CLOSE
Aleksandr Zykov, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Aleksandr Zykov, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The Enduring Mystery of the Antikythera Mechanism

Aleksandr Zykov, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Aleksandr Zykov, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In 1900, a team of sponge divers submerged themselves into the sea off the island of Antikythera between mainland Greece and Crete and emerged with a curious find. Exploring a Roman shipwreck, they brought up a bronze-and-wood object that defied description. It looked like a clock, but not quite; it resembled a gear or wheel, but held no hints that it was once attached to any mode of transport.

The Antikythera mechanism, as it came to be known, was largely ignored for the next half-century, as researchers were preoccupied with the other artifacts found in the shipwreck and lacked the tools to see through its corroded exterior. But in recent decades, the importance and capability of the Greek-born device thought to date to the 1st or 2nd century BCE has slowly been unspooling. Depending on how you define the term, it may be the world’s first computer.

Although investigation into the strange box began when it was first retrieved, it wasn’t until researchers began using radiographs to examine its inner workings that the true nature of the Antikythera mechanism was discovered. Inside, they found 30 bronze gears that was operated by a hand crank. About the size of a shoebox, it acted as an astronomical calendar, predicting the cycles of the solar system in the coming decades. Lunar months and eclipses could also be anticipated. Greek zodiac signs and Egyptian calendar dates appear on the front. By turning the dial to one of the 365 days on its face, the user could anticipate the exact position of the Sun and Moon.

While X-rays could provide some basic structural information to investigators, microfocus X-rays, originally developed to find tiny fractures in turbine blades, were also put to use, revealing faded inscriptions that haven’t been visible for thousands of years. Tiny letters 1.2 millimeters tall told users what they might see when operating it.

There’s still much left to learn about the Antikythera mechanism. No one is quite sure who made it or for what purpose, although it’s possible a school may have been the beneficiary of its results. It’s also possible the Antikythera mechanism was devised to tell fortunes, as it provided information about eclipses that were associated with good and bad omens.

The remains of the Antikythera mechanism are housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece, along with sculptures and other relics from the dive. With the site of the wreck still being scouted, it’s possible more answers about this strange, impeccably designed machine may still be lurking at the bottom of the sea.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Buckingham Palace Was Built With Jurassic Fossils, Scientists Find
iStock
iStock

The UK's Buckingham Palace is a vestige from another era, and not just because it was built in the early 18th century. According to a new study, the limestone used to construct it is filled with the fossilized remains of microbes from the Jurassic period of 200 million years ago, as The Telegraph reports.

The palace is made of oolitic limestone, which consists of individual balls of carbonate sediment called ooids. The material is strong but lightweight, and is found worldwide. Jurassic oolite has been used to construct numerous famous buildings, from those in the British city of Bath to the Empire State Building and the Pentagon.

A new study from Australian National University published in Scientific Reports found that the spherical ooids in Buckingham Palace's walls are made up of layers and layers of mineralized microbes. Inspired by a mathematical model from the 1970s for predicting the growth of brain tumors, the researchers created a model that explains how ooids are created and predicts the factors that limit their ultimate size.

A hand holding a chunk of oolite limestone
Australian National University

They found that the mineralization of the microbes forms the central core of the ooid, and the layers of sediment that gather around that core feed those microbes until the nutrients can no longer reach the core from the outermost layer.

This contrasts with previous research on how ooids form, which hypothesized that they are the result of sediment gathered from rolling on the ocean floor. It also reshapes how we think about the buildings made out of oolitic limestone from this period. Next time you look up at the Empire State Building or Buckingham Palace, thank the ancient microbes.

[h/t The Telegraph]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Inside the Kitchen of Thomas Jefferson's Acclaimed—and Enslaved—Chef James Hemings
 ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

James Hemings once prepared lavish dishes for America's founding fathers at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia plantation. Though enslaved, he trained in France to become one of colonial America's most accomplished chefs. Now, archaeologists have uncovered the kitchen where Hemings created his elaborate banquets, LiveScience reports.

Researchers at Monticello are conducting a long-term effort, the Mountaintop Project, to restore plantation premises, including slave quarters, to their original appearance. Archaeologists excavated a previously filled-in cellar in the main house's South Pavilion, where they found artifacts like bones, toothbrushes, beads, and shards of glass and ceramics. Underneath layers of dirt, experts also uncovered the kitchen's original brick floor, remnants of a fireplace, and the foundations of four waist-high stew stoves.

"Stew stoves are the historic equivalent of a modern-day stovetop or cooking range," archaeological field researcher manager Crystal Ptacek explains in an online video chronicling the find. Each contained a small hole for hot coals; centuries later, the cellar floor still contains remains of ash and charcoal from blazing fires. Hemings himself would have toiled over these stoves.

During the colonial period, wealthy families had their slaves prepare large, labor-intensive meals. These multi-course feasts required stew stoves for boiling, roasting, and frying. Archaeologists think that Jefferson might have upgraded his kitchen after returning from Paris: Stew stoves were a rarity in North America, but de rigueur for making haute French cuisine.

Hemings traveled with Jefferson to France in the 1780s, where for five years he was trained in the French culinary arts. There, Hemings realized he was technically a free man. He met free black people and also learned he could sue for his freedom under French law, according to NPR.

And yet he returned to the U.S. to cook for Jefferson's family and guests, perhaps because he didn't want to be separated from his family members at Monticello, including his sister, Sally. He later negotiated his freedom from Jefferson and trained his brother Peter as his replacement. Hemings ended up cooking for a tavern keeper in Baltimore, and in 1801, shortly after turning down an offer from now-president Jefferson to be his personal chef, he died by suicide.

"We're thinking that James Hemings must have had ideals and aspirations about his life that could not be realized in his time and place," Susan Stein, senior curator at Monticello, told NPR in 2015. "And those factors probably contributed to his unhappiness and his depression, and ultimately to his death."

Hemings contributed to early America's culinary landscape through dessert recipes like snow eggs and by introducing colonial diners to macaroni and cheese, among other dishes. He also assisted today's historians by completing a 1796 inventory of Monticello's kitchen supplies—and he's probably left further clues in the estate's newly uncovered kitchen, says Gayle Jessup White, Monticello's community engagement officer—and one of James's relatives.

"My great-great-great-grandfather Peter Hemings learned to cook French cuisine from his brother James on this stove," White tells Mental Floss. "It was a spiritual moment for me to walk into the uncovered remains of Monticello's first kitchen, where my ancestors spent much of their lives. This discovery breathes life into the people who lived, worked and died at Monticello, and I hope people connect with their stories."

[h/t Live Science]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios