#77: X-Rays Reveal Ship-Wreckage to Be 2,000-Year-Old Astronomy Computer

The Antikythera Mechanism tracked heavenly movements like clockwork.

By Andrew Curry|Tuesday, December 09, 2008
antikythera
antikythera
Antikythera mechanism
Image courtesy of 2005 Antikythera Mechanism Research Project

Discovered around 1900 in the wreckage of an ancient Roman merchant vessel at the bottom of the Mediterranean, the Antikythera mechanism is a confusing tangle of clockwork gears. Only when probed with sophisticated 3-D X-ray technology did the device begin to disclose many of its secrets, more than 100 years later.

In an article published in Nature in July, an international team argues that the object comprises a calendar dedicated to the Olympic Games, together with calendars to determine the timing of eclipses and the phases of the sun and moon, all in a contraption that was built more than 2,000 years ago. “It’s a jaw-dropping, astonishing device,” says Tony Freeth, a member of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project. “I still don’t know how they did it.”

When the mechanism was uncovered, researchers noted that the shipwrecked artifacts around it were mostly from the eastern end of the ancient Greek world. But the words on the device—teased out in 2005 by X-Tek Systems, using an eight-ton X-ray machine—showed it had a different origin. The words turned out to be the names of months, and because every Greek city in that era had different names for the months, researchers could narrow down where the instrument had been built.

With new X-ray scans in hand, Freeth and the Antikythera research team asked Alexander Jones, an expert in ancient astronomy, to take a look at the apparatus. With Jones’s guidance, the team identified the month names as Corinthian. “This completely astonished us,” Freeth says. “They were from the other end of the Greek world.” Corinth—part of the Peloponnese region—was leveled by invading Romans in 146 B.C., making it likely that the extraordinary mechanism was built shortly before. Where it was being shipped remains a mystery.

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