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Secrets of Antikythera mechanism have been revealed

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Antikythera mechanism
Antikythera mechanism | Photo: Marsyas | Na licencji Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

An international team of researchers has been analyzing the internal structure of the preserved fragments of the Ankythera mechanism for over 10 years and deciphered virtually all of the inscriptions on them. This is a milestone in understanding the purpose and operation of this wonder of ancient technology.

In July 1901, a lump of corroded bronze with fragments of wood was excavated from the wreck of a ship lying near the island of Antikythera in the Aegean Sea. Initially, the inconspicuous object did not attract the attention of archaeologists and museologists, who were delighted with the bronze and marble sculptures, clay and glass vessels, ornaments and coins from the sunken ship. Only on May 17, 1902, the archaeologist Valerios Stais from the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, while browsing through the collections, noticed the gear wheel visible on the front part of the block. Stais intuitively recognized the object as an astronomical instrument, but the final confirmation of its ancient birth certificate took place only several decades later. Many researchers did not consider it likely that the ancient Greeks possessed sufficient astronomical, technical and engineering knowledge to build such a complex mechanism. It is amazing that although several ancient texts mention devices for showing the movement of the sun, moon and planets, the Antikythera mechanism is the only surviving object of this type.

The find was extracted from the wreck as a single lump. During the first maintenance work, the item broke into three pieces. Currently, the Antikythera mechanism is preserved in 82 fragments: 7 larger and 75 smaller. It is assumed that the device originally rested in a wooden box measuring approx. 34×18×9 cm. The use of the device was carried out using a crank located on the side. Due to the fact that the preserved fragments are only a part of the entire device, the reconstruction of the complicated mechanism of operation of mines. 30 gears are very difficult. There is also no consensus in science as to the dating of the device’s construction. According to the latest findings, it should be placed in the years 150-100 BCE, although some scientists postpone the creation of the device even to the second half of the 3rd century BCE. The Roman ship carrying the mechanism sank off the coast of Antikythera in the second quarter of the 1st century BCE.

Inscriptions are found both on the outer surfaces and inside the preserved fragments of the instrument. For this reason, only a few hundred of all the characters carved on the device were known for a long time. While most of the records were impossible to access, inquiries into the exact purpose of the item were subject to a large margin of error. This situation was decided to change only by researchers from The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, established in 2005. To reach the letters hidden inside the lumps of the bronze mechanism, various methods were used to create accurate images, including CT scans and digital x-rays. Thanks to this, it was possible to identify almost 3,500 characters. Some of them are only 1.2 mm high. The deciphered inscriptions constitute practically the entirety of the texts placed on the preserved fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism.

The inscription shows that depending on the day, the instrument showed the position of the Sun and Moon in relation to the signs of the Zodiac. The calendar used took leap years into account. In addition, you could learn the position of the five planets known to the ancient Greeks. The mechanism supported several astronomical cycles, enabling e.g. prediction of solar and lunar eclipses. The instrument also showed when the Olympic Games would fall.
The inscriptions on the device are proof of the great astronomical knowledge of the ancient Greeks. However, they do not tell you how to use the mechanism. Instead, they have the character of a metric that describes what the instruments show. According to the scientists, the device could not be of a research nature and could not be used by an astronomer or astrologer to perform calculations. Instead, the Antikythera Mechanism was more of a teaching aid that made it possible to teach available astronomical knowledge. The wreck near Antikythera is still being searched for in the hope that further fragments of the unusual device will be fished out of the sea.


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