The Antikythera mechanism
Two Videos on The Antikythera Mechanism
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The Ship, the Treasures, the Mechanism
The Antikythera Mechanism.
More than a hundred years ago an extraordinary mechanism was found by sponge divers from the island of Symi at the bottom of the sea near the island of Antikythera.
The finding astonished the whole international community of experts on the ancient world. Was it an astrolabe (an apparatus reading the position of key stars)? Was it an orrery (a clockwork model of the solar system) or an astronomical clock? Or something else?
For decades, scientific investigation failed to yield much light and relied more on imagination than the facts. However research over the last half century has begun to reveal its secrets. The machine dates from around the end of the 2nd century B.C. and is the most sophisticated mechanism known from the ancient world. The Antikythera Mechanism is now understood to be dedicated to astronomical phenomena and operates as a complex mechanical "computer" which tracks the cycles of the Solar System.
Previous researchers have used the latest technologies available to them -such as x-ray analysis- to try to begin to unravel its complex mysteries. Now a new initiative is building on this previous work, using the very latest techniques available today. The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project is an international collaboration of academic researchers, supported by some of the world's best high-technology companies, which aims to completely reassess the function and significance of the Antikythera Mechanism.
During the first data-gathering phase in the autumn of 2005, the most innovative technologies were used to reveal unknown elements of the mechanism. This research was carried out by two world-class high technology companies, Hewlett Packard (US) and X-Tek Systems (UK). X-Tek's superb three-dimensional x-rays were imaged using software from Volume Graphics.
In September 2005, three specialized scientists from Hewlett-Packard's Mobile and Media Systems Laboratory came to Athens with their innovative digital imaging system to examine the surface inscriptions and other features on the Antikythera Mechanism. The HP team brought with them a remarkable piece of equipment: a Dome that surrounds the sample under examination and takes a series of still photos to analyze the 3-D structure of the surface. This enables astonishingly detailed examination of fine details such as faded and worn inscriptions. It has been a revelation for the research team.
In October 2005, another team of specialists from the cutting-edge company, X-Tek Systems, came to Athens. Their aim was to use the very latest x-ray technology to look at the internal structure of the mechanism with its complex and confusing gear trains. With them they brought the prototype of a very powerful new x-ray machine, the eight-tonne "Bladerunner". Originally designed to search for minute cracks in turbine blades, this machine gives astonishingly detailed three-dimensional x-rays, using the latest "microfocus" x-ray techniques. It has opened a remarkable window on microscopic internal details of inscriptions and gearing at a resolution better than a tenth of a millimeter. Inscriptions can now be read that have not been seen for more than two thousand years and this is helping to build a comprehensive picture of the functions of the mechanism.
This is work-in-progress and results are emerging on a stable basis as the data is analyzed:
- In Autumn of 2006, the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project has organized a major conference in Athens to present their research findings. These results opened a new chapter in the understanding of this extraordinary mechanism. The conference coincided with the publication of the first results at the journal "Nature".
- In July 2008, new results were published in Nature. These were focused on the functions of Back Dials of the Mechanism.
- In July-August 2009, a major symposium was organized within the scope of the 23rd International Congress of History of Science and Technology. Members and collaborators of the research project and leading historians of science and technology discussed the position of the Antikythera Mechanism within the history of science, technology and ideas.
- A workshop took place in Athens (July 2011), in order to discuss new data about the front plate inscriptions and planetary data. Results are being processed and should soon be made public. Some partial results about inscriptions and planetary data were integrated into the Antikythera wreck exhibition and the documentary The World's First Computer".
The 378 exhibits were presented in sections, which pose, or answer, questions.
The adventure of recovery: The birth of underwater archaeology
The first section of the exhibition presented the account of the attempts to recover the shipwreck, of the ensuing restorations, press releases and state documents from all the periods involved.
The ship, its capacity and its crew
Fragments from the hull of the ship and its external lead sheathing with various other accessories, such as tubes for water drainage, sounding weights for determining the depth of water and the topography of the sea-bottom, were displayed in this section. The remains of the ship and its cargo show that the vessel was a freighter with an estimated capacity of 300 tons. Objects used by the people on board (e.g. vases and games) offered a picture of the habits and life during travel.
The ship’s voyage and her cargo
What kind of goods was being transported by the freighter? Where did it start its journey? Where was it heading for? The bronze and marble statues, the glassware, the bronze vessels and the golden jewelry represented only a part of the cargo, whose remainder still lies on the bottom of the sea, possibly located at deeper levels. These works bear witness to the aesthetic tastes of those who ordered them or of potential buyers but, above all, reflect the then novel practice in the history of western civilization of trading in artworks. The study of the cargo greatly contributes to our understanding of maritime trade and the circulation of works of Greek art at the end of the Hellenistic period and the Roman Republic in the light of the commercial exchanges and the taste of the rising Roman aristocracy.
One third of the exhibition was dedicated to this exquisite, unique device of mathematical and astronomical genius, which has created worldwide interest. All 82 surviving fragments, including the three best-known large pieces, were displayed.
The interdisciplinary study of the Mechanism, drawings, radiographs, tomographies, digital assimilations and models accompanied by interpretations advanced by scholars during the past century were presented in this unit.
Attendance in Greek National Archaeological Museum during the exhibition increased by over 50% compared to that of the previous year, while the exhibition received kudos from both local and international media as the best of its kind in Europe in decades!