The Antikythera Mechanism
Testament to ancient human genius
Approximately 50–70 BC,1 a Roman merchant ship full of luxury goods was wrecked just off the small Greek island of Antikythera, probably during a violent storm. The cargo included wine jars (amphorae), jewellery, coins, and bronze and marble statues. Among the valuables lost to the ocean waves was an astronomical calculating device of astonishing complexity.
Some 2000 years later, in 1901, Greek sponge divers came across the shipwreck. Here, they discovered the hoard of riches scattered on the seabed, including the long-lost device. In the intervening two millennia, it had been reduced to an encrusted lump of green, corroded metal. It turned out to be a cultural treasure of tremendous significance.
Today, the device is known as the Antikythera Mechanism. Approximately the size of a shoebox, it is considered the world’s oldest analogue computer. Recent studies have determined that this mechanism accurately displayed the movements of the sun, moon (its phases), and the five then-known planets in relation to the earth. It could calculate dates for future solar and lunar eclipses, and the cycle of the ancient Olympic Games. It is now housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, and is the subject of ongoing research.2
The Genesis of genius
CMI has referred to this device before,3 because it testifies to the brilliance of humans, created in God’s image from the beginning (Genesis 1:26–31). Furthermore, the Antikythera Mechanism flies in the face of evolutionary assumptions of human development from simple to complex.
The Bible’s true history tells us something about the rapid development of civilization after the Fall. People were intelligent from the beginning; only several hundred years after creation, Adam’s seventh generation descendant, Tubal-cain, was called the “forger of all instruments of bronze and iron” (Genesis 4:22). Metallurgy did not need a long time to develop, nor would astronomy have. Genesis 1:14 states that God created the stars and planets “for signs and for seasons, and for days and years.” This purpose may well have been directly revealed to Adam. But in any case, from those very early times, people would have observed and recorded the patterns of movement in the sky—and their link to seasons.
The pathway of civilization is not just a one-way process of accumulating discoveries—technologies can be lost from a culture, too, as must have happened in many groups following the Babel dispersion.4 The Antikythera Mechanism is an example of technology loss. Similarly complex astronomical machines were not constructed till the 14th century,5 and no other device like it has ever been discovered from the intervening period.
New insights into early Greek ingenuity
In 2021, a multidisciplinary team of six international scientists working with University College London (UCL) published new research on the Antikythera Mechanism. This has provided further insights into the ingenuity displayed by its designer(s). Previous studies failed to resolve the mechanism’s front panel, because most of it had been lost. Their new study has proposed the first workable theoretical model to explain all the surviving data.6
The research to reconstruct the gearing has been highly challenging, because only a third of the original bronze workings remain. Also, after its 1901 recovery, the Antikythera Mechanism fell apart into 82 fragments while drying out.7 This posed a fiendishly complex 3D jigsaw puzzle, which scientists have been struggling for over a century to solve.
Classical notion of heavenly motion
Most learned Greeks at the time of the mechanism’s manufacture believed in a geocentric cosmos (with the earth stationary at the centre). Some did not; some two centuries before the Roman shipwreck off Antikythera, Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos argued that the earth rotates and moves around the sun. But without a detailed model nor explanation of why the earth moved, his idea was not widely accepted. So the Antikythera Mechanism reflects the then widely accepted geocentric view of the heavens.
Although we now recognize that geocentricism is wrong, the Greeks were expert in accurately recording the movements of the heavenly bodies they observed. Building a geared calculating machine encoded with this information, which would be able to predict astronomical motions, was a spectacular leap forward in intuition and technology. Of course, the intelligence required to build on previous discoveries and create such mechanical marvels has been there from the beginning of mankind, and did not evolve.3
Right answer, wrong assumptions
The main consequence of these incorrect geocentric assumptions regarding the cosmos was that the Antikythera Mechanism’s gears were far more complex than necessary to achieve its astonishingly accurate predictions. This is because it had to incorporate the then-current idea of ‘epicycles’, i.e. cycles upon cycles (circles) of solar system motions—see box.
Hidden inscriptions reveal long-lost information
Using computerized X-ray imaging, the UCL team discovered hidden Greek texts, including numbers, on the Antikythera Mechanism’s back cover. The style and vocabulary confirmed that the device could be dated to between 150–100 BC, thereby dismissing criticisms it was a modern device.8 The text also included the names of all five then-known planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—and their orbital periods. The researchers recognized these inscriptions as a ‘user manual’ engraved on the back cover. It describes how the mechanism functioned, and how it displayed the solar system.
The Greek inscription, which was essential evidence to aid the researchers’ understanding, features Babylonian and Greek observations and astronomical theory. From this information, they were able to propose functions for the surviving gears.6
The 2021 UCL study discovered a working solution to the missing gears, which included a cosmological theory proposed by the philosopher Parmenides of Elea (6th–5th century BC), known from a dialogue by Plato (5th–4th century BC). With this, they were able to work out what the missing cogs were, and their functions. Furthermore, physical evidence in the form of four surviving bronze internal columns suggested all the gears were crammed into a very tight space of 2.5 cm (~1 inch) in width. This narrowly constrained the range of design solutions the team could come up with.6
The subject of the researchers’ paper is their theoretical model, based on a painstaking analysis of all the surviving physical and textual evidence.6 The next stage is to construct a physical model of this new theoretical design to demonstrate its workings. Once this has been achieved, using modern techniques, the plan is to build a second model using known ancient Greek methods.
One challenge raised by their research is their proposal of eight ‘nested tubes’ revolving around a central fixed spindle. These translate the gear motions to ‘dragon hand’ pointers on the front dials. Such nested tubes require precision milling, thought to be only possible using modern lathes. In fact, the researchers think it will be difficult for them to achieve even with modern technology.9
So the question they pose, as a potential objection to their conclusions, is: How could the ancient Greeks have achieved such precise manufacturing?
The 2021 UCL team state:
Our work reveals the Antikythera Mechanism as a beautiful conception, translated by superb engineering into a device of genius. It challenges all our preconceptions about the technological capabilities of the ancient Greeks.6
However, within the biblical worldview, there is no challenge to preconceptions about ancient humans’ technological capabilities. People were created in God’s image from the beginning, and although fallen, they still echo their Maker’s intelligence and creativity.
Epicycles, the Bible, and geocentrism
Ancient geocentric models needed to fit with the once-puzzling forward/reverse motions of certain planets as seen from Earth. So they included the idea that they travelled in circles upon circles called ‘epicycles’, as illustrated. Today, the motions are readily explained by the fact that all planets, including Earth, revolve (in nearly circular ellipses) around the sun, at differing speeds. ‘Reversals’ appear that way to us in the same way that a slower-moving car alongside yours seems to move backwards as you pass it.
The Bible does not teach either a heliocentric or a geocentric solar system. It uses ‘phenomenological’ (descriptive) language to refer to the movement of the sun, moon, and stars. To describe such things as the sunset or sunrise (e.g., Genesis 15:12; 19:23), Scripture’s reference frame is the observer on Earth. This is common language anyone from any time or culture can understand. It does not imply that the sun revolves around the earth any more than when a weather scientist refers to the rising of the sun.
However, geocentrism was taught by influential Greek philosophers, and became the ‘settled science’ of the day. This later influenced the Roman Catholic Church at the time of Galileo Galilei (AD 1564–1642). It wasn’t until Isaac Newton (AD 1643–1727) that it was widely accepted that the earth as well as the planets really did orbit the sun.See Statham, D., The truth about the Galileo affair, 8 Nov 2018.
Copernicus and retrograde motion:
The earth is orbiting faster than Mars and outer planets. When the earth overtakes these, the planets appear to move backwards. Think about what happens when you are in a car that overtakes a slower one. When you look out the window, the slower car seems to be moving backwards compared to you.
In the diagram, the numbers mean different times in the orbit of Earth and Mars. The curve on the right means the position of the planets as they appear against the background of the stars.
From time 1 to time 2, Mars as viewed from Earth seems to have moved quite far, as shown by the length of the right curve. At time 3, Mars seems to have slowed down and is about to change direction. At times 4 and 5, Mars seems to have moved backwards. At times 6 and 7, Mars seems to have started moving forward again.
References and notes
- Dated by coins from Pergamon and Ephesus, found at the wreck-site. Return to text.
- antikythera-mechanism.gr. Return to text.
- Smith, C., Japheth, remember to turn off the computer …, 22 Dec 2006; creation.com/antikythera. Return to text.
- See e.g. creation.com/culture-clash#tech-loss. Return to text.
- Marchant, J., In search of lost time, Nature 444:534–538, (p. 537); 2006. Return to text.
- Freeth, T. et. al., A model of the cosmos in the ancient Greek Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Reports, 11(5821):1–15, 2021. Return to text.
- Price, D. d.S., Gears from the Greeks. The Antikythera Mechanism: a calendar computer from ca. 80 BC, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 64(7):1–70, 1974. Return to text.
- Freeth, T. et al., Decoding the ancient Greek astronomical calculator known as the Antikythera Mechanism, Nature, 444:587–591, 2006. Return to text.
- Martin, N., Antikythera Mechanism: Computer built in ancient Greece leaves scientists stunned, greekcitytimes.com, 22 Mar 2021. Return to text.