own a mechanical astronomical device, and Hipparchus, a notable astronomer whose theories about the motion of the moon seem to be represented in the Mechanism's workings. Some have even speculated that Hipparchus was actually the creator of the Mechanism itself.[10]

Function

After the discovery, it was initially suggested that the Antikythera Mechanism was some sort of navigational tool, like an astrolabe. This seemed logical since it was discovered on a ship, but the Mechanism's functions are not consistent with how the ancient Greeks navigated. Over the decades, many people theorized that the Mechanism had the ability to model the movement of the planets in addition to the sun and moon. This could not be proven, however, due to the incompleteness of the Mechanism's surviving fragments. It was only after the AMRP's research allowed more of the plate inscriptions to be read that it became clear that there were originally pointers to represent the five planets. It is still a matter of speculation as to why the Mechanism was built; in A Portable Cosmos, Alexander Jones suggests that it was intended primarily as an educational tool rather than having a practical purpose.[11]

Pseudoarchaeological Claims

Ancient alien theorists have cited the Antikythera Mechanism as an example of an artifact they believe is too advanced for ancient humans to have built without help from extraterrestrials. In Chariots of the Gods, Erich von Daniken includes the Mechanism in a long list of artifacts that he believes archaeologists cannot explain.[12] The Mechanism is also featured in season 3, episode 8 of Ancient Aliens, “Mysterious Devices,” alongside such ideas as that the Great Pyramid of Giza was actually an ancient power plant and that the Mahabharata contains historical accounts of nuclear weapons. Author and self-described “rogue archaeologist” David Childress (who has no real archaeological credentials)[13] makes an appearance. He says that the Antikythera Mechanism is so unbelievably advanced that its discovery was like “finding a jet engine in the tomb of King Tut.” Alien hunter Jason Martell claims that “it had more complicated inner workings than a modern-day Swiss watch” and that no one knows “who could have created it and what it was used for.”[14] Jason Colavito describes this episode as being merely "a repeat of a summary of outdated speculation built on an appeal to ignorance."[15]

Venturing into the wilderness of the internet, we can find a great deal more interesting content on the subject. TheAncientAliens.com has an article about the Antikythera Mechanism asserting that "if a contemporary metal shop were commissioned to build this device today, the craftsmen would have to use a computer to draw the forms, and a precision CNC cutter to machine the parts from bronze."[16] Gaia.com writes that "according to Mathias Buttet, Director of R&D for watchmaker Hublot, its level of technology isn’t found in any modern timepieces."[17] On the website of Tana Hoy, "the world's foremost psychic," an article asks, if the ancient Greeks had the knowledge displayed in the Mechanism, "why weren't they able to conceive of simpler technology such as a bread toaster?"[18]

Analysis

Functioning Lego reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism, published in Nature. [19]

It is true that even legitimate scholars have described the Antikythera Mechanism as being remarkable. In fact, David Childress was merely echoing the words of Derek de Solla Price, who said that its discovery was “like opening a pyramid and finding an atomic bomb.”[20] However, there is no reason to believe that aliens were involved in the construction of the Mechanism.

The fact that the Antikythera Mechanism is not quite like anything else in the archaeological record does not mean that it must have arrived suddenly from an outside (in this case, extraterrestrial) source. The Mechanism is sophisticated enough to imply that other prototype devices must have come before it, meaning that is likely that there are other examples of this kind of technology that have not survived from antiquity. Since metal was valuable, it was often recycled. Even the Mechanism itself barely survived, and only came down to us in a corroded, fragmentary, incomplete form.[21]

Pseudoarchaeologists also tend to exaggerate how advanced the Mechanism really is. We have written accounts of other mechanical devices used by the ancient Greeks, including a kind referred to as "sphaira," which seem to have had astronomical functions similar to the Antikythera Mechanism. Archimedes and Posidonius were both reported to have owned such devices. Also, both astronomy and calendar systems were very important to Greek culture (most city-states had their own calendar). As Alexander Jones concludes in his book A Portable Cosmos, "The Mechanism was thoroughly characteristic of its cultural setting; no other civilization would have produced produced anything quite like it."[22]

As for the comparisons to modern watches, yes, the Mechanism is probably more complicated, but that's because it had so many different functions. It wasn't as delicate and precise as the mechanical watches being made today, and the insinuation that we couldn't reproduce the Antikythera Mechanism is clearly false. Nature magazine even made a reconstruction of the Mechanism out of Legos. [23]

In spite of the Antikythera Mechanism's complexity, it still reflects the technological limitations of the civilization from which it arose. For instance, the Mechanism’s gears all have triangular teeth, which are less efficient than modern gear teeth and consistent with other early mechanical devices. Also, it is not remotely true that the gears are as precise as the products of a modern CNC machine; the gear teeth are spaced with slight irregularity, implying that they were hand-cut. The shortcomings of the Greeks' astronomical knowledge are also present in the Mechanism, such as the fact that only five of our solar system's planets had been discovered, as well as their inability to predict eclipses with complete accuracy and precision. For these reasons, most of the Mechanism’s readings would have been subject to errors-- usually of about a degree, but some parts, like the position of Mars, would have been up to 30 degrees off.

As de Solla Price wrote, "the whole story of Greek science makes a great deal more sense if we assume that the old view of their rising no higher than the simple Heronic devices was a drastic underestimation that can now be corrected."[24] This is how science works; our view of the world changed when we discovered new evidence that contradicted what we thought we knew before. Applying Occam's Razor, it is much simpler to assume that we had incomplete knowledge of the technological capabilities of the Ancient Greeks, than it is to assume that aliens visited Earth, imparted to the Greeks the knowledge they needed to build an analog computing device, and then vanished without leaving any other trace.

References

  1. https://www.flickr.com/photos/135146612@N03/30672909980
  2. [1]A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World by Alexander Jones (Oxford University Press, 2017)
  3. [2]A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World by Alexander Jones (Oxford University Press, 2017)
  4. [3]A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World by Alexander Jones (Oxford University Press, 2017)
  5. https://www.sciencefocus.com/space/the-antikythera-mechanism-the-ancient-greek-computer-that-mapped-the-stars/
  6. [4] "Decoding the ancient Greek astronomical calculator known as the Antikythera Mechanism" by T. Freeth et al. (Nature, 30 November 2006)
  7. [5] "Decoding the ancient Greek astronomical calculator known as the Antikythera Mechanism" by T. Freeth et al. (Nature, 30 November 2006)
  8. [6]A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World by Alexander Jones (Oxford University Press, 2017)
  9. [7]M G Edmunds, P Morgan, The Antikythera Mechanism: Still a mystery of Greek astronomy?, Astronomy & Geophysics, Volume 41, Issue 6, December 2000, Pages 6.10–6.17
  10. [8]A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World by Alexander Jones (Oxford University Press, 2017)
  11. [9]A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World by Alexander Jones (Oxford University Press, 2017)
  12. [10] Chariots of the Gods by Erich von Daniken
  13. [11] David Childress RationalWiki article
  14. [12] Ancient Aliens Season 8, Episode 3: Mysterious Devices
  15. [13] "Review of Ancient Aliens S06E22 'Mysterious Devices'" by Jason Colavito, 28 June 2014
  16. [14] Alien Technology: The Antikythera Mechanism
  17. [15]"Are These Out of Place Artifacts Evidence of Ancient Alien Technology?" by Gaia Staff, 1 November 2018
  18. [16] "Historical Proof of Aliens: Are They For Real? – Part 2" by Tana Hoy
  19. [17]"Lego Antikythera Mechanism." Nature, 09 December 2012.
  20. [18] “'Like Opening a Pyramid and Finding an Atomic Bomb': Derek de Solla Price and the Antikythera Mechanism" by Alexander Jones (Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, September 2018)
  21. [19]"Why haven't we found any others?" Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, May 2007.
  22. [20]A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World by Alexander Jones (Oxford University Press, 2017)
  23. [21]"Lego Antikythera Mechanism." Nature, 09 December 2012.
  24. [22] "Gears from the Greeks" by Derek de Solla Price (Transactions of the American Philosphical Society, 1974)