I thought my capacity for sheer jaw-dropping amazement at the Antikythera mechanism had been well and truly exhausted – until last night. The puzzling instrument is a clockwork computer from ancient Greece that used a fiendishly complex assembly of meshed cogs to simulate the movement of the planets, predict lunar eclipses and indicate the dates of major sporting events.
The clockwork technology in the device was already known to be centuries ahead of its time, but new evidence suggests that the enigmatic machine is even older than scientists had realised. “It is the most important scientific artefact known from the ancient world,” said Jo Marchant, who has written a compelling book on the find called Decoding the Heavens. “There’s nothing else like it for a thousand years afterwards…”
So what about the new stuff? Research from Prof Alexander Jones of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York, which has yet to be published, suggests that rather than dating from the 1st century BC the Antikythera mechanism may in fact have been constructed in the preceding century.
The new data concerns the four-year Olympiad dial, which has the names of significant Greek games etched into it – Isthmia, Olympia, Nemea, Pythia and Naa (plus one other that hasn’t been deciphered). The first four were major games known throughout the ancient world, but the Naa games, held near Dodona in northwest Greece, were a much more provincial affair that would only have been of local interest. “One possibility is that it was made by or for somebody in Naa,” said Marchant, who described the clockwork computer on the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast last year.
This also helps to pin down the date because the Romans took over that region in the 2nd century BC. A Greek-inscribed gadget like this, reasons Jones, would not have been made after the Romans took charge.
The highlight of Marchant’s talk, though, was a new animation of the Antikythera device that brings it to life like nothing I have seen before. “That’s one of my favourite things at the moment,” said Marchant as the packed audience at the Royal Institution broke into spontaneous applause after watching the animation in stunned silence. I think I agree.
As do I.