The Enduring Mystery of the Antikythera Mechanism

Aleksandr Zykov, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Aleksandr Zykov, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In 1900, a team of sponge divers submerged themselves into the sea off the island of Antikythera between mainland Greece and Crete and emerged with a curious find. Exploring a Roman shipwreck, they brought up a bronze-and-wood object that defied description. It looked like a clock, but not quite; it resembled a gear or wheel, but held no hints that it was once attached to any mode of transport.

The Antikythera mechanism, as it came to be known, was largely ignored for the next half-century, as researchers were preoccupied with the other artifacts found in the shipwreck and lacked the tools to see through its corroded exterior. But in recent decades, the importance and capability of the Greek-born device thought to date to the 1st or 2nd century BCE has slowly been unspooling. Depending on how you define the term, it may be the world’s first computer.

Although investigation into the strange box began when it was first retrieved, it wasn’t until researchers began using radiographs to examine its inner workings that the true nature of the Antikythera mechanism was discovered. Inside, they found 30 bronze gears that was operated by a hand crank. About the size of a shoebox, it acted as an astronomical calendar, predicting the cycles of the solar system in the coming decades. Lunar months and eclipses could also be anticipated. Greek zodiac signs and Egyptian calendar dates appear on the front. By turning the dial to one of the 365 days on its face, the user could anticipate the exact position of the Sun and Moon.

While X-rays could provide some basic structural information to investigators, microfocus X-rays, originally developed to find tiny fractures in turbine blades, were also put to use, revealing faded inscriptions that haven’t been visible for thousands of years. Tiny letters 1.2 millimeters tall told users what they might see when operating it.

There’s still much left to learn about the Antikythera mechanism. No one is quite sure who made it or for what purpose, although it’s possible a school may have been the beneficiary of its results. It’s also possible the Antikythera mechanism was devised to tell fortunes, as it provided information about eclipses that were associated with good and bad omens.

The remains of the Antikythera mechanism are housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece, along with sculptures and other relics from the dive. With the site of the wreck still being scouted, it’s possible more answers about this strange, impeccably designed machine may still be lurking at the bottom of the sea.

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Poike/iStock via Getty Images Plus
Poike/iStock via Getty Images Plus

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Explore Two of Pompeii’s Excavated Homes in This Virtual Tour

A photo of the Pompeii ruins from November 2019.
A photo of the Pompeii ruins from November 2019.
Ivan Romano/Getty Images

It’s been nearly 2000 years since the eruption of Mount Vesuvius decimated Pompeii in 79 C.E., and archaeologists are still uncovering secrets about life in the ancient Roman city. As Smithsonian reports, they’ve recently excavated two homes in Regio V, a 54-acre area just north of the Pompeii Archaeological Park—and you can see the findings for yourself in a virtual tour published by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities.

The 7.5-minute video comprises drone footage of the houses and surrounding ruins, along with commentary by park director Massimo Osanna that explains what exactly you’re looking at and what types of people once lived there. Osanna’s commentary is in Italian, but you can read the English translation here.

The homes, both modest private residences that probably housed middle-class families, border the Vicolo dei Balconi, or “Alley of the Balconies.” The first is fittingly named “House With the Garden” because excavators discovered that one of its larger rooms was, in fact, a garden. Excavators pinpointed the outlines of flowerbeds and even made casts of plant roots, which paleobotanists will use to try to identify what grew there. In addition to the garden and vibrant paintings that feature classic ancient deities like Venus, Adonis, and Hercules, “House With the Garden” also preserved the remains of its occupants: 11 victims, mostly women and children, who likely took shelter within the home while the men searched for a means of escape.

Across the street is “House of Orion,” named for two mosaics that depict the story of Orion, a huntsman in Greek mythology whom the gods transformed into the constellation that bears his name today.

“The owner of the house must have been greatly attracted to this myth, considering it features in two different rooms in which two different scenes of the myth are depicted,” Osanna says. “It is a small house which has proved to be an extraordinary treasure chest of art."

To see what Pompeian houses would’ve looked like before Mount Vesuvius had its fiery fit, check out this 3D reconstruction.

[h/t Smithsonian]