Tag Archives: Hero of Alexandria

The 10 Most Not-So-Puzzling Ancient Artifacts: The Antikythera Mechanism

Before we can fully appreciate the Antikythera Mechanism, I first have to point out that clockwork and steam powered mechanisms were well known and in use in Ancient Greece, Egypt, India, and China. Things such as mechanical clocks, Automa, and various forms of calendars were in use.  Two and a half millennia before the Mechanism, India used gears to drive doors and lift water (Dunning 2009).

One of the most well known developers of steam and clockwork devices in ancient Greece was Hero of Alexandria, aka Heron. His writings on hydraulics, pneumatics and mechanics were translated into Latin in the sixteenth century and later were reconstructed (Handworx). His designs produced a variety of machines including an aeolipile, a rocket-like reaction engine and the first recorded steam engine (Handworx).

An Illustration of an Aeolipile

China also enjoyed clockwork devices that did a variety of things including keeping track of directions and counting the distance traveled.  The South Pointing Chariot  dates back to 2600 BC and is considered one of the most complex devices of it’s time (Handworx). The chariot sported a figure that always pointed south and drums that kept track of the revolution of the wheels, allowing users to measure distance (Handworx).

A Reconstruction of the South Pointing Chariot

Which brings us to the Antikythera Mechanism, so called because it was found by sponge divers at the bottom of the sea near the island of Antikythera near Crete (Antikythera).

This is a first for this series, because this artifact is actually real.

Now if you read the blurb about it in The 10 Most Puzzling Ancient Artifacts, you’re led to believe that the ancient world had no clue how to make these kinds of devices, and that nothing with gears ever existed until 1575!  Please re-read the previous paragraphs, then let’s move on.

The Antikythera Mechanism is real, and we do know what it was used for, though the fine details are still up for debate. The Mechanism itself dates from around the end of the 1st century B.C.E. and is one of the most sophisticated mechanisms of it’s time (Antikythera, Dunning 2009). However, close examination of the device shows that every piece is exact and hasn’t been modified after manufacture (Antikythera). Meaning, this was the end product of a great deal of trial and error, like any great invention. Those working on the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project (AMRP) speculate that there may have been as many as ten prototypes leading up to the Mechanism (Antikythera).

The Mechanism is understood to be a complex astrological calendar keeping track of astronomical phenomena (Freeth 2006). It calculated celestial information and displayed cycles of the phases of the moon and lunar/solar calendar (Freeth 2006). It also could predict lunar and solar eclipses on the basis of Babylonian arithmetic-progression cycles (Freeth 2006), which are calculations that are older than most civilizations, ’cause the Babylonians kinda rocked.

The Mechanism is currently on display at  the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. The three main fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism are in the Bronze Collection and are watched over by Mary Zafeiropoulou, who also works with AMRP to study the Mechanism (Antikythera).

There are about 82 surviving fragments and through the AMRP’s efforts, those pieces have been scanned, digitized and 3D-afied (Antikythera). The AMRP also made all of their research available to the public, and you can read where they are with their research at the Overview page for the project. They also have a You Tube channel with some cool short vids. They’ve reported their finding to the journal Nature as well, talking about their use of surface imaging and high-resolution X-ray tomography of the surviving fragments (Freeth 2006). Using these methods they have managed to reconstruct the gear function and double the number of deciphered inscriptions on the fragments (Freeth 2006). Which, among other things, leads to really cool pictures.

These claims that the ancient world was without the knowledge to produce such devices are completely unfounded and can only come from a lack of knowledge about ancient times. Also, to say that we humans needed alien intervention to create something as complex as the Antikythera Mechanism is insulting. Our ancient ancestors are the same as modern humans. If we could figure it out today, which we have, then our ancestors could have figured it out too. Given resources and time, humans have proven they can do almost anything they put their minds to, for good or evil. We have no need for Aliens, Atlantians, or even Gods to aid us, and I think that is what this device shows best.

The Mechanism is a testament to human ability as much as any great earthwork or monument. Let’s not cheapen it.

Resources:

The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project.

http://www.antikythera-mechanism.gr/ Accessed May 25 2012.

Dunning, Brian.

2009. The Antikythera Mechanism. Skeptoid. December 15, 2009
href=”http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4184″>http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4184. Accessed May 25 2012.

Freeth, T. et al.

2006  Antikythera Mechanism. Nature. Vol 444: 587-591. 30 November 2006. Received 10 August 2006; Accepted 17 October 2006. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v444/n7119/abs/nature05357. Accessed May 25 2012.

Handworx. Gearworx History. http://www.handworx.com.au/gearworx/history/ancient.html Accessed May 25 2012.