Tag Archives: Antikythera

Scientists continue unlocking the mysteries of the world’s oldest computer

Scientists may have finally cracked the mystery behind the Antikythera Mechanism, a 2.000-year-old device used by the ancient Greeks to calculate astronomical positions. The “world’s oldest computer” has puzzled scientists for over a century, but a digital replica with a working gear system may shed new light on it.

Computer model of how the Antikythera mechanism may have worked. Image credits: UCL

The Antikythera Mechanism was found in a shipwreck off the coast of Crete in 1901 — one of the very first wrecks to be archaeologically investigated. Way ahead of its time, this complex mechanism of revolving bronze gears and a display is simply mind-boggling: it’s an analog computer dating from Ancient Greece.

The mechanism was used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for the astrological calendar as well as the ancient Olympic Games but many questions still loom about it. Though obscured by corrosion after it was lost for thousands of years at the bottom of the sea, the Antikythera Mechanism still has visible gears with triangular teeth and a ring divided into degrees. It featured a handle on the side for winding the mechanism forward and backward – very similar to how a clock works but showing the position of planets instead of hours, minutes and seconds. Only a third of the device survived the shipwreck, leaving many open questions on how it worked and what it looked like.

Researchers believe they’ve solved the back of the mechanism in earlier studies, but the complex gearing system at the front remained a mystery. Now, scientists at University College London (UCL) believe they have finally cracked the puzzle.

“The Sun, Moon, and planets are displayed in an impressive tour de force of ancient Greek brilliance,” the paper’s lead author, Professor Tony Freeth, told the BBC. “Ours is the first model that conforms to all the physical evidence and matches the descriptions in the scientific inscriptions engraved on the mechanism itself.”

A part of the Antikythera mechanism.

Freeth and his team from UCL used 3D computer modeling to recreate the entire front panel, hoping to build a full-scale replica of the Antikythera using modern materials in the future. The digital result shows a center dome representing Earth – surrounded by the moon, the sun, Zodiac constellations, and rings for Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

To create the model, the researchers relied on previous studies on the device, including that of Michael Wright, the former curator of the Science Museum of London who had constructed a working replica. They used inscriptions found on the mechanism and a mathematical model on how the planets moved that was first created by the philosopher Parmenides.

The model recreated by the researchers includes the gears and rotating dials, so to show how the planets, the sun, and the moon move across the Zodiac — the ancient map of the stars — on the front face and the phases of the moon and eclipses on the back. It replicates the ancient Greek assumption that all heaves revolved around the Earth.

Now that it has been made, the team at UCL wants to make physical versions of the front panel, starting by using modern techniques to check that the device works and then using the same techniques that would have been used by the ancient Greeks. This would help to get a better understanding of how the Greeks were able to build such a device, something that can’t be answered yet.

“If they had the tech to make the Antikythera mechanism, why did they not extend this tech to devising other machines, such as clocks?,” Adam Wojcik, a co-author of the paper, told The Guardian. “There’s also a lot of debate about who it was for and who built it. A lot of people say it was Archimedes. He lived around the same time it was constructed.”

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Trove of bronze statues found on Antikythera shipwreck

The Antikythera shipwreck, one of the most interesting archaeological sites in the world, just got even more fascinating. Researchers discovered a bronze arm and they now believe at least seven life-sized statues are nearby.

As well as the arm, divers have recovered a patterned slab of red marble the size of a tea tray, a silver tankard, sections of joined wood from the ship’s frame and a human bone. Photograph: Brett Seymour/EUA/ARGO 2017.

When marine archaeologists discovered the Antikythera mechanism, they were stunned. The Ancient Greeks had basically created an analog computer which could also predict astronomical positions and eclipses. It could even track the four-year cycle of the ancient Olympic Games. Nothing like it had ever been discovered, and nothing like it has been discovered since. However, the site itself turned out to be even more interesting. Archaeologists have been studying it for 100 years, finding more and more artifacts every time. During the latest expedition, they recovered a trove of treasures, including bronze and marble statue pieces, a sarcophagus lid and a mysterious bronze disc decorated with a bull.

Most notably, they found the right arm of a life-sized statue, but also several ‘orphan’ pieces, which seems to suggest that more statues await discovery on the bottom of the sea.

“What we’re finding is these sculptures are in among and under the boulders,” said Brendan Foley, co-director of the excavations team at Lund University. “We think it means a minimum of seven, and potentially nine, bronze sculptures still waiting for us down there.”

The bronze arm was one of the most significant recent findings. Courtesy of ARGO 2017, via Nature.

The bronze arm likely belongs to a male statue, and it is “extremely exciting,” says Kenneth Lapatin, curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California. Just a few bronze statues survive from the ancient world, and most of them have been tampered by collectors and curators. While these new statues are heavily corroded, they have been isolated from human interference, and researchers believe they can teach us a lot about ancient techniques.

“Technology has improved so much,” says Lapatin. “We can learn from these untreated finds.”

Many archaeologists around the world have echoed Foley’s and Lapatin’s enthusiasm. Fresh, untreated finds documented by professionals can reveal a surprising amount of information when analyzed through the lens of modern science. Researchers might even be able to identify the people behind the statues and compared them with other existing depictions.

“The chance to recover another group of lifesize statues associated with the wreck is extraordinary, because bronzes are usually encountered randomly under the sea, picked up by fishing nets or chanced upon by divers,” Lapatin said. “Those finds are not excavated like at Antikythera, where archaeologists can and do document the entire context, which provides all the sorts of very valuable data as to when the sculptures were transported and why they were on the ship: for trade, as booty, or as scrap metal to be recycled.”

The expedition also retrieved an intriguing bronze disc or wheel, which seemed to resemble the Antikythera mechanism. It was covered by a layer of hardened sediment, and researchers had hoped X-ray studies would reveal internal mechanisms. However, they saw something completely different: an image of a bull. This indicates that the disc was decorative. Further, more detailed X-rays will hopefully reveal more about its design and purpose. Divers also brought back a beautiful red marble sarcophagus lid.

The X-rays of the bronze disc, and artist’s reconstruction of the bull. Image credits: Left: EUA. Right: Alexander Tourtas.

The Antikythera site is basically a Roman-era shipwreck from the first century BC. It was first discovered by sponge divers in 1900, and it quickly became popular among archaeologists. Although the Antikythera mechanism is regarded as the most important finding, it was the statues that gave the site its initial fame. Over more than 100 years of expeditions of research, the site has yielded numerous coins, and other artifacts. Archaeologists believe there is still much to recover.

The problem is that much of the ship is now covered by giant boulders, potentially displaced by an earthquake. As if underwater archaeology wasn’t difficult enough, this adds a whole new layer of difficulty. The next expedition is scheduled for May 2018.

Amazing inventions lost through time

Science has progressed amazingly in recent years, but a handful of spectacular inventions have remained lost to knowledge. Whether it’s the Greek Fire, Roman Nanotechnology or a wonder-material desired by NASA, we’ve lost some great things along the way – these are just some of them.

Greek Fire

Image via Wikipedia.

You can’t really talk about lost inventions without mentioning Greek Fire; one of the greatest kept secrets of all time, Greek Fire was developed around 672, being used by the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. The empire was in dire straits, losing several painful naval battles in wars with the Arab countries. Then, as they found themselves overwhelmed by the vast Arab fleet with few chances of success, something almost magical happened. The Byzantine ships started spitting out their new fire through specially installed siphons and the fire started consuming everything in its path, burning even on water. Nothing could put it out, except sand, vinegar or urine – not something you’d find in large quantities on any ship.

The chronicler Theophanes was among the first to describe the Greek Fire, and he assigns the invention to Kallinikos, an architect (and presumably chemist) from the former province of Phoenice – then overrun by Muslims. However, this is a questionable account, and historian James Partington (among others) believes that the fire was not the creation of a single person, but rather invented by a team of chemists in Constantinopole who inherited scientific information from the Alexandrian school. Whatever the mixture included, it was probably quite complex as despite stealing or capturing some of it, other civilizations weren’t able to copy it.

The Greek Fire could also be deployed on land. Image via Wikimedia.

Its significance was so huge that its discovery was ascribed to divine intervention. As for its composition and manufacture, historians are still debating that one. The only indication concerning its production comes from Anna Komnene, a Byzantine princess and scholar:

“This fire is made by the following arts. From the pine and the certain such evergreen trees inflammable resin is collected. This is rubbed with sulfur and put into tubes of reed, and is blown by men using it with violent and continuous breath. Then in this manner it meets the fire on the tip and catches light and falls like a fiery whirlwind on the faces of the enemies.”

Whatever it contained, Greek Fire burned on water, and forever changed the course of history.

A 1st Century Steam Engine, a Vending Machine and a Windwheel

Hero of Alexandria, also known as Heron of Alexandria was a Greek mathematician and engineer most known today for his formula to calculate the area of a triangle. But Heron was an amazing inventor, taking credit among others for the first windwheel, the first vending machine, and even the first steam engine. That’s right, the first steam engine was invented in ancient Greece.

The Aeolipile. Image via Wikipedia.

The Heron Engine (also called an aeolipile) was a simple bladeless steam turbine, spinning when the central water container is heated. It produced torque from steam jets exiting the turbine, much like a rocket engine does today. Basically, water was heated in a simple boiler which was connected to the rotating chamber through a pair of pipes that also served as pivots for the chamber. Heron was quite generous and explained how one could make his own aeolipile. However, it wasn’t until 1698 that Thomas Savery patented the first steam engine of 1 horsepower (750 W). It had no piston or moving parts, only taps. Heron’s invention went unnoticed for over 1500 years.

Image via Mlahanas.

As if that wasn’t enough, he also invented a vending machine, as described in his book “Mechanics and Optics”; a coin was introduced via a slot on the top of the machine and a fixed amount of holy water was dispensed. He also invented the first windwheel and consequently the first wind-powered organ, a programmable cart powered by a falling weight and created by himself an entirely mechanical play almost ten minutes in length, powered by a binary-like system of ropes, knots, and simple machines operated by a rotating cylindrical cogwheel. Many of his inventions were praised and immediately adopted but others, like the steam engine, were forgotten for centuries.

Starlite, the Wonder Material

OK, so we lost some Antique inventions, but we’re not losing anything modern, right? Well… not quite. Maurice Ward was an amateur chemist who liked to tinker and invent things. In the 70s and 80s, he invented a material he called Starlite that was able to withstand and insulate from extreme heat. Several organizations were allowed to conduct test on its, but none were allowed to take samples for the fear of reverse engineering. Even NASA exhibited interest in the material but unfortunately, Starlite’s composition was kept a secret by Ward and after his passing, no one knew the secret.

Now I know what you’re thinking – this is another cook that claims he invented something… and didn’t. But the Atomic Weapons Establishment and ICI conducted tests on the material and confirmed the claims. Furthermore, a telling demonstration (see above) was shown on BBC. The inventor held a blowtorch directly above an egg covered in Starlite. After five minutes, the egg wasn’t even cracked, and when the inside was revealed, it hadn’t even begun to cook.

Damascus Steel

We’re sticking in the realm of wonder materials, but moving to something completely different: Damascus Steel has been the golden standard for blacksmiths for centuries.

The Distinctive pattern of Damascus Steel. Image via Flickr.

Known by its distinctive pattern, extreme toughness and ability to be honed to extreme sharpness, Damascus Steel is a prime example of an invention lost due to a lack of source material. We’re pretty sure that the steel was made from ore deposits originating in India and Sri Lanka. The original steel was brought in from India to Damascus where local bladesmiths learned to make the highest quality steel – and swords. Damascus still was known and respected by blade wielders and smiths all around the world, but its production was brought to an end rather unceremoniously, as the raw material deposits ran out. The key trace impurities of vanadium and tungsten made the deposits so special, and a similar deposit has never been found.

Image via Wikipedia.

It’s not clear why the technique was then forgotten or abandoned so fast. The very long trade route likely played a part. The technique for controlled thermal cycling after the initial forging at a specific temperature was also lost, and to this day, we don’t know how Damascus Steel swords were made. However, many modern blacksmiths have attempted to recreate it – they may have even gotten it right, but we’ll likely never know.

Roman Nanotechnology – The Lycurgus Cup

A colorful chalet now stored in the British Museum might not seem like much at a first glance, but believe it or not, it’s an example of ancient nanotechnology. The Lycurgus Cup looks differently depending on how light falls upon it. Lift from behind, it’s red, but lit from the front it’s green. It’s one of the most beautiful and well-decorated pieces of glass in all human history.

The same cup, illuminated differently.

The effect was achieved by mixing tiny proportions of nanoparticles of gold and silver dispersed in colloidal form throughout the glass material. The exact process is still unknown, and was probably so complex that some historians believe it may have been achieved by mistake. However, it seems unlikely that glass-makers would leave anything to chance when creating a piece so intricate.

The cup is also an example of a complete Roman cage-cup, or diatretum, where many parts of the cage have been completely undercut to create space for the other decorations. Most cage-cups have an abstract geometric design, but here there is a clear composition of figures, showing the mythical king Lycurgus who tried to kill Ambrosia, a follower of the god Dionysus (Bacchus to the Romans). She was transformed into a vine which ultimately twined around the kind, restraining and eventually killing him. Dionysus and two other followers are shown here taunting the king. The cup is the “only well-preserved figural example” of a cage cup.

Muslin Cloth

Muslin cloth was primarily manufactured in pre-British era India and Bangladesh and was exported throughout many parts of Asia and Europe. In essence a cotton fabric of plain weave, Muslin was traded by ancient Greeks and Romans from the East Indian port town Masulipatnam, known as Maisolos.

Muslin dress. Image via Wikipedia.

However, in British colonial times, the Bengali muslin industry was ruthlessly suppressed in order to favor textile imports from Britain. William Bolts, a Dutch-born eighteenth-century merchant active in India noted that  “instances have been known of their cutting off their thumbs to prevent their being forced to wind silk.” As a result, the quality and skill of producers greatly decreased and the ultimate process for Muslin cloth has been lost.

Image via Wikipedia.

Over the past couple of centuries there have been several attempts to revive the industry and in 2013, the traditional art of weaving Jamdani muslin in Bangladesh was included in the list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. However, the quality and finesse are not the same.

The Antikythera Mechanism

The Antikythera Mechanism is quite possible the most spectacular ancient artifact ever recovered. An ancient analog computer, it was designed to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendrical and astrological purposes, and even included features for the Olympiads – the ancient Olympic games.

Antikythera mechanism. Image via Wikipedia.

The artifact was recovered in 1900 from the Antikythera shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera and was dated around 200 BC – over 2200 years ago! It could replicate the irregular motions of the Moon using two front dials had pointers for the Sun and Moon. Its quality and complexity are simply stunning, and nothing got even close to it until the 14th century when the first mechanical watches were being developed.

Front panel of a 2007 reconstruction. Image via Wiki Commons.

“This device is just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind,” said study leader Mike Edmunds of Cardiff University in the UK. “The design is beautiful, the astronomy is exactly right…In terms of historical and scarcity value, I have to regard this mechanism as being more valuable than the Mona Lisa.”


Not really an invention, Silphium was a plant used in classical antiquity both as a seasoning and as a medicine. Its importance was highlighted by the Egyptians and Knossos Minoans developing a specific glyph to represent the silphium plant, while Romans often said it was worth its weight in silver.

Image via Wiki Commons.

The plant was said to treat cough, sore throat, fever, indigestion, aches and pains, warts, and all kinds of maladies but its most cherished medicinal properties were as a contraceptive; its leaves were ground into a resin that was placed in the vagina as a spermicide. The plant went extinct due to an increase in demand, but some speculate overgrazing and increasing desertification in North Africa were also decisive.

To this day, biologists are still debating in what family this species belong and whatever medicinal properties it could have had are forever lost.

Luxurious Greek artefacts unearthed in the Antikythera site

The ancient Greek shipwreck that produced the awesome Antikythera mechanism, hailed as the world’s first analog computer (being almost two millenia old), had archaeologists’ collective pants full of ants and it seems that their enthusiasm was well placed. The shipwreck is slowly yielding new artifacts, offering a glimpse into the lifestyles of the ancient “1%” in the Hellenic peninsula.

Archaeologists excavating the famous ancient Greek shipwreck that yielded the Antikythera mechanism have recovered more than 50 items including an intact amphora; a large lead salvage ring; two lead anchor stocks (possibly indicating the ship’s bow); frag (Photo : Brett Seymour, EUA/ARGO)

Archaeologists excavating the famous ancient Greek shipwreck that yielded the Antikythera mechanism have recovered more than 50 items including an intact amphora; a large lead salvage ring; two lead anchor stocks (possibly indicating the ship’s bow); Image credits : Brett Seymour, EUA/ARGO

Archaeologists recovered several artifacts from the wreck that they have started to name “the Titanic of the ancient world” due to the luxurious nature of its cargo. The findings include a bone flute, a bronze armrest believed to have originated from a throne, fragments of fine glassware and ceramic and even a board game that was popular among ancient Greeks. Marine archaeologist Brendan Foley from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the project’s co-director, believes that the wreck still has a lot more to offer scientists, with ever single dive unearthing (unwatering?) new items that show the level of comfort and sophistication the rich and powerful enjoyed in the time of Ceasar.

The ship sunk sometime in 65 B.C off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera, and was found by sponge divers in 1900. The wreck is considered one of the world’s biggest underwater archaeological projects, and Woods Hole is now conducting the first systematic excavation of the site, using data surveyed by a robotic submersible last year.

And it seems the teams have good fortune on their side too. A spokesperson for the institute said good weather allowed their divers to perform more than 60 dives across the site last month alone. Foley also adds that they were indeed lucky this year, as the finds that were excavated are within their context, bringing them an opportunity to take full advantage of archaeological information.

The new finds also prompted the divers and the scientists to dig deeper into the ocean floor where one of the last searches carried out last year that used this current technique yielded small bronze pieces, a wine jug and a possible part of a cooking pot. The team believes that more significant finds await them until next year’s expedition begins.

You can see the full list of all artifacts found in the site on WHOI’s page.