A Decade Of Work Has Decoded This Ancient Greek Astronomy "Computer"

Fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism. Jaysmark/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

The Antikythera Mechanism is like something out of an Indiana Jones film. This 2,000-year-old “computer” was used by the ancient Greeks to map astronomical movements and predict the movement of the stars. Now, an international team of researchers has edged a little closer to fully appreciating the mysteries of this seemingly otherworldly object.

The Antikythera Mechanism was discovered in a shipwreck by sponge divers in 1900. There’s some debate as to when exactly it dates from, however, most historians agree it was at some point between 60 BCE and 200 BCE. Using a series of bronze gears, it was used to predict eclipses, track the movements of the Sun, Moon, and stars, and the positions of the five planets then known to the Greeks: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The abilities of this enigmatic device make it stand out as hundreds, if not thousands, of years ahead of other similar technology of the time.

The new study has deciphered the text on the device‘s 82 remaining fragments using X-ray scanning and newly developed imaging technology. Many of the ancient Greek inscriptions were not visible to the naked eye, mainly because the text is so small – some letters are only 1.2 millimeters high. Hundreds of years of wear and tear to the machine, as well as build up of sediment, had equally rendered much of the writing unreadable.

An up-close shot of the Antikythera Mechanism at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece. Garrett Ziegler/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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