15 Intriguing Facts About the Antikythera Mechanism

The Antikythera mechanism on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Image credit: Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

This week, researchers from the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project announced new insights about the mysterious Antikythera mechanism, an unusual artifact that has intrigued archaeologists, classicists, historians, and the public for decades. Here are 15 facts about the mechanism, sometimes called “the world’s first computer.” Jump right to #12, #13, and #14 for the latest interpretations of this singular object. 

1. IT WAS FOUND IN A ROMAN-ERA SHIPWRECK AND NAMED AFTER A GREEK ISLAND. 

Located in the Aegean Sea between mainland Greece and Crete, Antikythera is an island that literally means “opposite of Kythera,” another, much larger island. The ship is assumed to be Roman and, when it sank just off the coast of the island in the middle of the 1st century BCE, carried a huge number of artifacts dating back to as early as the 4th century BCE.

2. THE FIRST EXPLORATION OF THE WRECK KILLED ONE DIVER AND PARALYZED TWO OTHERS.

In 1900, Greek sponge divers found the shipwreck, which was submerged nearly 150 feet, while wearing gear that was standard for the early 20th century—canvas suits and copper helmets. When the original diver surfaced with reports of artifacts, horses, and corpses, the captain assumed he had “raptures of the deep”—essentially, a drunkenness as a result of the nitrogen in the breathing mix piped into the diving helmet. Although that diver was actually fine, later exploration in the summer of 1901 caused the death of one diver and the paralysis of two more from decompression sickness or "the bends.”

3. THREE IMPORTANT ROMANS MAY HAVE BEEN INVOLVED.

An astrophysicist at Athens University, Xenophon Moussas, theorized in 2006 that the boat on which the mechanism was found may have been headed to Rome as part of a triumphal parade for the emperor Julius Caesar in the 1st century BCE. A related theory is that the ship was carrying booty from the Roman general Sulla’s sack of Athens in 87–86 BCE. In the same time period, the famous Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero mentioned a mechanical planetarium called a “sphere of Archimedes” that demonstrated how the Sun, Moon, and planets moved with respect to the Earth. More recent research, though, suggests that the ship may have been en route to Rome from Turkey. The ship’s path has been difficult to trace because the Aegean was an important and busy shipping area at this time.

4. THE MECHANISM'S IMPORTANCE WASN'T RECOGNIZED FOR 75 YEARS.

A reproduction of the front of the mechanism on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Image credit: Giovanni Dall'Ortovia via Wikimedia Commons

The unique bronze-and-wood object was found with a shipload of marble, coins, glassware, and pottery in 1900. Since all the other artifacts were more apparently worthy of conservation, the mechanism was ignored until 1951. After an additional two decades of study, the first publication on the Antikythera mechanism was made in 1974 by physicist and historian Derek de Solla Price. But Price’s work was unfinished when he died in 1983, without having figured out how the device actually worked.

5. JACQUES COUSTEAU AND RICHARD FEYNMAN WERE BOTH FASCINATED BY IT.

The famous marine explorer Jacques Cousteau and his team dived the Antikythera shipwreck in 1976, shortly after Price’s primary publication, finding coins from the 1st century BCE and a few smaller bronze pieces of the mechanism. A few years later, noted physicist Richard Feynman visited the National Museum in Athens. Feynman reportedly was terribly unimpressed by the museum as a whole, but wrote that the Antikythera mechanism was “so entirely different and strange that it is nearly impossible … it is some kind of machine with gear trains, very much like the inside of a modern wind-up alarm clock.”

6. IT'S BEEN CALLED THE WORLD'S FIRST COMPUTER.

Since long before the invention of the digital computer you are undoubtedly reading this on, there have been analog computers. These types of computers range from mechanical aids like a slide rule to a device that can predict the tides. The Antikythera mechanism, which was designed to calculate dates and predict astronomical phenomena, has therefore been called the earliest analog computer.

7. THE INVENTOR OF TRIGONOMETRY MAY HAVE ALSO CREATED THE MECHANISM.

Hipparchus is primarily known as an ancient astronomer; he was born in what is now Turkey around 190 BCE and worked and taught primarily on the island of Rhodes. His works survive almost entirely through later Greek and Roman authors. Hipparchus was one of the first thinkers to speculate that the Earth revolved around the Sun, but he could never prove it. Hipparchus created the first trigonometric table in his attempts to solve problems related to spheres, and is therefore known as the father of trigonometry. Because of these other discoveries—and because Cicero mentions a planetary device that was constructed by Posidonius, who took over Hipparchus’s school on Rhodes after his death—the Antikythera mechanism is often attributed to Hipparchus. New research, though, has shown handwriting of two different people on the mechanism, suggesting it was likely created in a workshop or family business.

8. IT WAS SO TECHNOLOGICALLY ADVANCED, NOTHING SURPASSED IT FOR CLOSE TO 1500 YEARS.

Consisting of at least 30 bronze gears in a wooden container that was only the size of a shoebox, the clockwork mechanism was highly advanced for its time. By turning a hand-crank, the user could move forward or backward in time. The crank made the gears move and rotate a series of dials and rings on which there are inscriptions and annotations of Greek zodiac signs and Egyptian calendar days. It seems that the information to build such a mechanism was lost through time, perhaps because it was a specialty device or expensive to create. Similar astronomical clocks didn’t reappear in Europe until the 14th century. Since inventions like this do not usually come from nothing, though, many researchers think that we may yet find older precursors in an archaeological context some day.

9. IT WAS DESIGNED TO MONITOR CELESTIAL EVENTS, SEASONS, AND FESTIVALS.

A 2007 reproduction of the mechanism, with the front panel at foreground, by science modeler Massimo Mogi Vicentini. Image credit: Mogi Vicentini via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

The mechanism tracked the lunar calendar, predicted eclipses, and charted the position and phase of the Moon. It also tracked the seasons and ancient festivals like the Olympics. The calendar is based on the time from one full moon to the next, and a special dial allowed the user to also envision the seasons, which would have been useful for agriculture. Since the ancient Babylonians figured out the cycle of eclipses, the inventor of the Antikythera mechanism included two dials that rotate to show both lunar and solar eclipses. But the most sophisticated thing the mechanism did was lunar calculations—it could figure out the Moon’s period at a given time and model its elliptical orbit.

10. IT HAS A BUILT-IN INSTRUCTION MANUAL.

Writing on a bronze panel at the back of the mechanism suggests the inventor left either instructions for how to work it or an explanation of what the user was seeing. The inscription, which is in Koine Greek (the most common form of the ancient language), mentions the cycles, dials, and some of the functions of the mechanism. While the text doesn’t specifically tell someone how to use it, and assumes some amount of prior knowledge of astronomy, it provides written-out labels for the person looking at the mechanism.

11. NO ONE IS SURE WHO USED THE MECHANISM …

While many of its functions have been figured out, how and where it was used are still unknown. Scholars think that it could have been employed in a temple or school, but could just as easily have been a fancy curio for a rich family. Without any other comparable artifacts or explanatory inscriptions, we don’t yet know who would have used this object or to what end.

12. …BUT THEY'RE CLOSING IN ON WHERE IT WAS MADE.

The use of Koine in the numerous inscriptions places the creation of the mechanism in the Greek world, which was geographically large at the time. The festival dial mentions the Olympics in central Greece, the Naa in northwest Greece, and the Halieia on the island of Rhodes. The latest analysis of the inscriptions, reported this week by classicist Alexander Jones and colleagues, suggests the mechanism could keep track of at least 42 different calendar events. With those dates in mind, Jones and colleagues calculate that the creator of the mechanism was likely based at 35°N latitude. Coupled with Cicero’s mention of a similar device at Posidonius’s school, this means that the island of Rhodes is again the leading contender for the origin of the mechanism.

13. THE DEVICE ALSO TOLD FORTUNES.

Jones and colleagues’ new interpretation of the mechanism is based on the extant 3400 Greek characters on the device, although thousands more characters are likely missing due to the incomplete nature of the artifact. Most notably, in their thorough linguistic analysis, these scholars discovered that the mechanism refers to eclipses’ color, size, and associated winds. The Greeks believed that characteristics of an eclipse were related to good and bad omens. Because of this belief, by building in predictive eclipse technology, the creator of the mechanism was letting the user divine the future.

14. PLANETARY MOTION IN THE MECHANISM WAS ACCURATE TO WITHIN ONE DEGREE IN 500 YEARS.

The mechanism includes hands or pointers for Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, all of which are easily visible in the sky, as well as a rotating ball that showed the phases of the Moon. The parts that work these planetary pointers are gone, but text on the front plate of the mechanism confirms, according to Jones and his team, that the planetary motion was modeled mathematically using numerous complex gears—and that it was highly accurate.

15. THERE MAY ACTUALLY BE TWO ANTIKYTHERA SHIPWRECKS.

Since Cousteau explored in the mid-1970s, little work has been done at the underwater archaeological site because of the remote location and the depth of the water. In 2012, marine archaeologists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and the Hellenic Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities again dove the wreck with the latest, high-tech scuba gear. They found a massive spread of amphorae and other artifacts. This means that either the Roman ship was vastly larger than previously thought or there is a separate wreck down there. Excavations have been ongoing for several years, with new artifacts brought up constantly. Summer 2016 is poised to reveal even more about the Antikythera shipwreck. You can follow along in real time via the Woods Hole website and blog.

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Darren Puttock, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
7 Entertaining Examples of Ancient Graffiti
Graffiti of gladiators from Pompeii at the Naples National Archaeological Museum
Graffiti of gladiators from Pompeii at the Naples National Archaeological Museum
Darren Puttock, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Graffiti from centuries and even millennia ago can reveal the grievances, passions, games, and ordinary business dealings of regular people from the long-lost past. Pompeii might be the most famous spot to find such scrawls, but it’s not the only place where bygone messages have been found. Here are seven examples of graffiti from the ancient world.

1. “I VISITED AND I DID NOT LIKE ANYTHING EXCEPT THE SARCOPHAGUS!”

A Chinese teen visiting Egypt prompted outrage when he wrote his name on the wall of the 3500-year-old Luxor Temple in 2013. But he was hardly the first traveler to commit such an offense—there’s a long tradition of leaving “I was here” graffiti while visiting Egyptian ruins. One team of researchers recently counted over 1000 inscriptions inside the tomb of pharaoh Ramesses VI in the Valley of the Kings—many of which were from Romans who visited the site 2000 years ago. Their ancient declarations include familiar complaints of disappointed tourists: “I visited and I did not like anything except the sarcophagus!” and "I cannot read the hieroglyphs!"

2.“YOU LOVE IRIS, BUT SHE DOES NOT LOVE YOU.”

Graffiti in a Pompeii pub
Graffiti in a Pompeii pub
Plaàtarte, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Pompeii has dominated the study of ancient graffiti, and for good reason. There are many inscriptions and painted messages that survive on the walls of this Roman city in southern Italy, which was famously buried in volcanic ash in 79 CE. And these examples often offer rich insight into the lives of the city’s residents. Behold the drama of a love triangle, apparently played out on the wall of a bar (not the one above) in taunting messages between two men named Severus and Successus:

“Successus, a weaver, loves the innkeeper’s slave girl named Iris. She, however, does not love him. Still, he begs her to have pity on him. His rival wrote this. Goodbye.”

(Reply by Successus) “Envious one, why do you get in the way. Submit to a handsomer man and one who is being treated very wrongly and good looking.”

(Reply by Severus) “I have spoken. I have written all there is to say. You love Iris, but she does not love you.”

3. “NIKASITIMOS WAS HERE MOUNTING TIMIONA."

Declarations of love and boasts of sexual conquest are not just the domain of modern bathroom-wall graffiti. Plenty of examples of such messages can be found in the ancient world. Erotic graffiti recently identified at the Greek island of Astypalaia documents a 2500-year-old tryst between two men: “Nikasitimos was here mounting Timiona." The general secretary at the Greek Epigraphic Society, Angelos Matthaiou, told The Guardian: "Whoever wrote the erotic inscription referring to Timiona was very well trained in writing. The letters have been very skillfully inscribed on the face of the rock, evidence that it was not just philosophers, scholars and historians who were trained in the art of writing but ordinary people living on islands too."

4. A MENAGERIE OF WILD ANIMALS

A winged lion at the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra
A winged lion graffito at the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra

Crocodiles, elephants, rhinoceroses, baboons, and dogs are among the wild animals inscribed on the blocks of a labyrinth-like complex known as the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra. This monument, in modern-day Sudan, was part of the Kingdom of Kush when the drawings were made more than 2000 years ago. Some of the animals also include religious iconography, such as a lion with wings and crown said to represent the deity Apedemak. Archaeologists don't know the function of many of the rooms in the complex, but some have used the graffiti to support their theories about the purposes of different sections. They've proposed interpretations ranging from animal trading stations and elephant training grounds to a holding pen for prey that could be “hunted” by royals who needed to prove their abilities.

5. THE “DRUNKS OF MENKAURE” VS. THE “FRIENDS OF KHUFU GANG.”

The tens of thousands of laborers who built the pyramids in Egypt were divided into gangs of workers—and they took credit for their efforts. Archaeologists who study the pyramids have found inscriptions such as “Drunks of Menkaure” and “Friends of Khufu Gang” (Menkaure and Khufu being pyramid-building Egyptian kings) on bricks at the monuments of Giza. On some monuments, there's graffiti from one gang on one side of the monument, and graffiti from what archeologists think is a competing gang on the other.

6. A WORD SQUARE

A Sator word square in France
A Sator Square in France

In 2003, archaeologists discovered a new cache of graffiti written on the plaster walls of the basement of the Roman basilica at Smyrna, an ancient Greek city in modern-day Turkey. Scribbled sometime after an earthquake in 177 CE, the inscriptions include the earliest known example of a word square in Greek, made up of five, five-letter words that can be read the same way either horizontally and vertically, like a 2D palindrome. (The meanings of the words aren't quite clear.) A better-known Latin version of this puzzle is called a Sator Square, as pictured above:

SATOR
AREPO
TENET
OPERA
ROTAS

The five words can be read from the right, left, top, and bottom. While their meaning has been debated, they may relate to a farmer named Arepo who is using wheels (rotas).

7. “MY HAND WILL WEAR OUT BUT THE INSCRIPTION WILL REMAIN.”

Though the vast majority of graffiti has surely disappeared over time, some graffiti-writers hoped their markings might outlast them. Take, for example, this Ancient North Arabian piece of graffiti at Palmyra in modern-day Syria, which was written well over a thousand years ago: “This is an inscription that I wrote with my own hand. My hand will wear out but the inscription will remain.”

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Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.
15 Jokes From the World's Oldest Jokebook
Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.
Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.

The oldest recorded joke—a lowbrow Sumerian quip stating "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap"—dates back to 1900 BCE, eking out a pharaoh wisecrack from Ancient Egypt by a solid three centuries.

But to pilfer one of the oldest jokes in the book means dusting off the Philogelos (meaning "Laughter Lover"), a Greek anthology of more than 200 jokes from the fourth or fifth century. From gags about dunces to jests at the expense of great thinkers, here are 15 jokes from the oldest existing collection of jokes, as translated by now-retired classical languages professor William Berg.

1. A STUDENT DUNCE GOES SWIMMING

comedians
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A student dunce went swimming and almost drowned. So now he swears he'll never get into water until he's really learned to swim."

2. AN INTELLECTUAL VISITS A FRIEND

ancient dancers
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An intellectual came to check in on a friend who was seriously ill. When the man's wife said that he had 'departed,' the intellectual replied: 'When he arrives back, will you tell him that I stopped by?'"

3. THE MISER'S WILL

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A miser writes his will and names himself as the heir."

4. THE SHARP-WITTED SPECTATOR

ancient theater
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A sharp wit observes a slow runner: 'I know just what that gentleman needs.' 'What's that?' demands the sponsor of the race. 'He needs a horse, otherwise, he can't outrun the competition!'"

5. THE HOT-HEADED DOCTOR

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Consulting a hotheaded doctor, a fellow says, 'Professor, I'm unable to lie down or stand up; I can't even sit down.' The doctor responds: 'I guess the only thing left is to hang yourself.'"

6. THE COWARDLY SAILOR

treater rehearsal
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A coward is asked which are safer, warships or merchant-ships. 'Dry-docked ships,' he answers."

7. THE JEALOUS LANDLORD

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An envious landlord sees how happy his tenants are. So he evicts them all."

8. THE DRUNK BARKEEPER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A drunk opens a bar, and stations a chained bear outside."

9. THE GUY WITH BAD BREATH

ancient comedian
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A guy with bad breath decides to take his own life. So he wraps his head and asphyxiates himself."

10. THE WIFE-HATER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A wife-hater is attending the burial of his wife, who has just died. When someone asks, 'Who is it who rests in peace here?', he answers, 'Me, now that I'm rid of her!'"

11. THE LUCKLESS EUNUCH

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A luckless eunuch got himself a hernia."

12. THE HUSBAND WITH HALITOSIS

Roman woman holding a mask
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A husband with bad breath asks his wife, 'My dear, why do you hate me?' She give him an answer: 'Because you kiss me.'"

13. THE GLUTTONOUS GIFTER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A glutton is marrying his daughter off to another glutton. Asked what he's giving her as a dowry, he responds, 'She's getting a house with windows that look out onto the bakery.'"

14. TOO TIRED TO CARE

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Two lazy-bones are fast asleep. A thief comes in, pulls the blanket from the bed, and makes off with it. One of them is aware of what happened and says to the other, 'Get up! Go after the guy who stole our blanket!' The other responds, 'Forget it. When he comes back to take the mattress, let's grab him then.'"

15. THE FORGETFUL TEACHER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An incompetent teacher is asked the name of Priam's mother. At a loss, he says, 'Well, we call her Ma'am out of politeness.'"

A version of this story ran in 2014.

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