Antikythera Shipwreck and the Discovery of Ancient Tech That Shocked the World
Around 60 BC, a ship was wrecked off the northeast coast of a small island called Aigila in the straits between Crete and the Peloponnese. The exact character of the ship is not known, but it was probably a large merchant vessel, perhaps about 131 feet (40 meters) long, and in addition to the usual amphorae containing wine or other commodities, it bore a cargo of bronze and marble statuary and fine glassware.
The life-size bronzes were antiques, a century or more old, but the other prestige objects were of recent manufacture. There were apparently also passengers — we know that a woman was aboard, the probable owner of two pairs of elegant golden earrings.
When the ship’s remains were discovered and partly salvaged in 1900–1901, most or all of the sculptures were initially supposed to be much older than the ship that carried them, and an idea gained currency that it was bearing treasures looted from a Greek city by the Romans in the early first century BC. Though this theory still finds adherents, more careful study of the recovered objects has rendered it much more probable that this was a commercial voyage whose cargo came from diverse sources and perhaps was also headed for diverse destinations.
We can identify or guess at the places of origin of many of the items on board. There were amphorae of types made in Rhodes and Kos in the Dodecanese, near Ephesus in Asia Minor, and probably also on the Adriatic coast of Italy. The marble of the statues is Parian, so they probably came from a workshop in the Aegean region, perhaps Delos or Pergamon. The glass is Syro-Palestinian or Egyptian.
Artifacts from the Antikythera Shipwreck. (Magnus Manske / CC BY-SA 2.0)
One of the people on board had his savings in the form of 32 silver coins from Pergamon and Ephesus, and someone was carrying some less valuable bronze coins from Ephesos as well as rather old ones from Katane in Sicily and Cnidos in Asia Minor. (The latest of the silver coins were minted between 76 and 67 BC, providing the firmest evidence that the shipwreck occurred after 76 and likely within a span of one or two decades after that year.)
It need not be supposed that the ship had stopped at all these places on its last voyage. Parts of the cargo could have been brought by smaller vessels to a major port of transit such as Delos, there to be consolidated for long-distance transport on a larger ship that in any case would be limited by its size to the major harbors.
The presence of passengers on such a vessel would not have been unusual, since in an age when specialized passenger transport did not exist, travelers too had to be opportunistic. And while the majority of amphorae in a cargo would probably have originated in the same places as their contents, some were surely reused.
What is beyond doubt is that the ship was laden at one or more of the great ports of the Aegean: on the coast of Asia Minor, at one or more of the islands, or both. The location of its wreck shows that it was headed for the western Mediterranean, to deliver its cargo in ports of the Adriatic or farther west.
The Mysterious Mechanical Object Discovered in the Antikythera Shipwreck
One item on the ship has not yet been mentioned: a mechanical object composed of wood and metal, about the shape and dimensions of a shoebox. Though it probably lacked the visual appeal of the statues and glassware, it was delicate and precious, and one hopes it was packed securely in a crate or container to protect it from casual damage and from the elements.
That it would have been sent on a long voyage unaccompanied is highly improbable. Unless it was part of its owner’s baggage — and this was not an object one would casually subject to the risks of travel — we may conjecture that it was in the care of a technician trained to operate it and maintain it in working order. It is likely that he was escorting it on its journey from the workshop to its intended owner.
This device, found in the Antikythera Shipwreck, named the Antikythera mechanism, is considered the oldest computer in the world. Through a series of gears, it was used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendrical and astrological purposes. (Weekend Wayfarers / CC BY-SA 2.0)
A fellow passenger would not have had an easy time persuading this mechanic to unpack and show his treasure, but if he succeeded, he would have seen a box consisting of rectangular bronze plates forming its front and back faces, framed by a wooden casing, and a knob or crank protruding from the middle of one of the wooden sides. The dominant feature of the front face would have been a circular dial surrounded by two concentric ring-shaped scales and having a complicated assemblage of pointers radiating from its center.
Most of the back face would have been taken up by two spiral slots with scales inscribed along them and radial pointers of rather complicated construction, and three smaller circular dials, with simpler pointers. All around the dial scales, in the spaces around the dials, and also on separate bronze plates that were stored against the machine’s faces and may have functioned as covers, one would have seen texts engraved in Greek letters, similar to the lettering of stone inscriptions but much tinier.
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This is an SVG version of the schematic for the Antikythera mechanism with labelled shafts and gears. (Lead holder / Public Domain)
The mechanic just might have twisted the knob on the side a little to show that all the pointers were somehow moved by it, though in different amounts and directions. If in an exceptionally compliant mood (or offered a sufficiently generous tip), he might also have removed the front plate to show, behind it, a mechanism of interconnected gears. Let us hope that he did offer someone such a demonstration; a bad accident was to happen quite soon, and it would have been a pity if no one outside the shop got a decent look at one of the wonders of the ancient world while it was intact.
The Antikythera mechanism’s fragments of gears, dials, and pointers were at first thought to be the remains of a mechanical clock. However, Professor Derek de Solla Price of Yale University revealed that this was an astronomical computer made around 87 BC. (Andrew Barclay / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Aigila, an island of approximately 7.7 square miles (20 square kilometers) now known by the name Antikythera, was doubly dangerous in antiquity for vessels making the passage between Crete and the Greek mainland, by far the most direct route around Greece or generally between the Aegean and the western Mediterranean.
Though not capable of supporting large populations, it was a base for pirates within the sphere of the Cretan piratical stronghold Phalasarna. In the mid-third century BC, Rhodes had waged a campaign against Aigila, seeking to put a stop to depredations against her naval commerce, but in the long term this did not impede local piracy and the prosperity that it brought the island, as witnessed by the flourishing Hellenistic settlement on the heights overlooking the sheltered Potamos Bay, the island’s harbor. However, in 69 – 67 BC the Roman general Quintus Caecilius Metellus harshly but effectively suppressed the pirates of Phalasarna — he was rewarded with a triumph and the cognomen Creticus — and as a result Aigila was substantially depopulated for the next four centuries.
The Antikythera Shipwreck lies off the Greek island of Antikythera on the edge of the Aegean Sea, northwest of Crete. (Uwe Dedering / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Our merchant ship was thus probably safe from pirates, but not from the physical dangers and treacherous weather of the straits. The precise cause of its sinking cannot be determined, but the location, off a precipitous part of the island’s coast east of Potamos Bay and well away from the passages around the island, suggest that the ship was driven by a storm and failed to reach shelter before it foundered.
With its heavy load it must have sunk rapidly, and at least four of the people on board (two men, one woman, and one individual of uncertain sex, known from skeletal remains) went down with it. We do not know whether anyone got safely to shore, or whether news of the ship’s fate reached anyone concerned, including the owner of the gearwork mechanism.
Around the wreck site, the cliffs of the island continue almost as steeply below the sea as above it. Although the ship was only about 82 feet (25 meters) from shore, it came to rest on a steeply sloping bottom at a depth ranging from about 148 to 200 feet (45 to 61 meters), where it remained, probably undisturbed by humans, for close to 2000 years.
Obviously the ship and its contents were in very different condition at the end of this interval from when the ship was still afloat. The sinking was a violent event, and much damage to objects must have been caused not only in the first impact but also through subsequent falling and rolling of heavy objects, especially the marble statues; such events would have occurred intermittently over the years as whatever was beneath them shifted or decayed away. More gradually, prolonged immersion in the sea resulted in physical, chemical, and biological processes attacking most of the materials represented in the wreck.
Wood, when exposed and not in contact with metal, was eaten away by the mollusk Teredo navalis (shipworm); marble, unless protected by the muck of the seabed, was encrusted, pitted, and eroded by stone-boring organisms such as mussels and sea urchins; metal was also encrusted and chemically corroded and, if consisting of thin plate, turned into fragile chalk-like material. Small objects and fragments would have been moved about, damaged, or broken by currents and especially by marine life.
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Piece of a wooden plank from the Antikythera Shipwreck, from the lower part of the ship's hull. (Dan Diffendale / CC BY-SA 2.0)
In the meantime, the island underwent cycles of depopulation and repopulation. After the fourth crusade (1202– 1204) and until 1800 it was ruled by the Venetian Republic and acquired the new name of Cerigotto — at least on charts, though transformations of its ancient name (Lioi or Singilio) continued to be used locally. Along with the other Ionian islands, it changed hands several times during the Napoleonic Wars before coming under British rule in 1809; in 1815 it became part of the United State of the Ionian Islands under British administration.
During this period the island was used as a place of exile for Ionian radicals, and it appears that Ionian patriots were responsible for giving it the new, imitation-classical name Antikythera (opposite to Kythera) at the same time that they revived the ancient name Kythera for its larger neighbor to the north, known to the Venetians as Cerigo. The Ionian Islands were ceded to the young Greek state in 1865, and until 1913 Antikythera was the southernmost part of Greece, a seldom visited and little regarded spot though not much more than 124 miles (200 kilometers) from the Athenian port of Piraeus, a day’s journey by steamship.
From A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World by Alexander Jones. Copyright © 2019 by Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press . All rights reserved.
Top image: Modern model of the Antikythera Mechanism Source: CC BY-SA 3.0