The Antikythera device: a Greek astronomical calculator attests to the brilliance of ancient technology
Ancient Greeks were accomplished naked-eye astronomers. Although it was commonly believed the Earth was in the center of the universe, their understanding of astronomy and their ingenuity have consistently proved greater than previously thought.
The Antikythera device is one of the most impressive findings in the history of archaeology. This machine that enables the user to calculate the movement of the moon, sun and planets was found in an old shipwreck in Greece, in 1900. The complexity of the device puzzled scientists for more than 120 years, and parts of it have been deciphered at different times, by different researchers. Although scientists believe its mystery may be closer to solved now, there is still no telling what we might yet learn from its uniquely complex engineering.
“We know it is at least as old as the shipwreck it was found in, which has been dated to between 60 and 70 B.C.E., but other evidence suggests it may have been made around 200 B.C.E”. Scientific American.
The Antikythera machine mechanical model, by Mogi Vicentini (2007).
In March 2021, a group of scientists from the University College London, led by Dr. Tony Freeth, provided a more complete understanding of the machine. Possibly based on a design by Archimedes, it is the most technologically complex ancient object ever found. The Antikythera device is made of bronze and features dozens of small gears with teeth about a millimeter long that were essential for predicting the positions of the sun, moon and planets at any chosen time. Loss of evidence is a frequent problem for archeologists, and Dr. Freeth’s research team alerts it may be possible that their reconstruction is not entirely correct. Even so, they proposed a new explanation for the gearing on the front of the mechanism, a part that scientists had not yet completely understood. Put simply, their discoveries include a better understanding of how this front part relates to others and how it displays the moon’s phase, position and age (days since the last new moon) and information on eclipses and seasons.
Understanding the positions of the moon, sun, and other objects in the heavens is important in astronomy, which was widely practised by ancient civilizations for reasons such as agriculture and religion which were frequently intertwined. For the Egyptians, for instance, it was vital to accurately predict the annual flooding of the Nile, and this motivated the development of their astronomy. Besides agricultural and navigational purposes, Egyptian astronomy gained religious significance and was incorporated into their architecture. Another example are the Mayans, who, despite also relying on naked-eye observations, built impressive temples and buildings precisely aligned with the stars in order to help observers monitor the position of astronomical objects. Although the Mayans favored astronomy more than the Egyptian and Indian astronomers, their observations had a high degree of accuracy and mathematical sophistication.
Ancient civilizations were also especially known for their constructions, and the ancient Romans are especially relevant here. They developed ingenious engineering tactics and advanced technology and used them to build roads and a water supply solution for millions of people – the famous Roman aqueducts that still stand in many places across Europe. For that, many consider the Roman engineers to have been ahead of their time. Their engineering techniques have been used as a basis for modern roads, and Roman concrete, made of lime and volcanic rock, not only revolutionized ancient architecture but is still among the most solid of all concrete forms.
Ancient Roman Aqueduct.
Of course, innovations do not normally appear out-of-the-blue, and this was certainly not the case in ancient times either when necessity often drove invention. In a recent article, Dr. Florian Klimscha, professor at the German Archaeological Institute, and his collaborators argued that innovations “resulted from long-term experimentation as well as an ideological domestication process and emerged at places where the necessary technical prerequisites were available during time periods and social constellations favoring experimentation”. Often without a written language, or literacy and a means of distributing written works, innovations often resulted from new ideas introduced in migration, when societies began to mix and share knowledge.
The Antikythera device is one good example of how new ways of thinking were incorporated from other societies, leading to technological innovations in ancient times. Its design incorporates wisdom from earlier Middle Eastern scientists, such as the Babylonians. Another example is the Egyptian civilization, later absorbed by the Greek and Roman cultures. This combination of civilizations made the Egyptian city of Alexandria the center of astronomy, thanks to the extremely sophisticated Egyptian knowledge of the science that is foundational for our modern cosmology.
Modern-day and ancient technologies have more in common than one might think. For instance, the nanotechnology of gold was used in ancient times and is currently found in several high-tech modern technologies, such as in biomedicine, water purification, touch-sensitive screens and solar cells, among others. Even though innovation means change, ancient knowledge may persist through time, even when profound changes have been made to its fundamentals.
“A crucial factor for various applications of nanoporous gold is its nanostructure. The term “nano” or “nanomaterial” implies that critical features and structures of the according material are in the size of several nanometers (10-9 m), typically below 100 nm. This is less than one hundredth of the diameter of a human hair. First reports on using means of corrosion to generate nanoporous gold can be related to pre-Columbian civilizations, such as for example the Incans. Here, the superficial dealloying and subsequent burnishing of a comparably cheaper Au-Cu alloy was used to generate a shiny gold surface, giving the work piece the allure of pure gold.”. Wittstock et al. (2012).
In his book “Roman Stoic Mindfulness: An Ancient Technology of the Self”, Dr. John Sellars, from the Department of Philosophy at King’s College London, uses the example of the ancient technique of mindfulness, proposed by the Roman Stoics Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Although remarkably widespread nowadays, the concept of mindfulness is now interpreted in a very different way compared to its origins. Dr. Sellars explains that, in the ancient Roman version, “the primary object of attention […] was one’s philosophical principles [and] the goal […] was virtuous action based upon those principles. It was a technique aimed at ethical self-transformation, unlike its modern counterpart, which is primarily aimed at overcoming distress”.
The Antikythera device, at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
The beauty of archeological and historical investigation is closely connected to its core difficulty: seeing what is not there anymore and learning from it, so we can go beyond. Finding and understanding the Antikythera device was a big step for science. Other ancient devices may never be found if they were made of bronze, a valuable material that could be melted and recycled once the machine stopped working – good news for nature, but not so good for research. Historical records of ancient technologies are hardly complete or easily accessible, so, just as the Antikythera device is now redefining what we thought we knew about ancient astronomy, future discoveries may surprise us even more.