Antikythera Mechanism was an astronomy text

It’s been 115 years since sponge divers off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera recovered a bronze gear device that we now know as the first analog computer, and researchers are still working on solving the mysteries of the Antikythera Mechanism. The mechanism has been at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens since its discovery. For the first couple of years, nobody had any idea what a unique treasure it was. Museum staff focused on the more showy objects from the shipwreck — the divers had raised 36 marble statues, many pieces of bronze statues, jewelry, glassware, lamps and amphorae from the site — and paid little attention to the corroded lump of bronze in storage. In 1902, an archaeologist noticed there was a gear in that lump, and there were words on that gear. The lump broke up as corrosion loosened its grip, eventually splitting up into 87 fragments.

Launched in 2005, the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project (AMRP) brings together an international team of researchers and the latest technology to thoroughly reexamine the Antikythera Mechanism in the hopes of shedding new light on how it worked, what it was used for, who made it and a panoply of other questions raised by the remains of the complex device. The first research published in the 1970s dated the mechanism to around 80 B.C., but the AMRP has confirmed a later date, between 150 and 100 B.C., based on the form of the lettering.

The first inscriptions read from the mechanism in 2,000 years were “Venus” and “sun ray.” Within months another 600 characters were deciphered and published. The advances slowed down after that, with 923 characters deciphered into the 1970s. Using 3D CT scanning, surface imaging and high resolution photography, the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project (AMRP) was able to more than double the number of characters deciphered on the device. Their first publication in 2006 brought the total up to 2,160. The most recent data, presented on Thursday, June 9th, at the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, brings that number up to 3,400 characters. There are 14,000 characters discovered this far on the device — even the smallest fragments have proved an important source of inscriptions — so there’s still plenty of deciphering left to do.

By examining the structure of the gears, the numbers of teeth, how they interact with each other, and the inscriptions, the AMRP confirmed that the device was an incredibly detailed astronomical calendar that could predict eclipses, calculate the dates of the Olympics, the positions of the sun, moon and planets in the solar system and more. There is nothing else like it known from antiquity, and no other mechanical device would even come close to its complexity until the Middle Ages.

The latest research suggests that this mechanism wasn’t used by astronomers in their daily work, however.

“It was not a research tool, something that an astronomer would use to do computations, or even an astrologer to do prognostications, but something that you would use to teach about the cosmos and our place in the cosmos,” Jones said. “It’s like a textbook of astronomy as it was understood then, which connected the movements of the sky and the planets with the lives of the ancient Greeks and their environment.”

“I would see it as more something that might be a philosopher’s instructional device.”

The letters — some just 1.2 millimeters (1/20 of an inch) tall — were engraved on the inside covers and visible front and back sections of the mechanism, which originally had the rough dimensions of an office box-file, was encased in wood and operated with a hand-crank.

There is so much more to be learned about this precious device, and hopefully there will be new pieces of the puzzle discovered. The Return to Antikythera project, which in October of 2012 began exploring the shipwreck site for the first time since Jacques Cousteau’s two-day 1976 survey, proceeds apace. Artifacts like pottery, sculptures, a huge anchor and a bronze spear two meters long have been recovered from the shipwreck. Fingers crossed they’ll find more of the Antikythera Mechanism too. The newly deciphered texts have given researchers a much better idea of what parts are still missing, so marine archaeologists have a precise idea of what to look for now. The new diving season began in late May.

This video, produced four years ago for the Antikythera Shipwreck exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, gives an overview of the wreck and its many inestimable treasures.


Also, I love this picture so much I had to feature it. It’s a marble statue of a wrestler that was half stuck in the sand and mud of the sea floor and half exposed to the water. One guess which side is which.

12 thoughts on “Antikythera Mechanism was an astronomy text

  1. “around 80 B.C., but the AMRP has confirmed a later date, between 150 and 100 B.C.”
    should be ‘earlier date’?

  2. Did no one write about it in ancient times? Or is it a reminder that what literature survives from then was a tiny fraction of what was written? The latter, presumably.

    I wonder whether it ought to change the view that yer Greeks despised practical men?

    By the way, I saw a decent documentary on this a couple of years ago; it was marred somewhat, though, by a rather silly attempt to claim the mechanism for Archimedes. The dates are wrong; still, they can always claim it for some hypothetical school of Archimedes.

  3. The statue of the Wrestler is now in New York, in the Pergamon show at the Met. The most amazing aspect of the work is that the uneroded portions are in astonishingly good condition–with surface polish and considerable surviving detail.

  4. It is an amazing mechanism. Thank you for updating us about it. However, I must disagree with the expert who claims it’s a teaching mechanism. It would be far to time-consuming and expensive to create such a brilliant device just to illustrate astronomical cycles when drawings on paper would do the job of instruction just as well. I vote for its use as a predictor for eclipses, moon phases, planetary motions and Olympic games. Building one of these just for classroom instruction would like inventing and building the first automobile just to teach students about internal combustion engines.

  5. Here a new theory about what the Antikythera Mechanism was used for: Half-time for spectators offers the opportunity to visit the toilet, get some food or drink, or just exercise cramped limbs, without the fear of missing any of the action.” – Important background information: “Episkyros” (ἐπίσκυρος), also called ἐπίκοινος “commonball”, was an ancient Greek ball game. Highly teamwork oriented, the game was played between two teams of usually 12 to 14 players each, with one ball. Although it was a ball game, it was a violent one, at least in Sparta, cf.: Item 873 in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (NAMA):

    Item 873 is “part of a marble grave stele from 400-375 BC, found in Piraeus. The figure of a nude youth practicing with a ball in the palaestra is depicted in low relief on the belly of the vase. His folded ‘himation’ -a mantle or wrap worn by Ancient Greek men and women from the Archaic through the Hellenistic periods- can be seen on a pillar behind him. The youth is watched by his young servant holding an aryballos and a strigil. Height 0,44m., width 0,33m.”


  6. I was taking a class in the history of science in 1974 when Derek de Solla Price first published his identification of the Antikythera mechanism. His characterization of the instrument has proved accurate.

  7. THANK YOU…This video is long, complicated, but just fascinating. Dr. Freeth explains it very clearly and even I could understand it. Such a wonderful and amazing thing..that by great luck, was preserved in the sea.

  8. There is a documentary on Youtube about the Mechanism, which showed strong evidence that the device was designed, if not actually made by, Archimedes himself. This had to do with the Corinth-focus of certain inscriptions on the Mechanism (Archimedes was a native of Cornith IIRC) and the fact that two such machines were found in Archimedes’ residence when Syracuse fell to the Romans. There are references to these machines remaining in the family of the Roman commander who seized them for a couple of hundred years. What became of them later is unknown. Watch the documentaries!

  9. For several centuries Athens on sea was invincible. From Salamis battle to Arginuses the Athens navy in a number often largely lower with respect to enemy one, conquered victories that decided the sort of wars.

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